mabfan (Michael A. Burstein) (mabfan) wrote,
mabfan (Michael A. Burstein)

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.
Tags: astronomy, books, boston, personal, pluto, science, space

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