Saturday, March 14, 2015

Quote of the Day (Neil deGrasse Tyson’s Pluto Predicament—and Parents’)

“Being a public face of science isn’t always easy. He [astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson] has received hate mail over his support of reclassifying Pluto as a dwarf planet. Teachers and children have protested that, for one, people can no longer use an old mnemonic device for remembering Mercury, Venus, Earth and the other planets: ‘My very educated mother just served us nine pizzas.’ He says he has gotten letters asking, ‘What will my very educated mother serve us now? Nine what?’”—Alexandra Wolfe, “Weekend Confidential: Neil deGrasse Tyson—The Star Scientist’s Latest Projects Build on His Quest to Educate the Public,” The Wall Street Journal, March 7-8, 2015

None of the trials experienced by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, would have occurred but for the announcement 85 years ago yesterday by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh that he had discovered a new planet at the edge of the solar system. Who would have thought that such a cold heavenly body like Pluto could cause such scientific and educational heat all these years later?

The 23-year-old Tombaugh, then associated with Lowell Observatory, thought he saw something unusual when he was photographing the sky in mid-February 1930. Two pictures he took indicated an object’s movement against the stars. He concluded that it was something other astronomers at the observatory had anticipated for a quarter century: the presence of a planet beyond Neptune.

Lowell Observatory waited until March 13 to disclose this to the world. This wasn’t done at random; the date represented what would have been the 75th birthday of the observatory’s founder, Percival Lowell. (The latter's prediction that the planet existed, in fact, was trumpeted by the observatory more than Tombaugh's own discovery.) And that, if you ask me, is how the modern skepticism about Pluto’s true status originated.

Lowell was a member of a Massachusetts clan that uniquely combined affluence, influence and imagination. While his parents' money came from textile manufacturing, brother Abbott served as president of Harvard, while sister Amy and distant older cousin James Russell were poets.

It may have been the latter strain in the family that led many scientists to conclude that Percival was taking poetic license when, pursuing Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli’s observation of canali (helpfully mistranslated by someone else not as “channels” but as “canals”), he concluded that intelligent beings existed on Mars. That deduction fascinated the general public, which, partly as a result, boosted the careers of H.G. Wells (the late-19th century The War of the Worlds) and Ray Walston (the 1960s sitcom My Favorite Martian). But his scientific peers remained more skeptical.

Those scientists were only slightly less unconvinced when Percival’s combination of mathematical deduction and movements in photos examined over time led him to hypothesize, in 1905, about the existence of Planet X. But his family fortune was large enough that, not only was he able to establish an observatory (named in his honor, naturally) in Flagstaff, Arizona, but he could also continue to fund research in this institution pursuing his theories after his death in 1916.

Tombaugh’s discovery was widely embraced after its announcement. But even then, there were some dissenters. Some weren’t crazy about the observatory, its founder and his family.

Surely, the flair for writing that seemed part of Percival Lowell’s genes fired the imagination of many readers. They loved the thought that Mars was "a great red star that rises at sunset through the haze about the eastern horizon, and then, mounting higher with the deepening night, blazes forth against the dark background of space with a splendor that outshines Sirius and rivals the giant Jupiter himself." All very nice, other scientists thought, but how about more mathematics to support his ideas? Weren’t they beautiful enough for him?

Still other scientists thought that for Percival, wishing would make it so. He hadn’t sufficiently explored alternative hypotheses to explain the phenomena surrounding the object he saw, they felt. You can practically hear Princeton astronomer Henry Norris Russell sighing when, in an obituary on Lowell, he cautioned: "[i]f the observer knows in advance what to expect . . . his judgment of the facts before his eyes will be warped by this knowledge, no matter how faithfully he may try to clear his mind of all prejudice. The preconceived opinion unconsciously, whether he will or not, influences the very report of his senses."

And there was a woman in the picture: Lowell’s widow Constance. Those in the proper social circles in which Lowell moved may have thought that he couldn’t just marry his loyal, affectionate secretary, Wrexie Louise Leonard, but they were appalled by his eventual choice in a mate: rich, quarrelsome Constance Savage Keith. 

After Percival’s death, Constance contested in the courts for a decade his bequest to the observatory. Even after the lawsuit ended, she wanted to discard the long scientific tradition of naming planets after ancient deities and instead call the newly discovered heavenly body after her husband.

Sure, there are all kinds of scientific justification for why Pluto is being downgraded (e.g., it’s too small to affect the orbit of Neptune, the way Lowell had predicted), but it’s all cosmic fairy dust compared with these personal issues, if you ask me.

There’s another reason why I’m not expelling Pluto as a major planet: It took me so long as a youngster to remember it in the first place. I had to learn about its existence and its relative place in the solar system without benefit of the neat mnemonic device that so many schoolchildren were provided by their helpful teachers. Having gone to this much trouble to remember something I've never even seen, I’ll be damned if I’m going to forget it at this point.

And if we demote Pluto the planet, what do we do with Pluto the dog? Mickey Mouse’s lovable canine had appeared onscreen in early 1930, but he didn’t have a name—an identity—until Tombaugh’s discovery. So, what happens to him now?

I refuse to believe that Disney would vaporize its Pluto the way that the scientific elite seem to be intent on doing with this big object in outer space. It would be akin to the Vatican demoting St. Nicholas of Myra as a major saint in the 1970s. I may have been a faithful Catholic boy, but I was not going to part with St. Nick—and I urge Disney (the Vatican of animation, if you will) not to consign their figure beloved by children to a galaxy far, far away, either, no matter what a bunch of scientists now say about the heavenly body that inspired its name.

(The photo accompanying this post shows Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson at the November 29, 2005 meeting of the NASA Advisory Council, in Washington, D.C. Despite the impression on his face, he is NOT trying to figure out what to tell all those third-graders around the country who want to know what in the world he’s done with Pluto.)

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