Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Mike Brown, Mind Reader???

Mike Brown, who never misses an opportunity to dub himself the “plutokiller,” apparently missed his calling. Given his latest outrageous statement, which presumes to know what supporters of Pluto as a planet are thinking better than we do ourselves, he should have pursued a career in fortune telling or mind reading.

Debates in which people representing opposing views agree to disagree and discuss issues in a civil manner, without resorting to ad hominem attacks, have a long and proud tradition. At the Great Planet Debate in August 2008, scientists and lay people representing both sides of the planet definition debate successfully conducted such a debate in a spirit of friendship and camaraderie.

Unfortunately, Brown, who continues to repeat the false claim that the planet definition debate is over and that the only astronomers who still support Pluto as a planet are those affiliated with the New Horizons mission, has shown himself incapable of conducting such a debate.

When asked in an interview by about the many astronomers who still regard Pluto as a planet, Brown offered this answer:

“There aren't many astronomers. There is a very small number of very vocal people. The people who jump up and down the most about Pluto being a planet have the most to gain from Pluto being a planet. They're on the New Horizons mission to Pluto. I understand their nostalgic need to still feel like they're going to a planet. There's this feeling that by saying it's not a planet it becomes less important, and their life's work to send this spacecraft to Pluto becomes less important”

The comment can be found here:

This is a blatant lie, and it is downright unprofessional for Brown to mislead the public this way. The overwhelming majority of astronomers who still consider Pluto a planet are not affiliated with the New Horizons mission. In fact, one of them is a member of the trio that discovered Eris—Dr. David Rabinowitz.

New Horizons is fully funded and loses nothing from the demotion. Dawn is a mission to a dwarf planet and an asteroid, and it has just as much respect as New Horizons or any other NASA mission. Most astronomers who consider Pluto a planet—and there are many—are simply planetary scientists who believe that astronomers who don't study planets should not be the ones to define what a planet is.

The comment about New Horizons is nothing less than a cheap shot at Dr. Alan Stern, who has led the objectors to the IAU decision, not because of this mission but because he believes in what is known as the Geophysical Planet Definition—that a planet should be defined by what it is rather than where it is, and that any non-self luminous spheroidal body orbiting a star is a planet. This is a legitimate scientific position.

As unprofessional as the above statement sounds, it is not Brown’s worst. That new low was reached yesterday in an interview with Universe Today, where Brown accused supporters of Pluto’s planet status of deliberately lying and misleading the public, of not actually believing our own stance on this issue.

He says, regarding those who view Pluto as a planet: And honestly, I think manipulative is the word. They don’t believe what they say, they know what they say is not true and they say it in ways that are deceitful. That is maybe a strong statement to make, but they know what they are saying is not true. That bothers me. You shouldn’t say things that you know is not true just to make a point.”

What absolutely unbelievable arrogance. Brown reaches a new low with this baseless ad hominem attack. Those of us who view Pluto as a planet most certainly DO believe in what we are saying. We advocate a geophysical definition of planet, in which any object massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity that orbits a star is a planet. The idea is a definition based on what the object is, not where it is. Pluto is both a Kuiper Belt Object and a planet.

Is Brown a mind reader now? What makes him think he knows what supporters of the geophysical planet definition believe or know to be true more than they do? His palm reader? If anyone is misleading the public, it is Brown who falsely claims the debate over planet definition is over, when it is not. And it is hard to believe those who claim he is sick of the debate when he is making money off of the book and numerous talks he gives on the subject.

There is a logical way to say our solar system does not have only eight planets. Simply, it is to note that there are not only two types of planets, terrestrials and jovians, but a third class, the dwarf planets. Dr. Alan Stern coined this term in 1991 to indicate objects large enough to be rounded by their own gravity but not large enough to gravitationally dominate their orbits. Our solar system, in the words of writer Alan Boyle, has four terrestrial planets, four gas giants, and more in the form of numerous dwarf planets.

How does it make sense to put Earth and Jupiter in the same category? Earth has more in common with Pluto than with Jupiter. Jupiter has no solid surface, has its own “mini-solar system,” and is composed mostly of hydrogen and helium. That makes it more like the Sun than like the Earth (except, of course, it doesn’t conduct hydrogen fusion). Earth and Pluto are both rocky, both have large moons formed via giant impact, and both have nitrogen atmospheres. How we classify objects is subjective; it is based on attributes we pick and choose. Different astronomers will choose different attributes.
Brown’s cheap shot here is a disservice to science, an attempt to marginalize a legitimate scientific point of view. Imagine if, in 1920,when astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis held a public debate over whether the Milky Way constitutes the entire universe (Shapley’s view) or whether the universe is made up of many galaxies (Curtis’ view, later proven accurate), one of the debaters suddenly told the other, “you don’t really believe the point you are arguing, and I know this for a fact.” That person’s scientific credibility would have seriously been called into question.

A likely reason Brown is resorting to these underhanded tactics is his underlying awareness that the IAU definition does not stand well among astronomers, with the growing undercurrent favoring a broader, more inclusive planet definition that makes room for more than just terrestrials and jovians as planets.

Brown wrote a book about himself, not about Pluto. In fact, a good portion of the book is dedicated to his life as a husband and father. That sort of thing belongs in the autobiography, lifestyle, or parenting sections, not in a book about astronomy. Not a single one of the many books on the subject of Pluto and planet definition takes such a detour.

Interestingly, one writer ended a book review by stating the real credit goes to Brown’s wife Diane. As a woman, I find this highly offensive. What sort of message does it send to women and girls when a woman is credited for being married to an astronomer rather than being an astronomer herself? It is nothing personal, but Diane Binney Brown is not a hero of astronomy or the person to be most credited for Eris’ discovery.

In my astronomy studies, I just completed a research project on Henrietta Leavitt, the astronomer who discovered what is known as the Period-Luminosity relationship, the fact that for a particular type of stars that vary in brightness (known as Cepheids), their period of going from minimum to maximum to minimum again is directly related to their brightness. Leavitt,
like astronomer Caroline Herschel in the 19th century, never married or had children. Instead, she contributed something different. Her discovery transformed cosmology by allowing astronomers to determine the distances to galaxies near the Milky Way. Yet because she was a woman, Leavitt was never allowed to pursue research on these variable stars, not allowed to use telescopes at Harvard College Observatory, and consigned to doing menial work for observatory director Edward Pickering.

If any people should be held up as role models for women in astronomy, it is women like Leavitt and Caroline Herschel, not women who marry astronomers.

Brown will likely object to any criticism of his wife, noting that his family members should be off limits to critics. Well, he cannot have it both ways. If he wants his family members immune to criticism, then he should keep them out of the public eye, as many politicians do. If he uses them as pawns for self-promotion, then that use is fair game for any critic.
In rhetoric, logic, and debate, resort to ad hominem attacks is done most by those who know they are losing the debate. That is what is happening here.

Supposedly, at one point in his book, Brown prides himself on so accurately predicting a relative’s pregnancy that the relative questions whether he is an astronomer or an astrologer. Many other people are wondering just this too. Since Brown is so sure he knows what his opposition thinks, I suggest we bring in skeptic James Randi to test his mind reading skills.

Or we could just hire a psychic to read his palm.

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