Category Archives: Neil deGrasse Tyson

Books by Neil deGrasse Tyson.

Review 71: The Pluto Files


The Pluto Files by Neil deGrasse Tyson

What was the biggest story of 2006? The arrest of the shampoo bombers in England? Small fries. The first World Baseball Classic? YAWN! The death of Don Knotts? Nothin’.

No, as interesting as they were, none of these generated nearly as much public interest and argument as the much ballyhooed “demotion” of Pluto by the International Astronomical Union in August of 2006. Poor little Pluto, hanging out there on the edge of the solar system, got bumped down to “Dwarf Planet,” rousing much ire from people all across the United States. And, in a way, Neil deGrasse Tyson bears some responsibility for it.

To be fair, stripping Pluto of its designation as a planet was never on his agenda. No matter what angry elementary school students may have thought, Tyson had no beef against Pluto. It was just that Pluto had the bad fortune to be an oddball planet, and Tyson was working on the redesign of the Rose Center for Earth and Space in the American Museum of Natural History in New York. Whether he wanted to or not – and I’m pretty sure he didn’t – he became the public face of this issue, one which gripped the country.

That in itself is weird. Americans are not the most scientifically literate of people. Sure, we like to use the fruits of science, but most people don’t really pay attention to things like astronomy unless it’s a shuttle launch or a pretty Hubble picture. What’s more, the public in general has never really gotten involved in matters of taxonomy. If you went up to someone and said, “Hey, the scientific community is thinking about revising the nomenclature regarding the classification of anaerobic bacteria,” they’d probably just walk away swiftly, looking back a few times to make sure the crazy person isn’t following them. But tell them that the IAU is planning to demote Pluto, and what you have is a firestorm.

This book is not so much about Pluto itself, but our relationship with that weird little ball of ice and rock. Tyson takes us through our history with Pluto, from its discovery back in 1930 to its demotion in 2006, and tries to figure out just what it is that has endeared it so to the American public.

One possibility, of course, is the fact that Pluto was an American discovery. Percival Lowell was the one to start the hunt, and Clyde Tombaugh finally found it. While the name was suggested by a teenage British girl, everything else about the discovery of Pluto was American, and that was a point of pride. There were only three non-Classical planets in the heavens, and we had claim to one of them. So even if the average American doesn’t know the history of Pluto’s discovery, we still have a certain love for it.

Despite its diminutive size, Pluto has loomed large in the American imagination. Perhaps there’s something of the underdog love in there, too. Americans love to see the little guy win, and if you look at a lot of the pro-Pluto artwork from 2006, the theme of big planets ganging up on a little one was very popular. As odd as this perception might seem from a scientific standpoint, I think a lot of Americans were supporting Pluto because it was being pushed down by The Man, as it were.

And so the country went a little nuts. Newspapers, blogs, websites – even sports reporting got in their digs on the Pluto controversy. There was something for everyone in this story, and everyone who could manage a Pluto reference did so with gusto. It was a mixed blessing, to be sure – the American public was finally excited about astronomy, but it was the excitement of a bar fight, rather than the highbrow intellectualism that many astronomers might have preferred.

What was also interesting about this book was the look at the professional arguments that went on as well. Dispelling the dispassionate image of the astronomer, professionals got really worked up about this, on both sides of the issue. Grown men and women, many of whom were well-versed in many aspects of astronomy, spoke passionately about Pluto. Some called on our sense of tradition and cultural memory, acknowledging that while Pluto may be an oddball, he’s our oddball. Others were more than happy to throw Pluto into the Kuiper Belt with the other icy mudballs.

So often, Science is assumed to be some monolithic entity that describes the world with a unanimity of voice. It is supposed to be dispassionate and rational, and we don’t really think about the reality of scientific progress. To use the analogy often given to marriage, science is like a duck – stately and sure on the surface, but with a whole lot of work going on down below. The history of science is full of more passion, debate and anger than you might suspect. In order to decide the issue, symposia were convened, meetings were held, and finally the International Astronomical Union was forced to do something that had never occurred to anyone before: precisely define what is and is not a planet.

In case you’re wondering, the definition is quite simple: It has to orbit the sun, be big enough to have attained a spherical shape, and it has to have cleared out its orbit. Pluto fulfills the first two requirements, but badly fails the third. Therefore, it is not a planet. They created a new designation: dwarf planet, including Ceres in the asteroid belt and Haumea, Makemake and Eris out past Pluto. The public may not like it, but that’s how it is.

Tyson points out that this is not the first time we have done such a reclassification. With the discovery in the mid-19th century of objects orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, a new class had to be invented in order to keep the number of planets from rocketing into the thousands – and so asteroids were born. The Pluto case is quite similar. Long after Pluto was discovered, more objects, similar in nature, were discovered nearby – some even bigger than Pluto was. The region of rock and ice was named the Kupier Belt, and if Pluto were discovered today, it would most certainly be named as part of it. As much as it pains me to say it, the decision to reclassify Pluto was the right one. At least Tyson and I have revised the Planet Mnemonic the same way: My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nachos.

The rise and fall of Pluto is an interesting story, and a lesson for science educators. No matter how bad it may seem for science in the United States, people can still be surprisingly passionate about scientific topics. It’s also a warning against resistance to change. With all that we are learning about the Solar System, to just rattle off a list of planets and be done with it is insufficient. There are so many other ways to look at it now, so many ways to group the hundreds of bodies out there, that perhaps Pluto is more comfortable out with the other Trans-Neptunian objects. With its own kind, as it were, instead of being shoehorned in with eight other guys that it doesn’t really have anything in common with.

Ultimately, of course, Pluto doesn’t care what we call it. That point was often made on both sides of the argument, and they’re right. We could call it Lord Snuggypants the Fourth and it would keep doing what it does out there in the cold and the dark. But it’s important for us, and not just because science needs things to be organized so we know what we’re talking about. Being able to reclassify Pluto is an indication of the breadth of our knowledge – had we not made such progress, Pluto’s classification would never have been in doubt.

The “demotion” of Pluto is a sign of our amazing achievements over the last eighty years. We have not lost a planet – we have gained understanding. So in the end, the Great Pluto Debate is one that we should look back upon fondly.

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“It’s always a little scary when the person who hired you calls you up and asks, “What have you done?!”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, The Pluto Files
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Neil deGrasse Tyson at Wikipedia
The Pluto Files at Wikipedia
Pluto on Wikipedia
The Pluto Files on Amazon.com
Neil deGrasse Tyson’s homepage

Laurel’s Pluto Blog

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Review 34: Death by Black Hole


Death by Black Hole by Neil deGrasse Tyson

I have often lamented the passing of my favorite popular scientist, Carl Sagan, by talking about how necessary he is right now. We are at a point in our history where scientific illiteracy is growing, where people are not only ignorant of how science works, but are proud of their ignorance. What we need is someone who can reach the majority of Americans who are not especially scientifically literate – the people whose automatic reaction to science is to think, “That’s just too hard for me to deal with.”

Enter Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist and the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. He’s appeared on countless television programs, including The Daily Show and The Colbert Report, to talk about the current state of astronomy and astrophysics. He’s an engaging and entertaining man, who claims that Pluto was “asking for” its demotion, who seems to take perverse pleasure in describing all the terrible ways the universe could take us out. He knows that we’re in a precarious position, here on Earth, and he revels in it rather than worrying about it.

Whereas Sagan seemed to come from the point of view that the universe was a place of infinite wonder, where one could look anywhere and be awed and humbled, Tyson’s attitude is more of the universe as an infinite theme park – a place where you could see your electrons stripped from your body, watch gas clouds larger than our own solar system collide and ignite, or see planets crumple under cosmic bombardment. Tyson’s universe is an adventure, as big as it gets.

This book is a collection of essays that Tyson wrote for Natural History magazine over a ten year period, on a variety of subjects related to science and scientific inquiry. In many ways, it’s similar to every other pop science book out there – and there are so very many of them – but it is his perspective and his voice that makes this one stand out from the crowd.

He’s grouped his essays into seven sections, on topics ranging from the difficulties inherent in actually knowing anything about the universe to the understanding of how life went from little mindless bacteria to we clever Homo sapiens to the intersection of science and religion. Most of it is accessible to the average non-scientist, though he does get a little technical at points. But he understands that, and he tries to compensate for for the fact that, by and large, the public is intimidated by “real science.” In the essay entitled, “Over the Rainbow,” he discusses this particular challenge by using spectroscopy as an example.

In spectroscopy, astrophysicists look at the spectrum of a star, hunting for telltale dark lines that indicate the physical properties of stars. It’s like looking at a rainbow with bits blackened out of it, as though the CIA had somehow gotten to it first. Those black lines contain all the vital information about the star’s composition and, more importantly, speed. Very little can be gleaned by just looking at the star, as it turns out. He notes five levels of abstraction, starting from the star itself:

Level 0: A star
Level 1: Picture of a star
Level 2: Light from the picture of a star
Level 3: Spectrum from the light from the picture of a star.
Level 4: Patterns of lines lacing the spectrum from the light from the picture of a star.
Level 5: Shifts in the patterns of lines in the spectrum from the light from the picture of a star.

These descending levels of abstraction can apply to any branch of science, not just astrophysics. The challenge, as he notes, is getting people past level 1, which is easy to understand but is not the level at which true science is done. It is up to educators, he says, to help make people comfortable with looking at real science, and not just pretty pictures.

Indeed, there are several sections of the book dedicated to the intersection between science and the public. He talks about how easily we are baffled by numbers (why are below-ground floors not labeled -1, -2, -3 etc?) and how casually we disregard actual scientific facts. He brings up some of his favorite moments in bad movie science, and how he single-handedly saved Titanic from ignominious astronomical shame. At least, on its DVD re-release. He addresses the historically shifting centers of science in human history, how things like NASA are truly a global endeavor. Without the discoveries made through history by people all over the planet – from England to Greece to Baghdad – there would be no NASA, nor any science that we recognize. And to assume that the United States will always be the center of scientific discovery is to willfully ignore history.

And, of course, there’s a section dedicated to the conflict between religion and science, a never-ending battle that has existed since science began. Tyson believes that there can be no common ground between the two – science relies on facts, religion relies on faith. This is not to say that one is better than the other, any more than, say, a hammer is better than a screwdriver. It’s just that you can’t use them interchangeably. And he points out that becoming a scientist doesn’t require you to give up your faith. There have been, and still are, countless scientists who are believers in the Divine. It’s just that most of them know enough not to confuse science and spirituality.

The place where they meet, historically, is on the boundary of ignorance. Isaac Newton, having figured out gravity, couldn’t quite work out how you could have a multiple-body system like our solar system without the whole thing falling into chaos. His conclusion – God must, from time to time, step in to keep things on the right path. Having done that, Newton went on to do other things, and it wasn’t until the next century that Pierre-Simon laPlace decided that he wasn’t satisfied with Newton’s “Insert God Here” argument, and did the math for himself.

In other words, God is a marker on the boundaries of ignorance, and the best of us are tempted to let Him answer the questions that we can’t. To do so, however, impedes the path of science and stops progress in its tracks. What if Newton had said, “No, I’m going to figure this damn thing out.” Would we be a century ahead in our technology by now? Maybe, maybe not. What if the Catholic Church had listened when Galileo said, “The Bible tells you how to go to heaven, not how the heavens go.” Might more progress have been made? So many great thinkers have come up to the boundaries of their knowledge and, humbled by what they do not know, chose to allow The God of the Gaps reassure them.

But that’s the whole point of science, and it’s what this book, and others like it, are trying to instill in people. The unknown is not horrible, it is not terrifying, and it’s not a place to just stop. It’s a place of awe and wonder and bafflement and opportunity. To say, “I don’t understand it – it must be God” is short-changing ourselves and our heirs out of even greater knowledge of the universe.

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“Scientists cannot claim to be on the research frontier unless something baffles them. Bafflement drives discovery.”
– Neil deGrasse Tyson, Death by Black Hole
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Neil deGrasse Tyson on Wikipedia
Death by Black Hole on Wikipedia
Death by Black Hole on Amazon.com
The Hayden Planetarium

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