Pluto, Once and Future Planet

“I can’t find Pluto anywhere!” – words of a grade-schooler at Hayden Planetarium.

History Channel ran an interesting Pluto retrospective last night. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson is a frequent science and astrophysics master of ceremonies on TV science shows, and director of Manhattan’s Hayden Planetarium, among other accomplishments. Dr. Tyson gained popular notoriety by supporting demotion of Pluto to “dwarf planet” status (2006), and, as planetarium director, being one of the first to remove the 9th “planet” from the gargantuan solar system exhibit. Continue reading

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The Great 2012 Scare – Sky & Telescope

When we wrote our two October postings on the “2012” doom-and-gloomers, we debunked the myth, as many others have done. We also referenced the Sky & Telescope magazine’s impressive articles stating that the world is not going to end in any of the ways the movie or the Nostradamus and Mayan Calendar fetishists are predicting, at least, certainly not as the result of any known astronomical phenomenon expected in that year or century.

And we noted with regret that the S&T magazine’s website was “under construction” and we could not provide the customary link to document our sources.

The S&T editors have rectified that with a new November 11 online article and a couple of PDF downloads, free reprints from their magazine articles. They say:

If your friends and family are worried about the impending disaster — supposedly based on an ancient Mayan prophecy — we have the stuff you need to tell them …

November 11, 2009 | The world won’t end on December 21, 2012, no matter what ancient Mayan prophecies might imply. Noted archaeoastronomer E. C. Krupp explains the cause of this mania in November’s Sky & Telescope. But this issue is no longer available on newsstands, so we’re making Krupp’s article available as a free download.

The link to the article is here: The Great 2012 Scare

You should be able to download the PDF’s for yourself. Should you find the link broken at some future point, just reply to this posting, let me know. I downloaded them for myself and any friends who might want them by e-mail (they’re in my ‘Articles’ folder, Alex). I’ll post the PDF’s myself.


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Debunking the “2012” Myth

On November 13, Sony Pictures International is releasing a new doomsday movie, “2012“. It’s about yet another end-of-the-world, Chicken Little “prediction” of the ancient Mayan Calendar (which the Mayans were not actually predicting). The movie will no doubt scare a lot of superstitious or uninformed people, and may even (grin) scare off sales of the Sony Playstation:

from the Sony website

Continue reading

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Pluto – Enough Already

There’s rebellion in the ranks of amateur astronomy. Despite the IAU’s notorious demotion of Pluto in 2006, many refuse to accept the validity of their new definition. OK, when Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, if he’d known what we know today about dwarf planet objects, perhaps we’d all be calling the ninth planet a “dwarf planet”. But we didn’t know anything about Eris, Quaoar or other near-planetary objects back then, and you don’t define a new class of objects based on knowledge of only one instance.

Dwarf Planets

Dwarf Planets - click image for website link

IAU Definition:

What constitutes a planet? The International Astronomical Union (IAU) developed some definitions in 2001, modified them again in 2003, and as of August 24, 2006, the IAU has come up with another definition. The IAU said in a statement that the definition for a planet is now officially known as “a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape and (c) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.”

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Black Holes and Chariot of Fools

Wait a minute, I meant Chariot of The Gods, no, dang, I meant Ship of Fools – gosh darn it, why can’t I get this right? I mean micro-black holes – here on Earth, explaining everything we didn’t want to know about the Bermuda Triangle.

History Channel ran a special, nominally on Black Holes, on Thursday night (3/6). The special started out interestingly enough, with about all the generally accepted facts about black holes that you could expect a composite of American families to absorb without breaking out into a sweat.
Continue reading

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Justification for Colliders

I read an informative and entertaining article on the Large Hadron Collider in, of all places, the May 14 New Yorker. The article did an exceptional job of explaining to the layperson the LHC project (the 7 trillion electron volt machine scheduled for completion in Cern this October), including the mechanics of its operation, hoped for results, and the underlying theoretical physics. It even did a creditable job of presenting a mercifully brief, high level outline of string theory, if that is possible. The article is Crash Course by Elizabeth Kolbert, linked here, as, happily, it’s available online at the moment.

But I found the motivation for this posting in a remarkable quotation Continue reading

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More Godless Cosmology

Eagle Nebula - mists of light?The June Sky and Telescope had three interesting letters to the editor. In the March issue, a reader had written to complain that God is consistently left out of cosmological theories. One June letter noted that adding God to the mix just pushes any explanation a step further back, irreverantly asking who then, had created God, and what mechanism did He then use? Another dryly noted that science concerns itself with natural phenomena, not supernatural. He added: “highly speculative” religious theories need only be internally consistent – they can ignore scientific factfinding and advances, needing only not to contradict other parts of their religious teachings. The third writer asks why we can’t expect our scientists to base their theories on the evidence, just as we expect from doctors, lawyers, reporters and your local auto mechanic.
Continue reading

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25 hour day = More Sleep

900 million years ago, according to the June Astronomy magazine, Earth’s day was only about 18 hours long. Our planet’s rotation has slowed since then due to the tidal drag or friction of the oceans as the Moon pulls. Due to the law of conservation of (angular) momentum, this also resulted in the Moon gradually increasing its orbital distance from Earth.

Doesn’t everybody occasionally yearn for that extra hour of sleep in the morning? Getting up for work 900 million years ago would have been a real drag, especially since coffee hadn’t been invented yet. The really good news is that, if we’ve gained 6 hours a day in the last 900 million years, then, assuming the process is linear, we’ll have 25-hour days in only another 150 million years. And that means we’ll finally be able both to sleep in, and get to work on time, for the first time in history.

And if you were thinking of just holding out until that blessed day, I’d recommend extra-heavy duty batteries for your alarm clock.

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It Ain’t Proof Until The Fat Lady Sings

The February Sky and Telescope had an interesting commentary by Editor-In-Chief Richard Tresch Fienborg. It concerned logical and factual assertions of the form “more proof uncovered.” Examples:

NASA: “direct proof” of dark matter

NY Times: “strongest proof yet” of water flow on Mars

We are so deadened to political and media misuse of the concept of “proof” that it is a shame we often don’t pick up on it when the conceptual abuse occurs in the scientific community. You don’t see this coming from the scientists actually making the scientific discoveries. You see it from the political and press flacks trying to leverage the event for maximum spin.

The NASA statement at least makes some sense: it implies observational proof, as opposed to armchaired hypothesis and “theory”.

Fienborg correctly quarrels with those who would demote “theory” to the status of an unproven and somewhat arbitrary hunch or guess – as religious literalists would have us do with the “theory” of evolution, global warming and so forth: there’s no proof; it’s just your opinion, which is no better than my opinion. As Fienborg points out, a theory is invalidated when contradicted by even one set of facts or principles.

So, why make a big deal out of the misuse of “proof”? Are we just bickering about semantics?

A “fact”, asks Fienborg: is it the assertion of the trusted authority figures, or something that can be verified independently by multiple observers? The answer you get determines whether it’s “my preacher told me that it’s so” or “I can demonstrate this myself with my backyard telescope.”

Most of us can see almost intuitively how the differences in the two approaches can determine which way the world heads from here.

As a kid in college, I read Hannah Arendt’s classic “Totalitarianism” which, among many notable accomplishments, dissected in frightening detail the semantics and propaganda used to mobilize Hitler’s Germany. It was tough sledding, but I never forgot those lessons.

This just reminds us all that if the concepts are popularly demolished upon which we rely so heavily to do good science, and indeed to live in freedom, then it scarcely matters how good a grasp we ourselves have of those ideas. Bereft of a common language to communicate them, we are just as effectively censored into silence as if the old propaganda polizei held the button to the microphone.

If it’s “proof”, “stronger proof” invalidates the whole concept. Yes, NASA requires a much more complex checklist of conditions that must be satisfied, than I required to tune my ’84 Bronco (back in the days when you could tune your own engine). Proof still doesn’t come in degrees of certitude, or household vs. industrial strengths. It’s either proven or it ain’t.

You only get to hear the fat lady sing once, if at all. You can fool some people some of the time, but you can’t fool the fat lady.

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Pluto, By Any Other Name …

Sky and Telescope MagazineI’m reading about the Great Planetary Demotion controversy again in the current Sky & Telescope (November 2006).

Since every school kid had to memorize the names of the “nine planets”, the media has picked up on this one. Any change in the conventional thinkiing that impacts the study habits of school kiddies is fair game for the press.

As you surely know and are getting tired of hearing, the IAU recently tightened the definition of “planet” to include the requirement that a planet candidate be massive enough to sweep the geophysical space surrounding its orbit clean of asteroidal debris. Poor tiny Pluto, which is smaller than Earth’s Moon, plows smack through the middle of the Kuiper Belt on a highly eccentric orbit. Exactly how a planet of any size is expected to clean up that mess, is not explained.

The IAU voted to demote Pluto to “dwarf planet” status, and the rest is history – history, at least, until the next IAU conference where it’s widely expected astronomers will take a second look at this decision.

Legendary astronomer and observer Clyde Tombaugh discovered the “missing ninth planet” in 1930. The impetus for this siren-call discovery was predictions by Herschel and others that perturbations of the orbits of Herschel’s new planet Uranus would be explained by the discovery of an outer planet. The discovery of Neptune in 1846 didn’t fully resolve this. Tombaugh, who died On January 17, 1997, remains an inspiration to millions for his perseverance and persistence in often brutal observing conditions and gruelling blink-comparator sessions.

I’m not reading any more celebratory memorabilia about Tombaugh’s famous ninth planet exploit right now. It’s almost like there’s a self-enforced cone of silence in the astronomy and news communities regarding the remarkable context of Pluto’s discovery.

I am reading some new memnonics which aid kids and news writers alike in memorizing the planets. I never heard these before. One was “My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.”

Before Pluto’s discovery in 1930, of course, kids memorized eight planets. The memnonic (taught to me by my mother) was: “Men Very Easy Make Jugs Serve Useful Needs.”

After that, it became the only memnonic I ever knew (taught to me, you guessed it, by my mother):

“Men Very Easy Make Jugs Serve Useful Needs. Period.”

That pretty well sums it up for me.

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