Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Those wacky astronomers

In the year 2000, something akin to an atomic bomb went off in the middle of the scientific community: the American Museum of Natural History (in New York City) opened it's new Rose Center for Earth and Space. The visual focal point of the center is a huge replica of the solar system, complete with Sun and orbiting planets. Pluto is not one of them.
The Director of the Rose Center is Neil deGrasse Tyson, and in his new book The Pluto Files: the rise and fall of America's favorite planet, he chronicles the events leading up to Pluto's demotion from a planet and the world-wide furor that arose from having this decision graphically represented in one of the world's premier natural history museums.
(Blogger's admission: I am not a fan of astronomy and would be hard-pressed to name all the planets in correct order). Having said that, this book is really interesting. It's interesting to read about Pluto's discovery by Clyde Tombaugh in 1930, about how this celestial object was named, and about how American culture glommed onto it (perhaps because it was discovered by an American). It's interesting to read the dialogue between scientists after observations showed that there is a belt of icy bodies at the edge of the orbiting planets (a Kuiper Belt, named after George Kuiper, who theorized its existence in the 1950s). Proof of this belt began a re-examination of Pluto's status, and one of the tiny planet's defenders in the ensuing 'discussion' happened to be the man who first discovered Pluto. It's even interesting to read the scientific reasoning behind the arguments.
What I found most interesting, however, is the reaction of the public. Tyson shares some of the letters he received from irate retirees and impassioned schoolchildren (one of whom asked him not to reply in cursive, as she can't read it). There were poems, there were songs, there were editorial cartoons and newspaper headlines, and jokes on late-night TV. And in the end, the International Astronomical Union officially declassified Pluto as a planet. It is now a Dwarf Planet. But what a fabulous discussion and what a great opportunity to get children turned on to science and the principles of scientific debate. That's the real story here....


Laurel Kornfeld said...

The IAU decision, adopted by only four percent of its members, most of whom are not planetary scientists, is not "the end." At this point, even Tyson admits this is very much an ongoing debate.

Hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto, immediately followed the IAU vote with a petition of their own rejecting the IAU planet definition. Many are working to get it overturned or amended to include dwarf planets as a subclass of planets.

It is important to hear all sides of this ongoing debate. For a view different from Tyson's, try Dr. David Weintraub's book "Is Pluto A Planet?" It presents a good perspective on this issue and more in depth discussion of the utility of various types of planet classifications.

Rainbird librarian said...

The UAS library and the Kayhi library both have copies of Dr. Weintraub's book. If anyone would like to read a counterpoint to Dr. Tyson, you can place this title on hold using our online catalog.
Thanks for pointing out another excellent resource about this topic!