Kids get the Pluto thing

November 22, 2007

I just changed my mind about Pluto after speaking to a class full of six to seven year olds.

This was my position before I went to face the weenies. (i) Given that the IAU was taking a technical decision, a pretty good one was made. Maybe not ideal, but you can’t go round in circles forever. (ii) However, Pluto is a cultural object as well as a scientific one, so one should somehow respect this. (iii) At the same time, mass prejudice should not be allowed to bully science into one position or another. (iv) My personal opinion is actually that whether or not Pluto is a “planet” is not a suitable subject for standardisation, and in fact almost has no meaning. (v) Conclusion – popular culture can call whatever it likes a planet. Hey, no problem. Just don’t tell us what we must call a planet.

So whats changed ? Two things. First, normal folk, including kiddie-winkies, understand the Pluto thing perfectly well, and there isn’t a problem. Second, they want us to tell them the latest stuff, and are happy to accept it. In fact we have a responsibility to decide and to tell them.

Today I went to give a talk to Primary School kids. Basic stuff – Earth, Moon, Planets, the stars are Suns, what is a shooting star etc etc. I love doing this. As I came to Pluto, they said “So is Pluto a planet ? Cos you all voted it out ?”. My answer was “Well, kinda. Anybody know why we did that ?” About nine hands went up and several kids just blurted out “Cos we keep finding new wee ones”. Spot on.

So the pictures I had ready were just right. First a picture of Pluto; then a montage of Pluto and Eiris and Ceres, labelled “dwarf planets”. Then I said, “Well, so there are lots of planets. There are eight big planets, and lots of dwarf planets. Pluto was just the first dwarf planet we found”. Lots of nodding.

Done deal. Simple. And really cool. Wow ! There could be loads of dwarf planets ! Yup.

tag spam

November 3, 2007

I have had some odd comment spam recently. I don’t mean Laurel Kornfeld spraying paranoia all over my Pluto posts. She’s most welcome. Its just that I know she puts comments in so many people’s blogs, its almost like spam. Her output isn’t humanly possible. Possibly she is a kind of collective, like Bourbaki, or maybe some kind of cyborg built in a secret lab by planetary astronomers.

On WordPress the floodwaters of advertising are held back by the barrier that is Akismet, but every so often a splosh gets over and wets my blog. What gets me is that along with the list of links to cheap ringtones or penis expanders or whatever there is always a line that says “Great blog ! Keep up the good work !” Why ? Am I really going to read this and think “oh hang on, this must be a real comment, he’s read my blog !”

Comment spam seems to be random scattershot stuff. But this evening I got some targeted spam. Its about cremation urns. Here it is, following a post called “A sandwich at the end of the Universe“. Well I did use “cremation” as a tag.. So is targetted spam new, or I have just started getting it cos I only just started using tags ?? (I reto-tagged everything.) I guess urns are good business. The only reliable things in life are death, taxes, and comments by laurel kornfeld.

Then a couple of comments have just been hard to decide. I got one that just said “Physics rocks !”. Well right on, man. This was just about relevant to the post. The link is to a site called “blog 4 rock”. Clearly not auto-spam or regular advertising. Just hand-crafted self promotion ? But I guess thats no different from the regular game of commenting on other people’s blogs. Click on me ! me ! me !

A wee while back I got a comment in Italian, on my very first Pluto post. Again, it doesn’t look like spam, but my Italian is close to non-existent, so how would I know ?

Pluto : the final solution

September 8, 2007

Over at The Astronomy Blog, Stuart has a post about Pluto called Planet Status Apathy, and how Laurel Kornfeld has been vigorous in responding to his various posts. Gee I thought it was just me; but the comments made me realise it was others too. Laurel, where do you find the time ? Don’t you got a job ?

Through the comments on Stuart’s post, I discovered Paolo’s Demote Pluto website. This is wonderful. It has some really sane and balanced material, and links to all sorts of good stuff, including the “save pluto” campaigners. And … its really funny. There’s a great link to an interview with Pluto.

Best of all though is that Paolo has come up with the FINAL SOLUTION. Check it out.

Pluto : Bush is after us

September 1, 2007

A few weeks back I noted that the “Please Save Pluto” petition web page was full of rather unpleasant entries. Laurel Kornfeld stressed that there is a somewhat saner “save Pluto” website and has since emailed me privately to let me know that the Please Save Pluto site has now been cleaned up. Course, the intellectual analysis is just as deep as before … but thats Web 2.0 for you. I really like this one :

  • 1849. Adam Cardon | August 9th, 2007 at 1:02 am

    I cannot believe that those dum-dums said that pluto is not a planet!! I for one am so angry that I wrote to the president of the united states of america and he said he would get back to me on it. so dont worry everyone. Pluto will be a planet again soon.

Oh crikey. Everything is going horribly wrong for Bush and he could do with a popular victory. Is he going to make the IAU an offer it can’t refuse ????

Pluto : the IAU should be very afraid… apparently

July 22, 2007

Just about every day somebody finds my old blog posts on Pluto through a Google search. One describes being at the IAU vote; one was about the bizarre attempts at legislation in New Mexico and California; and another, a link to the beautiful image of solar system bodies made by Alan Taylor. I got into a rather intense debate with Laurel Kornfeld. So I just went to check on how the “Please Save Pluto” petition is going.

The petition entries keep growing but their standard is getting even lower, and indeed are becoming even more unpleasant. Here are a few samples

  • 2056. URL | July 20th, 2007 at 5:50 am

    WE SHALL GIVE IAU A WAR THEY DESERVE ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

  • 2048. OPAL | July 19th, 2007 at 5:01 pm

    I cant believe the IAU would do such a nasty thing ! I will not let this happen , its time to take them down ! down to hell !

  • 2025. JADA | July 18th, 2007 at 4:23 am

    IAU likes to suck dicks !!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • 2007. ULA | July 17th, 2007 at 12:44 am
    I love you pluto. The IAU are just being cock suckers!
  • 2000. XANTHUS | July 17th, 2007 at 12:23 am

    FOR WHAT THEY HAVE DONE TO POOR PLUTO ! ! ! ! ! DOWN WITH IAU FOREVER ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

  • 1999. QUINNA | July 17th, 2007 at 12:19 am

    GIVE US BACK PLUTO YOU SHIT FACES ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

  • 1976. SONYA | July 16th, 2007 at 11:16 pm
    THE IAU MUST PAY ! ! ! ! !
  • 1957. XENIYA | July 16th, 2007 at 1:53 pm

    THE ASSHOLES WHO WORK AT IAU ETTER GIVE BACK PLUTO OR ELSE ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! ! !

  • 1956. Big Brother | July 16th, 2007 at 10:07 am
    To all of you Pluto Kooks
    WE are watching YOU!
    You have been warned

Well, I’m convinced, aren’t you ?

Pluto in context : the big eighty eight

March 30, 2007

Check this out : a web developer in Boston has made a stunning image of all eighty eight objects in the Solar System bigger than 200 miles across. (Miles ??!!??? Well, I guess that’s America for you …) . Pluto is number eighteen.

So .. wanna pick out a handful and give them a special name ? How about eardstapa ? (Anglo-Saxon for Wanderer). Maybe some of us will pick eight eardstapas and some will pick nine, and we can have jolly interesting reasons for why something ought to be an eardstapa, or not. The nine-eardstapa camp can start an internet petition, and the eight-eardstapa people can get a motion passed at an Assembly of Very Important People.

Planet is a word, people. Take a look at the Universe.

Screw Pluto Lets Bring Back Ceres

March 21, 2007

Edinburgh Students are just catching up with New Mexico Legislators…HST picture of Ceres as noted by the Bad Astronomer, the State of New Mexico recently passed legislation declaring that Pluto is a planet, at least while passing through New Mexican skies. The State of California has debated an even more amusing bill. If we are not careful the IAU will get billed by California State Schools and Museums for the cost of changing educational materials. One detects a certain knowingness here. This burning issue has now been spotted by our local student newspaper, who noted that Plutan Officials have so far not reciprocated by recognising the legitimacy of the State of New Mexico.

Pluto expert I is not, but I was at the infamous IAU vote in Prague, and wrote a post about it. This got discovered by Laurel Kornfeld, who spearheads the “Please Save Pluto” petition, and somehow we ended up having a debate on somebody else’s blog. I checked out the petition. The quality of the comments on the signatures page puts that shabby and hurried IAU debate to shame, of course. I tried to Vote but couldn’t make it work. Hmmm.

New Mexico feels a special connection because Clyde Tombaugh, discover of Pluto lived there. Maybe I can get the Scottish Executive to vote to bring back Ceres ? Ceres of course was called a planet for about fifty years until the list of similar size things between Mars and Jupiter made this a bit silly and it got demoted. Sound familiar?

Lets cook up some connections. I am the Regius Professor of Astronomy, and my predecessor was Charles Piazzi Smyth, whose godfather was Giuseppe Piazzi, who disovered Ceres in Palermo in 1801. My good friend Pepi Fabbiano Pepi Fabbianocomes from Palermo. (Well, ok, she lives in Cambridge now..) Best of all, just up the road in the Kingdom of Fife, is the town of Ceres. We can start a petition, hold an international conference in Ceres, and convince the Scottish Executive that the Honour of Alba is at stake, noting that exchange visits to Sicily would be rather jolly.

The Dawn mission, launching this year, is due to visit Ceres and will get there BEFORE New Horizons reaches Pluto ! Controversy and Competition – even better ! The time is now ! This sounds like a real winner.

If I can be bothered.

Quasar Type shows his ignorance of the Solar System

January 12, 2007

In my recent post on the Pluto vote, I referred to the “Pluto-Kuiper Express” mission. More than one person has pointed out to me that thei mission was cancelled. However it was replaced by the rather similar New Horizons Mission, and this was in fact the link I gave in the post. The latest news is that the Jupiter encounter is underway.

Re Pluto etc, I see that Mike Brown gave a talk at the ongoing AAS meeting about the properties of the new Pluto-like objects that led to Pluto’s demise. This is described in a news item on Cosmic Log . Its good to see that (a) Mike Brown is getting some credit and (b) some actual science is going on, as well as label-debates.

Pluto : My part in its downfall

January 10, 2007

OK. I confess. It was me. I killed Pluto. Well, it was me and about four hundred other random astronomers at the IAU General Assembly. As we sat there in the Grand Conference Hall, and slowly raised our pale yellow voting cards, Pluto’s fate was sealed.

I was reminded of that summer afternoon in Prague when I saw a recent news item about “plutoed” being the word of the year according to the American Dialect Society. Apparently to be pluto’ed means to be demoted in stature or value. The Pluto episode taught me two lessons; the first was about science and human culture; the second was about democracy.

But first, lets get one thing straight. Is Pluto’s change of status of scientific importance ? Nope. When Pluto stopped being a planet, did it fly out of its orbit ? Did its material composition suddenly change ? Did the known facts about the solar system alter ? Did theorists have to throw their pet models out the window ? Should we stop Pluto Express and bring it back ? Lift-off to PlutoNo, no, no, no and no. I find myself remembering the gag about how you tell the difference between a physicist and an astronomer. You show them both a scatterplot of random points. The physicist draws a curve through the points and claims that her model fits the data. The astronomer draws two vertical lines and labels the diagram Class I, Class II, Class III. (Where did I hear this joke ?)

Most of the two thousand astronomers at the meeting were not solar system types. Through the fortnight we were getting fed up with all this pointless stuff about Pluto, and worried that we would be looking foolish in the eyes of the world, debating how many angels fit on the head of a pin. By the time of the assembly on the last day, there were only 4-500 of us left, but again nearly all these were not planetary astronomers. Basically we looked at the resolutions and said right, does one of these look vaguely reasonable ? Yup, that one, ok right. Yes we agree. Next ? Can we do something serious now ?

Then something strange, magical, and twenty first century happened. The hall had wireless and many of us were on our laptops web browsing, checking email, etc as per normal. Within one minute of the vote, I heard somebody say “wow ! the news is on the BBC web site already !” To my left, Francoise Genova confirmed that the news had hit France too. I left the hall and spotted several colleagues on their mobiles to journalists. I got the subway back to my hotel, turned on the TV, and there was the story on CNN, complete with a grainy video of people voting with their yellow cards, that someone had taken inside the Hall on their mobile phone. A day later I was back in Edinburgh and my secretary was asking what Pluto had done to me and my daughter was frosting me for doing something so horrible.

I gradually realised this wasn’t just a big jokey thing. People actually cared. Furthermore, by and large the stories were fairly accurate. People were interested in the science – discovering lots of objects past Neptune, what this meant for the history of the solar system – but really it was a cultural thing. The planets are in movies, novels, school posters, TV quizzes, people’s dreams. Too often we take a patronising attitude to communicating science ; we know what is important, and try to explain it patiently to hoi polloi because it is good for them. But we are not priests holding sacred truth; we are technical experts. What matters and what does not is decided by human culture, owned by us all. Pluto belongs to the people.

Which brings me to Lesson B. The fateful vote on the last day was not the first Pluto vote. Some days earlier, a motion proposed by the Executive had been roundly rejected, partly because it was a daft idea, opening the floodgates to thousands of planets, and partly because it was felt to be foisted upon us by the Executive without adequate discussion. On the final day, Michael Rowan-Robinson, currently president of the RAS, made a beautiful speech. It had been necessary, he explained, to give the Executive a bloody nose; but now that open discussion had been had, and a reasonable proposition placed before us, the wise course of action was to close the issue. And so we did.

In the modern West, we are used to the idea that “democracy” means only picking a representative. The government makes all the decisions. At its root in fifth century Athens, it meant debate and decision by the Assembly of all citizens. (Not slaves of course…) Mostly, this ain’t workable. But every so often – the velvet revolution, the Pluto vote – the idea of mass democracy re-emerges. This is confusing for scientists. Truth cannot be decided by voting (whatever Paul Feyerabend says), but it cannot be decided by authority either. What is the right social organisation for science ?