The Sciences

Unscientific America: Page 2

The IntersectionBy Sheril KirshenbaumMay 28, 2009 1:32 PM


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Chris 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.

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