Unscientific America: Page 1

By Chris Mooney | May 27, 2009 2:02 pm

As promised, in anticipation of the book release, we’re now going to dribble out part of the first chapter of Unscientific America, entitled “Why Pluto Matters”:

Why Pluto Matters

“Viva Pluto!”

“Stop Planetary Discrimination!”

“Pluto Was Framed!”

Dear Earth: You Suck. Love, Pluto.”

“Pluto is still a planet. Bitches.”

Thus read a small sampling of defiant T-shirt and bumper sticker slogans after the general assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), meeting in Prague in late 2006, voted to excommunicate the ninth planet from the solar system. The union’s action abruptly stripped Pluto of a status as much cultural, historical, and even mythological as scientific.

In the astronomers’ defense, it had become increasingly difficult to justify calling Pluto a planet without doing the same for several other more recently discovered heavenly objects, one of which, the distant freezing rock now known as Eris (formerly “Xena”), turns out to be larger. But that didn’t mean the experts had to fire Pluto from its previous place in the firmament. In defining the word planet, they were arguably engaged not so much in science as in semantic exercise. Instead of ruling Pluto out, they could just as easily have ruled a few new planets in, as a group of scientists, historians, and journalists had in fact proposed. But the IAU rejected that compromise for a variety of technical reasons: Pluto is much smaller than the other eight planets; it orbits the sun in a far more elliptical manner; its gravitational pull is not strong enough to have “cleared the neighborhood around its orbit” of other significant objects and debris; and so forth.

People were aghast….

Tomorrow we’ll continue this passage. Click here for the table of contents for Unscientific America. And click here (when the link is live) for page 2.

For more information and to preorder from Amazon, click here.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Space, Unscientific America

Comments (13)

  1. Gaythia

    I am ordering this from my locally owned bookshop. At a price differential that would probably enable them to purchase it from Amazon, but hey! didn’t you want some stops to still be in business for that book tour?

    Also, I thought that those of you who are still paid for your work had a vested interest in keeping it that way.

    Was Pluto Framed? Ought we be more inclusive? Is that Science?

    Save the suspense! We still have over a month to go for the book release date.

  2. What is so hard difficult about the concept that there are more categories of planets than just the two we have been familiar with–terrestrial planets and gas giants? Where is the problem in designating dwarf planets as a subclass of planets that are planets because they are in hydrostatic equilibrium but of the dwarf subcategory because they do not dominate their orbits? When four percent of the IAU dictate a nonsensical definition saying dwarf planets are not planets and ignoring what objects are while basing a definition solely on where they are, scientists should not be surprised for a public reaction of scorn and outrage.

  3. Dan

    Isn’t settling on broadly-used classificatory criteria a bit too important to most scientific enterprise (especially enterprises like astronomy that rely heavily on massive amounts of cooperation among many distant participants) to be cast aside as a “semantic exercise”?

    I know, I know: you probably cover that on the next page.

  4. Jeffrey Beall

    So far, it looks like the book’s content will be similar to Neil deGrasse Tyson’s The Pluto Files.

  5. Dan…how dare you come on this blog and ask scholarly academic questions? ;>

    Jeffrey–definitely not. Definitely, definitely not.

  6. I recommend David Weintraub’s “Is Pluto a Planet?”

    It goes through the history of our knowledge of the solar system, starting from the seven classical planets (Sun, Moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Saturn, and Jupiter), through the realization that the Sun and Moon were different (the Moon is the only thing that really goes around the Earth, the others go around the Sun), through the discovery of other planets (including, briefly, Ceres), through the perverse discovery of Pluto and the non-discovery of Vulcan… and on to the discovery of the Kuiper Belt, of which Pluto is a member. Weintraub does come up with a yes or no answer, but that’s not the point– the point is understanding what’s really out there, as that understanding is more important than semantic naming.

  7. Mark F.

    I’m definitely looking forward to this book. Will there be an audiobook version like there was for Stormworld?

    As for Pluto- Having read The Pluto Files, I’m with Neil deGrasse Tyson on this one. Not a planet.

  8. Perhaps stars are very massive planets on fire. Or is it that planets are cold, stellar cinders? I forget which does not matter more or less in the scheme of things.

    But at least I know I love Sheril and Chris. What a pleasure to read your thoughts.

    Keep up the good work!

    Now back to fighting against the Know Nothings in the Republican War on Science.

  9. Thanks everyone. Mark, currently I’m unaware of any audiobook plans….

  10. Weintraub’s book is very informative and presents the many aspects of this debate in a clear and concise way. Mark F., before you decide for certain on a position, you should read Weintraub’s book, just to get a broader perspective on the subject.

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About Chris Mooney

Chris is a science and political journalist and commentator and the author of three books, including the New York Times bestselling The Republican War on Science--dubbed "a landmark in contemporary political reporting" by Salon.com and a "well-researched, closely argued and amply referenced indictment of the right wing's assault on science and scientists" by Scientific American--Storm World, and Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, co-authored by Sheril Kirshenbaum. They also write "The Intersection" blog together for Discover blogs. For a longer bio and contact information, see here.

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