Pluto, the Moon, & Dave Chappelle

What do Pluto (the planet), Queen guitarist Brian May, the Israeli Beresheet lunar lander, tardigrades, comedian Dave Chappelle, and Netflix, all have in common?

Firstly, that they’ve all been very prominent in my news reader (and perhaps yours as well). Secondly, they all deal with socially divisive things (some more than others). Thirdly, they all caught my eye because they have to do with things I feel a bit strongly about (some more than others).

Let me explain…

Let’s start in the outskirts of the solar system with (the planet) Pluto.

Ever since the International Astronomical Union (IAU) created a more restrictive definition of what constitutes a “planet” a controversy has swirled around the ninth planet of our system.

The new definition is designed to prevent us from having hundreds of “planets” in the outer regions, which I think most agree is a Good Thing.

Besides: No one would ever be able to create a phrase such as My Very Easy Method Just Speeds Up Naming Planets” for hundreds of planets.

[As an aside, I’ve never really understood the reason for phrases like this. You end up having to memorize something, so why not just memorize the planets in the first place?]

In any event, Pluto doesn’t fit into the new definition, so it was officially eliminated from planet-hood.

Many people, myself very much included, took this badly. Admittedly for purely sentimental reasons (although as we learn more and more about Pluto, it seems more and more planet-like).

Recently NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine weighed in. In a Twitter video he wrote:

Just so you know, in my view, Pluto is a planet, and you can write that the NASA administrator declared Pluto a planet once again. I’m sticking by that. It’s the way I learned it and I’m committed to it.

And he isn’t the only one at NASA. Various technical arguments have been made, for instance that Pluto is big enough — that is, has enough gravity — to be spherical. It also has moons, an atmosphere, and tectonic activity.

I’ve always argued that, regardless of the definition, Pluto is grandfathered in. Once a planet, always a planet. You can’t take away planet status (but you can choose not to grant it in the first place — entirely different situation).

Now a famous rock-and-roll guitarist has weighed in on the matter.

And not just any famous rock-and-roll guitarist, but Brian May (who wrote “We Will Rock You” and many other Queen hits). And we should maybe pay attention, because he’s also a PhD astrophysicist.

What I really liked is that he managed to add a new take on the matter:

“Pluto was discovered and named as a planet awhile before I was born,” May wrote on Instagram. “At that time it was generally instinctively understood that a planet was one of a family of roughly spherical objects that orbited the sun (rather than orbiting something else).”

Essentially he proposes that Pluto is a “classical” planet — and we can view is as defining the outer edge of the classical planet zone.

Love it!

So, historical and classical status, plus various technical arguments, make it pretty clear now that Pluto was mistakenly excluded from the planet rolls.

I really think it’s time for the IAU to change its tune.

§ §

A bit closer to home (but not quite on Earth yet), when it turned out the crashed Israeli lunar lander, Beresheet (which means “In the Beginning”), contained a small cargo of desiccated tardigrades, it generated a lot of news.

At first it was deemed kind of cute. “Water bears on the moon!” cried the headlines. One can imagine the SF thriller in which radiation mutates them into huge Earth-invading monsters.

But then a counter-reaction occurred (doesn’t it always).

NASA Goddard-based astrobiologist Monica Vidaurri tweeted:

It is not cute. It is the result of a major gap in accountability for planetary protection and ethics between public and private science, and we have no idea what can happen as a result. It means that the private sector can keep doing as it wishes. It means they don’t answer to any protections/ethics office. And the fact that nothing is happening in terms of policy, and that decontamination standards STILL have not been updated, is dangerous beyond imagination.

[…]

What you are doing is showing excitement at the long history of forcing OUR values, systems, and in this case, living beings on another world. That is not our right, and it is not our job. If we carry on with that mentality, even if we took away the ‘colonization’ word the premise is the same. It’s colonialism. It’s imperialism.

Although I think there are some good points there about accountability, the reaction seems a little over-the-top. Tardigrades on the Moon are not a problem. (Consider that the Apollo astronauts left bags of feces and other waste, plus microbes from cabin air and space suit surfaces.)

The thing is, the Moon is about as harsh an environment as it gets — hard vacuum, radiation, not a drop of moisture, and extreme temperature ranges.

Plus, the tardigrades would have to be retrieved and revived (if that was even possible at this point).

There’s an article (originally in the National Review) by Robert Zubrin that discusses this intelligently, although I think parts of it also go a bit far.

Zubrin writes:

Moreover, there are some deeper problems here. In the first place, who gave the Moon to astrobiologists? Giving the Moon to astrobiologists is like giving the stratosphere to ichthyologists.

Okay, fair enough. The Moon is a dead rock mainly interesting as a close way station or astronomical observatory (and perhaps some mining).

He goes on to talk about “contamination” of Mars:

In contrast to the Moon, the Red Planet is indeed of significant justifiable interest to astrobiology. […] So life could have developed on Mars, and even if it can no longer survive on the surface, it might have left behind fossils, and even still persist in underground hydrothermally warmed reservoirs. So wouldn’t science be served by banning humans from Mars?

No. Fossil hunting on Earth requires hiking long distances through unimproved terrain, doing heavy work with pickaxes, and performing delicate work peeling off layers of sedimentary rocks to reveal the remains of life trapped within. […] As for the objection that if we send humans to Mars we won’t know if the life we find there is native or something we brought ourselves, it is nonsense. If it is native life, it will have left fossils or other biomarkers to prove its existence on Mars before our arrival. That’s how we know there was life on Earth prior to the appearance of humans here.

All of which I’d agree with. But his closing goes a bit far for my taste:

It’s not just a matter of who gave the Moon to astrobiologists, but also of who gave the universe to professional scientists. Humans do not exist to serve scientific research. Scientific research exists to serve humanity. […]

Our presence will not “contaminate” these worlds, but enrich them fabulously. Settling them is not “imperialism,” it is construction. Humans are not vermin. We are creators, not destroyers. A living world is better than a dead world. A world of thinking beings is better than a world bereft of them. We are not the enemies of life and thought, we are their vanguard. It is our place to continue the work of creation.

That last paragraph there didn’t sit entirely well with me. I think there is a better middle ground between “don’t touch anything” and “touch everything.”

§ §

Finally back here on Earth, comedian-actor Dave Chappelle has a new Netflix special that’s gotten people’s knickers bunched up.

I watched it the other night and liked it enough to give it a Netflix thumbs up, although I admit part of it was reactionary. It was not one of his best specials — not for being bad or offensive to me, but for being kind of boring.

I don’t usually watch the clock during a comedy special, but I did here. Others have said the same thing.

But the strong reactions have come from people who don’t like Chappelle’s bits — in particular his jokes about transsexuals, but also comments he made about Michael Jackson.

He’s also gotten a reaction to a very clever bit about abortion that has the left feeling uncomfortable. He starts by asserting that women absolutely have the choice and that men have no say in the matter — it is strictly between the woman and her doctor.

But then he goes on to point out he should have a choice, too, that he shouldn’t be obligated to support the child. The audience, typically liberal, is with him on the first point, but starts to get a bit uncomfortable about that point.

And then he delivers the punchline: “If I’m wrong, then maybe we’re wrong.”

Which really made the audience (and viewers) uncomfortable.

And here’s what I would say: It is the job of good comedians to make you uncomfortable. Comedians have the unique position in society of being able to talk about our darkest aspects — it’s the main reason I love comedy.

I especially love comedians of color and female comedians (and extra especially female comedians of color), because they speak truths about their experience that can be found nowhere else I know.

I say we listen carefully.

And for cryin’ out loud, they are comedians. They are telling truths through jokes, not defining policy. Get over yourselves.

§ §

Stay funny, my friends!

About Wyrd Smythe

The canonical fool on the hill watching the sunset and the rotation of the planet and thinking what he imagines are large thoughts. View all posts by Wyrd Smythe

9 responses to “Pluto, the Moon, & Dave Chappelle

  • SelfAwarePatterns

    I’m overall neutral on whether Pluto is a planet. It seems like an arbitrary definitional matter. Culture 1000 years from now may or may not pay attention to our designations. The sun and moon were called planets when everyone thought everything orbited the earth.

    That said, if we’re going to call Pluto a planet, to be consistent, we should probably at least also call Eris a planet. Or if the criteria is once a planet, always a planet, then Ceres makes the cut, since it was considered a planet for several decades in the 19th century.

    Regarding tardigrades contaminating the moon, people need to get a grip. Historical colonialism had real identifiable victims. Who would be the victims if we leave Earth organisms lying around? There is an argument that we should try not to contaminate alien biospheres, but as you note, no one thinks that’s a thing on the moon. I’m more concerned about the mess Musk is about to make in Earth orbit.

    • Wyrd Smythe

      “It seems like an arbitrary definitional matter.”

      I don’t agree it’s all that arbitrary given the cultural history of its discovery, naming, and place in school books and kids’ minds for almost a century. (More than a century if we go back to the earliest sightings in 1909.)

      “Culture 1000 years from now may or may not pay attention to our designations.”

      I doubt civilization’s ability to last that long, so I don’t care even a little bit. 😀 😀

      They can do whatever they want, I’m concerned about now. (Who can say: maybe they’ll honor their ancient ancestors — we still use names handed down from twice that long.)

      “That said, if we’re going to call Pluto a planet, to be consistent, we should probably at least also call Eris a planet.”

      Of course you’re entitled to your view on this, but I feel it misses my point. I’m not disputing the IAU definition at all — I agree with it. I just don’t think it should be applied retroactively.

      I also really like Brian May’s idea about the “classical” solar system and how Pluto represents the boundary of that classical view. I find that quite elegant. (It’s almost a Newton-Einstein split, or a classical-quantum split. For nearly everything we do in daily life, classical Newton is just fine.)

      “Or if the criteria is once a planet, always a planet, then Ceres makes the cut, since it was considered a planet for several decades in the 19th century.”

      Okay, that’s a good “fly in the ointment” argument, but I’m not sure several decades in the 1800s quite rises to the level of making Ceres an official planet. (It was certainly never a planet in any educational materials I ever saw.)

      Maybe the best counter-argument there is that no one alive thinks Ceres is a planet. Lots of people alive today (passionately 😉 ) insist Pluto is a planet. Some very old people may still remember its official discovery in 1930.

      The other thing is that Pluto has a mean radius of 1,188 km, and Eris has a mean radius of 1,163 km, but Ceres is less than half their size with a mean radius of 469 km (it’s close to being one-third their size).

      All told, I don’t think Ceres quite makes the cut. Sorry!

      “Historical colonialism had real identifiable victims. Who would be the victims if we leave Earth organisms lying around?”

      Exactly.

      “I’m more concerned about the mess Musk is about to make in Earth orbit.”

      Heh, yeah, likewise. Number me among that guy’s major detractors!

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “I’m not disputing the IAU definition at all — I agree with it.”

        I personally think it’s a mess. The “clears its neighborhood” criteria seems hopelessly subjective. I know some scientists have come up with tortured mathematics for it, but its all post hoc rationalization as far as I can see. And it ignores exoplanets.

        “I just don’t think it should be applied retroactively.”

        But then where in science do we apply this rule? The luminiferous aether concept was around for centuries before Einstein finally killed it. Should it have been retained for cultural reasons? (Interestingly, early pulp science fiction still often referred to it in the 1920s and 1930s.) I think we agree science doesn’t work like that. If an object no longer meets a definition, it seems like our only options are to exclude the object, or modify the definition.

        “I also really like Brian May’s idea about the “classical” solar system and how Pluto represents the boundary of that classical view.”

        “Classical” is pretty ambiguous. For centuries, we thought Ptolemy’s conception of the universe was reality. That understanding changed with Copernicus, and again with the discoveries of Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, the Kuiper Belt, and the Scattered Disc.

        It seems to me that the question of Pluto’s planethood has been a good education for people, that scientific knowledge isn’t sacred. It’s always provisional, subject to revision on new discoveries.

        “All told, I don’t think Ceres quite makes the cut. Sorry!”

        If Ceres doesn’t make the cut, then the question becomes, what’s the real criteria? Ceres is massive enough to have formed into a spheroid and it orbits the sun.

        I think we have to face the fact that the 9 planet model of the solar system we grew up with is dead, a casualty of scientific progress. The only question is the semantic one of whether we have 8 planets or 13. Neither number is guaranteed to remain unchanged.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “I personally think [the IAU definition is] a mess.”

        Okay. Do you have a better definition for what a “planet” is?

        “The ‘clears its neighborhood’ criteria seems hopelessly subjective.”

        From the wiki article: “…has become gravitationally dominant, and there are no other bodies of comparable size other than its natural satellites or those otherwise under its gravitational influence.”

        What part do you feel is “hopelessly” subjective? (It does exclude Ceres and the Kuiper belt objects. And, of course, it’s mainly how Pluto lost its status.)

        “But then where in science do we apply this rule?”

        In places where it’s sensible. This whole debate shows how there isn’t any real fact of the matter, that there is an arbitrary aspect to this, and so we’re free to include social sensibility in what we decide.

        It’s a bit different when science discovers new facts that invalidate previous ideas. Obviously we don’t cling to facts proven wrong, but I don’t see that as the case here.

        “‘Classical’ is pretty ambiguous.”

        Well, sure, which is why Brian May defined what he meant. There is a classical age of astronomy that ends with the modern era of powerful technological instruments (such as the Hubble or LIGO). I would define the “classical” era as the era that starts with human eyes and ends with basic optical Earth-based instruments (i.e. ordinary telescopes).

        “It seems to me that the question of Pluto’s planethood has been a good education for people, that scientific knowledge isn’t sacred.”

        Good point, could be. (I only wonder a bit to what extent those who care already know. Could make kind of an interesting study for someone… to what extent has the New Horizons mission and the Pluto debate raised your awareness? (And I wonder how much attention and interest has gotten lost in the political madness of the past few years.))

        “If Ceres doesn’t make the cut, then the question becomes, what’s the real criteria? Ceres is massive enough to have formed into a spheroid and it orbits the sun.”

        For me Ceres is too small and, more importantly, part of the asteroid belt, so it’s pretty obviously not a planet — way too much neighborhood junk!

        “I think we have to face the fact that the 9 planet model of the solar system we grew up with is dead, a casualty of scientific progress.”

        It’s not that I disagree with that (I basically acknowledge it as right), but given the difficulty of a hard definition, I’m quite content to fall back to the “classical” view. (Plus, I think nine is a good number of planets — like nine innings in a baseball game or the nine players on the field.)

        You, obviously, disagree (and don’t seem all that neutral on the matter 😉 ), so if I give you the keys and let you drive, how many planets do you think we should have?

        Pick a number… and then justify it. 😀

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “What part do you feel is “hopelessly” subjective?”

        As I understand it, no planet has completely cleared its orbit of other objects.
        https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clearing_the_neighbourhood#Disagreement
        So just how cleared does it need to be to meet the definition?

        I actually am neutral on the specific definition. Pluto and Ceres are both going to be what they are no matter what category we put them in. My main beef is that whatever the definition is, it should be applied consistently, otherwise it causes confusion, and we’re then just engaging in politics instead of science.

        Which definition would I choose? Personally, if it was up to me, we’d use terminology that made clear how different the Terrestrials, gas giants, and dwarf planets are from each other. But that would likely just piss off even more people. 🙂

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “As I understand it, no planet has completely cleared its orbit of other objects.”

        How do you feel about the Stern–Levison Lambda? Earlier you wrote that, “some scientists have come up with tortured mathematics for it, but its all post hoc rationalization as far as I can see.” Were you referring to Lambda?

        If the original definition is too vague or subjective, why is also wrong to try to make it more specific?

        “So just how cleared does it need to be to meet the definition?”

        Well, we have eight pretty good examples.

        “My main beef is that whatever the definition is, it should be applied consistently, otherwise it causes confusion, and we’re then just engaging in politics instead of science.”

        Or at least some sociology. As I’ve said, I’m fine with the current definition (or an improved one), but on sociological principles — backed up by intrinsic attributes of Pluto (moons, atmosphere, size, tectonic activity) — I’d also very much like to see Pluto remain a planet.

        For I think we can teach good science and sociology.

        “Personally, if it was up to me, we’d use terminology that made clear how different the Terrestrials, gas giants, and dwarf planets are from each other.”

        So how would you do it? What about differentiating gas giants and ice giants?

        Seems like a very complicated approach that’s likely to end up being just as arguable as either the classic or modern current definitions. Seems like you’re multiplying entities. 🙂

      • SelfAwarePatterns

        “How do you feel about the Stern–Levison Lambda?”

        A complex rationalization for a predetermined bias. Sotur’s, although aimed at exoplanets, seems simpler.

        “Seems like you’re multiplying entities.”

        As in violating parsimony? But that’s only true when you add entities unnecessarily. If a school kid learns about the solar system, and doesn’t come away understanding the differences between the inner rocky planets, the gas and ice giants, and dwarf planets, then they haven’t really learned even the fundamentals of what’s out there.

        Because Pluto was called a planet for so long without qualification, a lot of people had no idea how small it actually is. Of course, for several decades no one really knew how large it was. But if the only thing that had happened was that it was changed from a planet of unknown type to a dwarf planet (without anyone saying that’s not a planet even though it’s in the name), I don’t think people would have gotten nearly as worked up.

      • Wyrd Smythe

        “If a school kid learns about the solar system, and doesn’t come away understanding the differences between the inner rocky planets, the gas and ice giants, and dwarf planets, then they haven’t really learned even the fundamentals of what’s out there.”

        Of course, but it can also be viewed as an opportunity to teach that differences can still be united under one banner. Just because a planet is rocky, or gaseous, or icy, need not exclude them from being planets.

        As I keep saying: I don’t see this as purely a scientific matter but also a social one. As you said at the very beginning:

        It seems like an arbitrary definitional matter. Culture 1000 years from now may or may not pay attention to our designations.

        Absolutely, and this is about our culture now and our arbitrary definitions. I’m (more than) willing to be sentimental in this matter.

        That said, I think we’ve covered the territory pretty well, and we each have our view. The final word can be yours, amigo.

And what do you think?

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