Unscientific America: Page 2

By Sheril Kirshenbaum | May 28, 2009 9:32 am

uajacket.pngChris has already posted the table of contents and introductory passages from Unscientific America. Here’s a glimpse at what comes next:

strong enough to have “cleared the neighborhood around its orbit” of other significant objects and debris; and so forth.

People were aghast. Not only did they recoil at having to unlearn a childhood science lesson, and perhaps the chief thing they remembered about astronomy. On some fundamental level their sense of fair play had been violated, their love of the underdog provoked. Why suddenly kick Pluto out of the planet fraternity after letting it stay in for nearly a century, ever since its 1930 discovery? “No do-overs,” wrote one cartoonist.

Soon, newly launched Web sites began encouraging people to vote on Pluto’s status and override the experts. A Facebook group entitled “When I was your age, Pluto was a planet” drew in 1.5 million members. New Mexico, the state where Pluto’s discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, had built an astronomy program, took particular offense. Its House of Representatives voted unanimously to preserve Pluto’s planethood and named March 13, 2007, “Pluto Planet Day.” Surveying it all, the American Dialect Society selected “plutoed” as its 2006 word of the year—as in, “You plutoed me.” The society offered this definition: “to demote or devalue someone or something, as happened to the former planet Pluto when the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto no longer met its definition of a planet.”

Even many scientists were upset. “I’m embarrassed for astronomy,” remarked Alan Stern, the chief scientist on NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond.  Stern questioned the legitimacy of the Pluto demotion process: “Less than 5 percent of the world’s astronomers voted,” he charged. Other experts also dissented, even as some wags dubbed the IAU the “Irrelevant Astronomical Union.” Comedians had a field day. Science had opted to “cut and run” on Pluto, quipped Bill Maher. The onetime planet had been forced to join its “own kind” in the outer solar system, “separate but equal,” added Stephen Colbert. There were countless other jokes, many of which made the scientific community, supposedly calm and hyperrational, sound more than a little capricious in this instance.

Ultimately, the Pluto decision pleased almost no one; it may even be redebated at the next IAU meeting, slated for August 2009 in Rio de Janeiro. But if that’s the case, how could this planetary crack-up happen….

Stay tuned, page 3 is coming tomorrow (now it is live). For more information and to preorder from Amazon, click here.


Comments (10)

  1. Ok, you sold me. Ordered!

  2. And if the IAU drops the ball and refuses to reopen the issue at the 2009 General Assembly, their definition that almost no one likes may fall into oblivion by default, with most teachers, educators, even astronomers refusing to use it. The best chance for a formal overturning of the 2006 definition is New Horizons’ arrival at Pluto in 2015, the same year Dawn arrives at Ceres. Information from New Horizons will undoubtedly support Pluto’s status as a planet.

  3. Blogger

    >>Ok, you sold me. Ordered!<<

    Based on this? You're too easy. :)

  4. The chief thing people remember about astronomy is Pluto being a planet?

  5. will it be in kindle format….please please please

  6. The whole “grandfathering” arguments make no sense.

    The Sun was a considered a planet waaaaay longer than Pluto was….

  7. DenverAstro

    The IAU can go sniff dog doodie. Pluto was a planet, is a planet, and always will be a planet.
    I have decided this and as I am master of the universe, you must all accept my edict on this issue. That’s it, no more arguement, discussion, or dissention. Now, wasn’t that easy? :-)

  8. As a professional astronomer, I can say that the IAU was way off base, the new definition flawed, and the voting process suspect of shady doings.

    Pluto is the 9th planet in the Solar System. Period !

    See an info sheet here:



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About Sheril Kirshenbaum

Sheril Kirshenbaum is a research scientist with the Webber Energy Group at the University of Texas at Austin's Center for International Energy and Environmental Policy where she works on projects to enhance public understanding of energy issues as they relate to food, oceans, and culture. She is involved in conservation initiatives across levels of government, working to improve communication between scientists, policymakers, and the public. Sheril is the author of The Science of Kissing, which explores one of humanity's fondest pastimes. She also co-authored Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future with Chris Mooney, chosen by Library Journal as one of the Best Sci-Tech Books of 2009 and named by President Obama's science advisor John Holdren as his top recommended read. Sheril contributes to popular publications including Newsweek, The Washington Post, Discover Magazine, and The Nation, frequently covering topics that bridge science and society from climate change to genetically modified foods. Her writing is featured in the anthology The Best American Science Writing 2010. In 2006 Sheril served as a legislative Knauss science fellow on Capitol Hill with Senator Bill Nelson (D-FL) where she was involved in energy, climate, and ocean policy. She also has experience working on pop radio and her work has been published in Science, Fisheries Bulletin, Oecologia, and Issues in Science and Technology. In 2007, she helped to found Science Debate; an initiative encouraging candidates to debate science research and innovation issues on the campaign trail. Previously, Sheril was a research associate at Duke University's Nicholas School of the Environment and has served as a Fellow with the Center for Biodiversity and Conservation at the American Museum of Natural History and as a Howard Hughes Research Fellow. She has contributed reports to The Nature Conservancy and provided assistance on international protected area projects. Sheril serves as a science advisor to NPR's Science Friday and its nonprofit partner, Science Friday Initiative. She also serves on the program committee for the annual meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS). She speaks regularly around the country to audiences at universities, federal agencies, and museums and has been a guest on such programs as The Today Show and The Daily Rundown on MSNBC. Sheril is a graduate of Tufts University and holds two masters of science degrees in marine biology and marine policy from the University of Maine. She co-hosts The Intersection on Discover blogs with Chris Mooney and has contributed to DeSmogBlog, Talking Science, Wired Science and Seed. She was born in Suffern, New York and is also a musician. Sheril lives in Austin, Texas with her husband David Lowry. Interested in booking Sheril Kirshenbaum to speak at your next event? Contact Hachette Speakers Bureau 866.376.6591 info@hachettespeakersbureau.com For more information, visit her website or email Sheril at srkirshenbaum@yahoo.com.


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