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Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holiday Parody: "Here We Come A-Laureling"

Happy Holidays, everyone! A while back, Danny from the blog "Northward Ho" quoted a commenter on a forum who made me into a verb. As his blog here quotes,  
"I propose that we coin a new word for that -- the word "Laureling" -- in honor of Laurel Kornfeld, who quickly shows up in every forum on the web that mentions "Pluto" and "planet..."
Since I love writing parodies, this was just begging for one. So here it is, sung to the tune of "Here We Come A Wassailing."

Here we come a-Laureling
In person or online;
Here we come defending
Our planet number nine!

Love and joy come to you,
And to all the planets too,
And God bless you
And save us all from the IAU!
And God save us all from the IAU!

We are not daily beggars
Who beg from door to door,
But we come with petitions
For Pluto to restore!

Love and joy come to you,
And to all the planets too,
And God bless you
And save us all from the IAU!
And God save us all from the IAU!

God bless all of the teachers
With the courage to resist
And teach their students to keep Pluto
On the planet list!

Love and joy come to you,
And to all the planets too,
And God bless you
And save us all from the IAU!
And God save us all from the IAU!

Clyde Tombaugh and Venetia Burney,
New Horizons too,
We’ll keep fighting for Pluto,
And we’ll win it thanks to you!

Love and joy come to you,
And to all the planets too,
And God bless you
And save us all from the IAU!
And God save us all from the IAU!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Review: The Case for Pluto

If readers of this blog have any friends with an interest in astronomy and can get them only one book as a holiday gift, Alan Boyle's The Case for Pluto: How A Little Planet Made A Big Difference is the one to get. As his aptly chosen title says, Boyle makes the case for Pluto and does it so thoroughly and so understandably that even people not familiar with astronomy can easily follow his fascinating narrative.

That is what Pluto's story is--a narrative, a captivating tale complete with history, politics, culture, and humor, very far from the type of dry reading many associate with science books.

Like Dr. David Weintraub in Is Pluto A Planet, Boyle provides a historical background that takes readers from the cornfields of Iowa to 18th and 19th century Europe and controversies over the discoveries of Uranus, Ceres, the first asteroids, and Neptune. Noting that William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus, was the one who initially coined the term asteroid, Boyle illustrates how politics and astronomy in the 18th century startlingly resemble both in the 21st. Critics of the new term argued Herschel coined it partly because he wanted to be the only person alive who discovered a planet, which would be true if Ceres and the asteroids were deemed not planets.

The demotion of Ceres from planet to asteroid is often cited by those who support the demotion of Pluto. But Boyle quotes Dr. Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute, who notes that had Herschel been able to see the disk of Ceres with telescopes of his day, he might not have objected to it being called a planet.

He also chronicles the long effort by astronomer Brian Marsden, former head of the IAU's Minor Planet Center, to have Pluto placed under the MPC's jurisdiction, which was not the case as long as it was considered a major planet. Interestingly, Marsden first suggested classifying Pluto as a major planet at a 1980 celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of Pluto's discovery, in the presence of discoverer Clyde Tombaugh and his family.

Boyle tells the gripping story of how personalities became intertwined with science, not just in the case of Marsden, but in the effort to fund a robotic mission to Pluto and in the quest to discover Kuiper Belt Objects starting in the early 1990s. From Uranus to Eris, the story of astronomical discoveries is the story of people, their feuds, their insecurities, their personal passions toward a particular goal. 

He recalls the painful admission by astronomer Dr. Owen Gingerich, chair of the original committee assembled by the IAU to address planet definition, about the way things fell apart in Prague partly because Gingerich left before the final debate and vote."Had I been there, I would have worked out a compromise," Gingerich said, both in the book and at the Great Planet Debate. For want of one astronomer, Pluto was lost. Who can say "Greek tragedy?"

Supporters of Pluto's demotion claim people want to cling to Pluto as a planet out of emotion and sentimentality. What Boyle drives home is the fact that the entire history of astronomical discovery, from controversy over what to name newly-discovered Uranus to the brouhaha on the last day of the 2006 IAU General Assembly, all involved emotion, passion, and sentiment. There were and are no Vulcans.

Refreshingly, Boyle devotes a chapter to the Great Planet Debate, ripping away the veneer of finality the IAU has attempted to impose regarding its 2006 decision. "The IAU has no special claim," he quotes Dr. Alan Stern, who added the significant point that many planetary scientists do not even belong to the IAU while most IAU members work in other areas of astronomy such as the study of galaxies. "The people who actually understand the physics, the chemistry, the work on planets, aren't in the IAU," Stern accurately noted.

Two specific points are made very clear throughout the course of the book. One is the existence of two competing views about how to understand the solar system. Boyle accurately notes that the issue is not about being pro or against Pluto but about two competing paradigms--that of the dynamicists, who focus on the way solar system objects move and affect one another, and that of the planetary scientists, who study the individual objects themselves, looking for activity such as geology and weather. This is the crux of the argument, and this is why there is no right or wrong answer, only differing interpretations.

The other critical point Boyle articulates addresses public perception, culture, why people care about Pluto. He accurately dismisses Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson's claim that people's affinity for Pluto is all about the Disney dog. "When it comes to Pluto's appeal, it's not all about the dog. It's all about the underdog." In one concise sentence, he answers the question that has mystified so many, the reason that so many people reacted to the IAU decision with such outrage.

Notably, Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto, was himself an underdog, having grown up in a farm family and taken the job at Lowell Observatory with only the one-way ticket to Flagstaff he could afford. Tombaugh eventually obtained a Masters in astronomy but never a PhD, a fact that caused him to be snubbed by some astronomers. "I always thought I was a nobody," the planet discoverer shockingly reveals in David Levy's biography of him, expressing surprise at both his and Pluto's popularity.

In a relatively small book, Boyle provides a plethora of information about the five bodies currently designated as dwarf planets, a list of next generation projects searching for exoplanets, a copy of the 2006 IAU resolutions, and, most importantly, a section in the back about how to talk to kids about planets. In clear, non-technical language, he discusses the fact that scientists do not all think the same way about planets, emphasizing that debate is at the heart of the way science works.

As for the question of how many planets revolve around our Sun, "four plus four plus more," referring to four terrestrials, four jovians, and an indeterminate number of "more" planets of a third category, is the most concise, most sensible way I have yet heard this question answered.

The Case for Pluto speaks to all ages, to lay people and scientists alike, demystifying what to many was a convoluted, senseless decision by a remote group of academics that has generated much confusion. "How wrong they were," Boyle says twice of the IAU's confidence that it had resolved the issue in 2006. He makes an amusing but apt inference to Galileo's so-called retraction of his Sun-centered theory before the Inquisition by citing Mike Brown's infamous line "Pluto is dead" and following it with the parenthetical statement (and yet it moves), the words quietly muttered by Galileo in defiance of his forced retraction.

Is there a solution to the debate? Boyle proposes using a model similar to the Herzsprung-Russell Diagram, which has been used to classify stars for almost 100 years, envisioning a similar spectrum for planets. But such a spectrum must also address the amazing diversity of objects being found orbiting other stars. And that most likely means adding more subcategories.

I do admit to a personal reason for favoring this book. In the reference section for Chapter 9, "The Battle of Prague," Boyle's first reference is to the article I originally wrote for my local newspaper, The Somerset Spectator,  later picked up by the UK Space Conference of 2008, "Pluto, the Planet that Was," which can be found here: For more on this wonderful book, visit its web site at

How can anyone put the issue better than this? "Never again can Pluto be the ninth planet. Or the littlest planet. Or the most distant planet. But does that make Pluto a nonplanet? No way."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Book Review: Unscientific America

This review of Unscientific America by science journalist Chris Mooney and marine scientist and research associate Sheril Kirshenbaum is late in coming, for which I apologize to both the authors and readers of this blog. At least I can cite as a mitigating factor that I have spent the last few months studying science, specifically astronomy, with class assignments taking up most of my time.

I first heard about this book several months ago; when I heard that the first chapter addressed the subject of "Why Pluto Matters," I contacted the writers expressing my interest in reading and reviewing it. As a writer who recently developed a strong interest in science, I was fascinated by the idea of a book that ties education, journalism, politics, and science together in an effort to explain a general decline of interest in and knowledge of science in the US.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum are honest about their political positions. Both favor the Democratic Party, support Barack Obama, and take issue with what they view as an anti-science stand by the previous administration. The debates over global warming, vaccination, and evolution loom large in their writing. This book is actually Mooney's second; his first is The Republican War on Science. While some readers may disagree with the writers' political positions, as the book is intended for the general public in a politically divided country, it is commendable that from the beginning, Mooney and Kirshenbaum let us know where they are coming from instead of pretending a stance of being "apolitical."

The concerns the authors raise go far beyond any form of partisanship, however, which is why those of all political persuasions should take the time to read it.

Many professional scientists seek to maintain an apolitical stance, preferring not to engage in lobbying or any political activity. On the other side of the equation, most politicians are poorly informed about science, which is highly problematic when they are the ones making policy on issues such as dealing with climate change and the future of the space program. This lack of communication is very disturbing; what the authors bring to light is two separate worlds, one the scientific, with a long-term outlook, and the other, the political, with a very short-term outlook (mostly toward the next election) and the growing gulf separating them.

Last year, Mooney and Kirshenbaum attempted to bridge this gap by founding Science Debate 2008, an effort to engage the presidential candidates in discussing science policy. This bi-partisan effort, which gained widespread support from scientists and members of the public, included pointing out the irony that the candidates were eager to engage in a debate on "faith issues" but would not do so on science issues. In spite of this, the writers are confident the initiative will achieve greater success in 2012.

The Pluto issue is an ideal example to begin this discussion because it so strongly highlights the disconnect between the scientific community on one hand and the general public on the other. Significantly, the 2006 IAU vote on Pluto was not a scientific act but a political one, complete with competing factions (dynamicists versus geophysicists), controversy over who got to vote, a group rushing through a resolution with little of the necessary discussion, and an immediate reaction by astronomers opposed to the resolution adopted. What writer Alan Boyle refers to as "The Battle of Prague" had and continues to have all the features of a bitterly fought election.

And yet, the IAU leadership and those who support their decision expect the public to overlook these obvious problems and simply obey their decree. When members of the public protested the decision with web sites, protests, pro-Pluto T-shirt sales, comedic references, and outright insistence that "Pluto will always be a planet to me," IAU partisans dismissed them as motivated by emotions and resistant to change solely due to sentiment.

If there were less of a disconnect between scientists and the general public, we might very well have seen the opposite reaction. For once, people were expressing an interest in science, connecting a scientific issue with memories of what they learned in grade school. Here was a genuine opportunity to engage people with astronomy, to connect with the public in just the way the International Year of Astronomy project intended. Unfortunately, that opportunity was missed.

And that is why the Pluto issue is emblematic of the larger problem accurately described by the authors as "the rift between science and culture."

By the mid-1970s, the space program had lost much of its momentum, with budget cuts leading to the cancellation of three more planned Apollo missions (18, 19, and 20). Then came a key turning point that facilitated this growing rift, the election of Ronald Reagan, who was supported by an unlikely alliance of religious fundamentalists and "supply siders" who favored deregulation and unrestrained capitalism.

In catering to these two constituencies that elected him, Reagan heavily facilitated this rift. His Secretary of the Interior made an offhand comment that environmental issues were not a concern because the end of the world was coming soon. Reagan himself displayed shocking scientific gaffes, with remarks attributing pollution to trees and referring to ketchup as a vegetable (these examples are not in the book but are personal memories). The religious right, a political movement aimed at remaking the US into a Christian country, flourished under his leadership.

Additionally, as the authors note, Reagan catered to Big Business by initiating a trend of media deregulation that has decimated science coverage--and newspapers in general--in this country. Deregulation led to greater and greater consolidation of media ownership, with many TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers being bought out by big corporations that valued only the bottom line. This trend became worse with the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act under President Clinton, an act that further facilitated the "Wal-Mart-ization" of all news media, a phenomenon in which small, locally-owned media outlets were gobbled up by big corporations.

Furthermore, conservative, supply-side economics resulted in budget cuts to universities, to the point that college is no longer affordable to many young people. Funding cuts to universities led to fewer and fewer full-time professorial positions in all fields, including science, as the schools began following the business model of "downsizing" and hiring adjuncts paid low wages with no benefits to replace full-time professors.

When academia becomes a career path characterized by uncertainty, and the mainstream media drop science coverage in favor of non-stop fluff stories such as "celebrity gossip," it is not surprising that more children want to be pro sports players or Hollywood types than scientists.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum cite a chilling 2008 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism which determined that for every five hours of cable news, viewers are likely to get one minute of science and technology in contrast to 10 minutes of entertainment, 12 minutes of accidents and disasters, and 26+ minutes of crime.

"Deregulation and decades of mergers have brought us to this point, and a fundamental theme of these mergers has been to please investors," they note. "That means squeezing each individual station or newsroom in order to obtain the most profitable product. It often means cutting back on staff, and cutting down on substance and quality as well."

On another note, the authors also point out a phenonmenon that probably resulted as a backlash against religious fundamentalism--specifically, a hard core, "New Atheist" movement that eschews any acceptance of religious faith. They accurately describe the stance of this movement as counterproductive to fostering public interest in science. Force people to choose between their most deeply-held beliefs, which, true or not, provide them with emotional and psychological sustenance, and science, and they will inevitably choose that which gives their life meaning. In a strange way, this movement, whose spokespeople describe anyone who prays as having "an imaginary friend," fosters the exact same either/or mentality as religious fundamentalism itself.

Instead of either/or, we can have both/and. Mooney and Kirshenbaum note that the Catholic Church has accepted evolution, and many mainstream denominations of various religions believe science and religion can co-exist. How many people are aware that the Vatican has its own astronomical observatory? Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Vatican astronomer who is also a Jesuit monk, is frequently asked if church authorities direct his research, and he always provides the same answer. The only thing Vatican astronomers are told is "do good science."

Many psychological studies show that people who believe in something larger than themselves gain strength in facing adversity. While no rational person would seek to substitute prayer for medical treatment, there has been sufficient documentation of cases in which patients with a serious illness receiving medical treatment recovered faster and more completely when they knew loved ones and friends were praying for them.

My own favorite author is the late Madeleine L'Engle, whose novels frequently contain a fascinating conjoining of science and religion. Often, these novels feature both a clergy person and a scientist working together to provide healing, speculating on the unknown, on how both can offer valuable perspectives of a world that consists of "more than meets the eye."

The solutions Mooney and Kirshenbaum offer are sound. Interdisciplinary education and teaching communication skills to PhD students in science are crucial if we want to make science accessible and appealing to the public. In astronomy, this is often done by amateur astronomy clubs, run by enthusiastic volunteers. One of the authors' best recommendations is the creation of a new, non-profit sector, funded by tax deductible donations, which could focus solely on science communication while "circumventing market forces altogether." As a writer, I would add that such non-profits should also encourage journalists to study science and recruit them to work alongside scientists in communicating science with the public.

Provocative and a fascinating read delving into the interconnection of politics, journalism, entertainment, and science, Unscientific America makes an excellent holiday gift for all ages. We can count on it to inspire much-needed discussion of new ways to make science accessible and exciting to all sectors of the public.