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Thursday, November 13, 2008

Some Other Lessons from Phoenix

Less than six months ago, on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, after a family barbeque, several friends and I gathered around my laptop to watch the Phoenix Mars Lander touch down on the north pole of Mars. Of course, we didn't actually see it land; what we saw was the live footage from NASA headquarters. Still, it was a magical moment, followed by an opportunity to view Saturn from my backyard with a special friend's telescope.

That is why, like so many who follow astronomy and the space program, I felt a genuine sadness upon hearing yesterday that Phoenix has frozen with the onset of the Martian autumn and winter. It was like hearing that a friend had died. In fact, Phoenix has been a Facebook friend to me and to many, as are the Mars Rovers, New Horizons, Messenger, the Hubble Telescope, various lunar missions, etc. Even though everyone knew this day would come, there is no denying a very real sense of grief.

We still have many science lessons to learn from Phoenix's findings. But there is another lesson here too, specifically that sentiment and human emotions cannot ever be entirely separated from science.

People ranging from scientists officially part of space missions to avid followers cannot help personifying the spacecrafts and robots we send to explore the solar system. The Mars Exploration Rovers are affectionately referred to as "the girls" or the "twin girls" by the mission's leading scientists, who take enormous pride in the fact these "girls" that were intended to last 90 days have gone on more than four years.  Phoenix inspired the same attachment, the same anthropomorphism; it was the lander built from the remains of a previous unsuccessful mission that became our eyes and ears in searching for water on Mars.

Likewise, we cannot help but view the Pioneers and Voyagers, the only spacecrafts to leave our solar system, as our ambassadors to the stars, as extensions of ourselves pioneering our first ventures into the unknown.

This is why those who argue that science must remain completely free of sentiment are fighting a losing battle. We have no Vulcans; no one,  not even the most objective scientist, can ever completely separate him/her self from human emotions.  What those who demean supporters of Pluto's planet status as being motivated by sentiment are unable  to see is that they, too, are motivated at least somewhat by sentiment. Everyone is; if not, we would never have had the excitement that motivated the Apollo missions or the universal inclination to personify machines sent to Mars.

Sentiment in science is not necessarily a negative thing. How many of today's scientists were first motivated by the thrill of viewing the Apollo missions or even by the wonder of viewing planets or stars through a telescope for the first time? Nothing can substitute for the awe and wonder inspired in so many by the night sky. If we took that away, and insisted only on hard, cold facts and mathematical equations, so much of the beauty of astronomy would be lost.

Of course, sentiment alone, if it contradicts science, is inadequate in telling us anything meaningful about any subject. That is why medieval dogmas like geocentrism cannot be sustained.

The Pluto case is not like that.  There is sufficient science, as discussed in this blog many times, to support the classification of dwarf planets as a subclass of planets, based on their being in hydrostatic equilibrium and experiencing the same geological processes as the major planets.

But, in addition to the science, there is sentiment too. Not just in the US, but all over the world, people are drawn to Pluto, enraptured by it. Maybe it's because of the enigma of an object so small and so far away. Or maybe, with its planet status in question from day one, Pluto has come to represent the underdog in all of us. Whatever the reason, the sentiment is a positive thing, not only because it has science behind it, but also because it means people feel excitement about astronomy, that same excitement experienced during the heyday of the US space program, the same thrill at seeing a celestial object through a telescope for the first time.

More than two years after the IAU vote, that excitement over Pluto is still very much alive. A new PS3 game by the European firm Little Big Planet features Sackboy, a rag doll type character and prototype of an avatar players can customize and use, in "Proposition Pluto," an online petition to get Pluto's planet status reinstated. That petition can be found here:

I've never had any version of Playstation, but I just might go out and buy PS3 and Little Big Planet's games as a measure of solidarity with Sackboy's support for Pluto.

Mike Wrathell, an artist and writer in Michigan who shares with me a passion for Pluto and for political campaigns, has a site with Pluto-themed art, among many other works, at According to Wikipedia, "A documentary about Wrathell and his art called The King of Pluto won an Award of Excellence for its director, Sheila Franklin, at the Berkeley Film & Video Festival in 2004, and was also screened in New York City and Indianapolis." A blog post he wrote about his recent campaign for public office can be found here:

I am also happy to report that after I complained about an entry in the LA Times Kids Reading Room that presented only one side of this issue, namely the view that our solar system has only eight planets, the Readers' Representative has contacted me with a pledge to post the other, pro-Pluto as a planet side of this issue, on its online page of reader responses, which can be found here That post is upcoming.

And for anyone in or near New Jersey, I invite you to a joint presentation at Amateur Astronomers, Inc. in Cranford, NJ this Friday, November 14, at 8:30 PM, by AAI members Mike Luciuk and me on the subject, "Is Pluto A Planet?" This will not be so much a debate but a presentation. Mike has a Masters in astronomy, is very well versed on this subject, and did a superb job putting our Power Point together. The presentation will be at William Miller Sperry Observatory located at Union County College,1033 Springfield Ave., Cranford, NJ. We will discuss the criteria that define a planet and the controversy surrounding Pluto's status. This event is open to the public and has no admission fee. Free parking is provided. For directions and more information on AAI, visit . Hope to see you there!

For those who could not attend the Great Planet Debate, both audio and video proceedings of the conference can be found online at . The panel discussions are available in audio form, and the debate between Dr. Mark Sykes and Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson can be viewed on video.

In short, there is a lot of continuing good news for Pluto!