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Talk: Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Demotion of Pluto

Last night, Nomi and I met Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, for the second time. As I noted earlier, Tyson was speaking at the Newton Free Library to promote his new book The Pluto Files, which is all about his role in the controversy that led to the demotion of Pluto. Since Nomi and I are, respectively, the vice-president and president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet, also known as SP3, we felt compelled to attend.

Back, back! Back, back!
Neil deGrasse Tyson defends himself from the defenders of Pluto. Photo copyright ©2009 by SP3.

Also, Tyson is a wonderful speaker. He's great with both adults and children, and always has that air about him as if he's looking at the universe through a child's eyes of wonder.

Our good friend Andrew Greene (530nm330hz) had told us about the talk, so we all went together. First, though, he picked us up at the T station, and we had dinner with him, Heather, and their family. (The lasagna was most excellent.) Then Andrew, Nomi, and I headed off to the library a little early for the talk.

When we arrived, we weren't sure at first where to sit. I like to sit in back sometimes, so as to get to the autographing line sooner. But we spotted Melissa (radegund_lj) sitting in a row further up front, and we decided to join her. I'm very glad we did, as you shall soon see.

Tyson started his talk only about five minutes late, and by the time he did, the room was packed. As promised, his talk was most,ly about the Pluto controversy and his own personal role in it. He talked about how when they renovated the Hayden Planetarium, they decided to group the planets in a way that left Pluto out of the list for classification reasons. No one noticed, he said, until a New York Times reporter brought it to the attention of one of their science writers. Tyson vividly remembers the article that appeared on the front page of the January 22, 2001 issue of the New York Times, Pluto's Not a Planet? Only in New York. I actually remember that article vividly as well, as in some ways it began the process that led to the fall of Pluto.

(By the way, if you want to see the perspective of the reporter who broke the story, he has two blog posts on the subject from last month: How I (Ken Chang) Tormented Neil deGrasse Tyson and How Many Planets Do You Want in the Solar System?.)

I'm not going to go into all the details of Pluto's demotion, as much of it I've already discussed here and elsewhere. However, something amusing happened at last night's talk.

Tyson is a dynamic speaker who engages the audience throughout his discussion. He also tends to digress. So early in his talk, when he was discussing the renovation of the Hayden Planetarium, he lost his train of thought and asked the audience what he was talking about.

"Hayden Planetarium renovation!" I piped up.

He thanked me, jokingly invited me to sit up front, and went on. Then, a few minutes later, when he was discussing the IAU's decision and the three qualifications that define a planet, he once again asked the audience where he was.

"The three things that define a planet," I said.

He thanked me again, and said that given how clearly I was paying attention to the talk, I must be on his side.

"Actually, I'm the president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet," I replied.

That got a big laugh from the audience, along with some applause, and Tyson raised an eyebrow with amusement. Now he understood why I was paying such close attention.

A little later on, he was trying to find a letter in his book to read aloud. As it so happens, I had a library copy of the book with me and knew where the letter was, and called out, "Page 160."

After his talk, he took questions from the audience. I kept my hand down, but Nomi raised her hand, as she wanted to ask her question about the problem with creating a classification term called a "dwarf planet" that is not considered a subset of the term "planet" itself. But when Tyson had time for only one more question, he turned to me and said that the president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet ought to be allowed the final question.

To which I said, "Actually, I'd like to defer to my wife, the vice-president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet." That got a laugh.

Nomi asked her question, and Tyson used it as a springboard to a beautiful conclusion about the wonders of astronomy. He said that the Planetarium never used the term "dwarf planet" in the exhibit but that the media kept attempting to make him make a statement about the demotion of Pluto. He also said that, in his view, we need a whole new lexicon for talking about the objects in the solar system, because the word planet does not have a firm definition, thus leading to confusion.

For those of you who are wondering, Tyson's basic thesis is that the term "planet" is not a very useful one. It was last defined by the ancient Greeks to mean "wanderer," and what's more important than defining a planet is really understanding the properties of the bodies in the solar system. As for whether demoting Pluto is an insult to Clyde Tombaugh, Tyson asked us, is it better for Tombaugh to be remembered as the discover of the last and the tiniest and the most insignificant of one class of bodies, or as the discoverer of the very first of an entirely new class of bodies?

After the Q&A ended, Nomi and I got on the line to buy a copy of The Pluto Files and get it signed. It was a long line, with odd merging, but folks were patient and polite. We ended up behind an astronomy club of middle-school students, and it warmed my heart to see them taking an interest in astronomy.

Finally, Nomi and I got to the head of the line, and as the photo above shows, Dr. Tyson defended himself from SP3 quite well. We did tell him how one of our main motivations was to get folks interested in astronomy, and we also told him about our chance to debate Owen Gingerich and Brian Marsden in the Great Pluto Debate two years ago at the Clay Center Observatory. Dr. Tyson was very happy to sign our book.

Dr. Tyson Signs a Book for His Opponents Dr. Tyson Signs a Book for His Opponents
Photo copyright ©2009 by SP3.

Our friend Andrew told us about something he observed when standing near the signing table. Tyson apparently is a bibliophile who understands the world of book collecting. When someone presented him with a copy of his book Death By Black Hole, Tyson looked at the indicia page and noted that it was a first edition, first printing. He explained the fan that if he signed just his name, the book would be more valuable than if he personalized it over to the owner. Which led to a discussion of associational copies and their value.

In our case, of course, we figured the book would have an associational value, so I asked him to sign it to Nomi and me for SP3, which he did.

Dr. Tyson's Message to Supporters of Pluto Dr. Tyson's Message to Supporters of Pluto
Photo copyright ©2009 by SP3.

I shook hands with Dr. Tyson after we were done, and I could tell that he'd been signing a lot of books. It kind of reminded me of my own publication party back in November.

We said good-bye to Melissa, and Andrew drove Nomi and me home. All in all, a nice start to my birthday weekend.

As for Dr. Tyson and Pluto... well, the IAU has another General Assembly this summer, in Rio de Jainero, Brazil. I suspect Dr. Alan Stern will be there to push for a restoration of Pluto's status. We'll see what happens.

But We All Share a Love for Astronomy! But We All Share a Love for Astronomy!
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Burstein, and Nomi S. Burstein may disagree on Pluto, but we all agree that Dr. Tyson is a gentleman. Photo copyright ©2009 by SP3.

Copyright ©2009 by Michael A. Burstein.


LOL! That signature is priceless.
I had a good time! He's very good at explaining complicated things to a nonscientific audience.

Now I have a mental image of the "icy bodies" in the Kuiper belt... ;) (Tyson said he has to be careful when talking to kids, because he realized that when he said "icy bodies" they were envisioning actual frozen dead people in orbit.)
"actual frozen dead people in orbit"

Well, what else does one do when the graveyards get full?

and it warmed my heart to see them taking an interest in astronomy

That is a very great thing.

That would have been to great to attend.
Sounds like it was a terrific evening. Yay! And I love what he wrote in your book.
You've spoken strongly and eloquently before about your belief in strong creator's rights under copyright law, and you've always been diligent about labeling all your photographs as copyrighted material. So I'm a little surprised to see you indicate that some of these photos are (c) SP3. Surely you know that copyright of photographs are held by the photographer unless otherwise assigned. Did you really make the photographer assign the copyright to SP3?
He didn't make me; I offered.

In particular, when someone is writing Michael's biography in 50 years, I want them to be able to use these pictures without having to hunt down me or my heirs. I don't want these pictures to become orphaned works, so as soon as I returned Michael's camera, I offered to assign him the copyrights.
I should have known!
As the photographer said, I had planned to leave the copyrights in his name, but he assigned them over to me. To make it clear that I didn't take the photos myself, we decided that the photo copyright should be assigned to SP3. (I guess it's a work-for-hire.)
Warning: highly technical hair-splitting legal opinion from not-a-lawyer: It's not work-for-hire unless the written agreement (and it must be in writing) explicitly says it's work-for-hire.
And work-for-hire would require compensation, wouldn't it? And that would also affect expiration.

I had the copyright, and I assigned it to SP3. It's clean, it's simple, but it fails to clear its orbit.
It's clean, it's simple, but it fails to clear its orbit.

This is great story - thanks for sharing it. Was there any mention of the "4 planets plus rubble" classification?
Actually, yes. He noted that if we lived on Jupiter, we probably would have designated Earth as not a planet.
Oh, good. I think my preferred counts are 14, then 4, then whatever you get if you add in the spherical moons - 31 if I count right.
Hi, Mike, and happy birthday!
It looks like Tyson is being hounded by the Pluto supporters. He and I have had a back and forth email exchange after he found my Pluto blog on his own. He actually had his publisher mail me a free review copy! On Tuesday evening, March 10, he and Alan Stern will be at the Hayden for a debate on Pluto (though he is listed as the moderator!), and I plan to be there. He may not be that pleased to see me though, as I have been refuting his arguments all over the Internet.

Pluto is not the last and most insignificant of the planets. Using the definition that states a planet is a spherical body orbiting the sun, Ceres is the smallest planet. And small does not necessarily mean insignificant. Of course, I'm preaching to the choir here, but I just had to make mention of this.
I referred my husband to your writeup and he sent me this at the American Museum of Natural History:

On March 10 Dr. Tyson will be part of the Isaac Asimov Memorial
Debate, "From Planets to Plutoids ? Our New Solar System".


So it looks like we'll be going. Brian is another defender of Pluto's plantetaryness. :)
Have fun, and please do give Dr. Tyson our regards.
Regarding associational value, the family has some original works of art (and many lithos) that have been personalized by the artist. In these cases, the associative value goes up greatly, I've been told. My guess is that it would be the same for older books didn't get large print runs.

Your case is kind of cool.
Well, I'll still be supporting Dr. Tyson and thinking you and Alan (Stern) are crazy. ;)

Granted, I understand why Alan is so ramped up about Pluto, given his particular research interests. (I met him a few times during my university days, when he was finishing up his PhD. He's a good one.)

Glad you all had a bit of fun.
Dr. Tyson is a frequent guest on Keith Olberman's show Countdown on MSNBC. I like how he explains things. Good sense of humor, too.

Which Hayden Planetarium

When referring to "The Hayden Planetarium", it might be good to specify which one. I initially assumed you meant the one in Boston, but only later figured out that you must have meant the one in NY.

Re: Which Hayden Planetarium

Ah. I probably should have said something, although Dr. Tyson is enough of a media personality that I tend to assume most people know which one he directs.

Re: Which Hayden Planetarium

Why is it still the Hayden Planetarium? When I hear the phrase, my mind conjures up the 1930s building - red brick, green dome - where I saw many Sky Shows and took occasional classes in elementary school. The new building is completely different, even using a new projector.

Re: Which Hayden Planetarium

I have no idea. Maybe they explain on their website. If I were to guess, though, I would say it's because the Hayden Foundation did donate the original money.
Good timing. I got around to reading this post yesterday afternoon, and then, not two hours later, I saw Dr. Tyson on the street in Manhattan (specifically, West 53rd Street -- he was walking east while I was headed West -- between Broadway and 8th Avenue). I didn't have time to stop him to say hi, but he seemed to be headed somewhere, too.
I looked up the Kenneth Chang who wrote the articles you cited, but that was the "other Ken Chang", who was in my year at school, but whom I didn't know. The one I knew was in Harold's year, and in Infinity Ltd., the late lamented Princeton SF club.

Come to think of it, there was an Anthony Romero and an Antonio Romero. Anthony became the head of the ACLU, but I never met him, and Antonio was the guy I knew (we met at a pre-frosh party at the Princeton Club in NY, and have stayed friendly). Also a techie guy.

December 2016

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