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).
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.
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.
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!