PLANETARY DEMOTION


Appearing in Pima County Medical Society’s (PCMS) monthly magazine, Sombrero, September 2009. 

The elementary school teacher places a foot wide ball representing the Sun on a fence.  The Earth, 1/10th the size of a drop of water, is 34 meters away; 1.3 million of everything we’ve ever created, walked or floated upon would fit inside the ball/Sun. 

At this scale, golf ball-size Saturn is off the property and Neptune 3/4 mile away.  Alpha-Centauri is in Amsterdam.  I am impressed by the vast distances in the universe.  Perhaps some of the kids are, too.  At a star party a few nights later, however, few are curious how to identify a planet.  That’s not surprising but unfortunate, for science is more than memorizing facts.  Science is a way of thinking, beginning with curiosity and willingness to change one’s beliefs – even long held ones – in the face of new evidence.  Unfortunately, we often drum curiosity out of kids and disparage those who change their beliefs as “flip-floppers.”  If not for curious physicians, MI patients would remain at bed rest for 6 weeks, we’d use Salversan and physicians wouldn’t learn from errors.  Well, as Meatloaf sang, two out of three ain’t bad. 

A recent controversial change in astronomy was the re-classification of Pluto.  Neil deGrasse Tyson, a leading astrophysicist and director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, believes we should describe the solar system not by the number of planets, but classify bodies by atmosphere, core and shape.  Viewed this way, Pluto didn’t make the cut for planetary status. 

Tyson and others felt Pluto belonged to a category of small, non-spherical rocky minor planets and burned out comets.  The amount of hate mail he received was astounding, not only from disgruntled third graders, but from teachers and parents.  California drafted legislation to sue the astronomical community, which is unfortunately how Americans often deal with controversy; fostering confusion, mangling language (“socialized medicine”) and creating false uncertainty are others. 

One prominent astronomer I know was upset about Pluto’s demotion, because he knew Clyde Tombaugh, its 1930 discoverer.  I think he was biased.  Biases aren’t always bad.  The standard deviation is a biased estimator, but we still use it.  The mean, an unbiased estimator, can be misleading.  But our biases affect our rationality if we don’t recognize them, and I don’t think this astronomer did.  Because of his influence, his flawed analysis had power to convince others. 

When people with power and influence argue from biased premises, they shift public opinion in ways that may harm society.  That’s how we got involved in Iraq.  Influence and charisma often trump facts and sound ideas.  It may be why a majority of American adults don’t know what a year represents and believe humans coexisted with dinosaurs.  Yes, really.  The media, to be “fair and balanced,” presents two sides, even when one side confuses opinion with fact, ideology with truth, loudness, personal attacks, repetition and interrupting with validity, bullying to get one’s way. 

A regrettable number waste valuable time by still debating the existence of the Holocaust, the Grand Canyon’s age, Roswell, the Moon landings, Obama’s birth location and our government’s complicity in 9/11.  A plurality of Americans believe in astrology and some forms of alternative medicine that are plain bunk.  A plurality don’t believe in evolution, vaccine safety and climate change, which disturbs me deeply and bodes poorly for American competitiveness.  Science should deal with facts; if the facts are not known, there must be a quantitative expression of uncertainty using appropriate statistical terms.  There is no place in scientific writing for personal attacks, charged language, sarcasm or ideology.  These four coupled with no statement of uncertainty are issues I have with arguments of those who deny manmade global climate change. 

Science moves forward, not smoothly, but in fits and starts, often stopping.  Seldom does science retreat; over time, evidence for Newtonian mechanics, continental drift, evolution and climate change has become more compelling, not less, consistent of theories whose predictions have high confidence.  Even if these theories have flaws, and Newtonian mechanics fails to explain the precession of Mercury’s perihelion, does not render them worthless, something anti-evolution proponents still do not understand. 

I miss planet Pluto, but I understand its reclassification.  My 1929 astronomy book is accurate stating the outermost planet as Neptune but inaccurate in stating Saturn has 9 moons.  We know of 19.  Astronomy, every medical specialty and science in general moves forward, in fits and starts, occasionally stopping, rarely reversing a little before moving forward again. 

As we learn, we should change our view of the world.  A few visionaries take what we know and view it in a new way.  Relativity required thinking of time as changeable.  UV, Radio, X-Rays and Infrared radiation required vision beyond our vision.  Sometimes an idea is right but too far ahead of its time, like many of mine.  Turning the clock back is almost never proper; we need only look at desert societies which centuries ago knew the synodic lunar period within 2 minutes, named the stars, a major branch of mathematics and created beautiful sculptures.  The fundamentalists in those societies turned the clock back, blew up the sculptures, banned music and books, stopped teaching mathematics, stopped reaching to the stars, and even stopped kite flying. 

I’ve seen China; if American fundamentalism wins out, world leadership will move across the Pacific.

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2 Responses to “PLANETARY DEMOTION”

  1. Dennis Says:

    One way to look at Pluto’s status change is as a “demotion”, and denigrating Clyde Tombaugh. I think a better way to look at the situation is this:
    1. We finally (after how many thousands of years of watching the night sky) have a reasonable definition of a planet.
    2. Clyde Tombaugh didn’t discover a planet — he discovered the first of an entirely new class of solar system objects.

  2. Mike Says:

    Very well put. I have an autographed picture of Tombaugh from 1989, showing the pictures from 1930 and Pluto’s movement. It was still discovered, and like Ceres, a very important part of solar system understanding.

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