Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Neil deGrasse Tyson: The Man Who Demoted Pluto

Stephen Colbert, the ever amusing host of The Colbert Report, has featured Neil deGrasse Tyson on his show six times. He’s even said that Tyson is his “favorite guest.” But, back in 2010 at Montclair University, an out-of-character Stephen Colbert sat down with astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson to talk for 90 minutes about science, society and the universe. Yesterday, the Hayden Planetarium posted the interview on its website for all to watch. Some of the topics discussed include the ethics of man/animal hybrids, the "complexity" of evolutionary processes versus the tenants of creationism, the plausibility of a multiverse, and the importance of promoting science literacy. It’s an hour and a half of amusing banter between the two men, and well worth watching. (The interview starts a little more than 6 minutes in.)

Neil deGrasse Tyson has a long list of achievements. He earned his BA in Physics from Harvard and his PhD in Astophysics from Columbia. President Bush, in 2001, appointed Tyson to serve on a 12-member commission studying the Future of the US Aerospace Industry. In 2002 the final report was published , which contained recommendations -- for Congress and for the major agencies of the government -- that would promote a flourishing future of transportation, space exploration, and national security.

President Bush, once again appointed Tyson in 2004 to serve on a 9-member commission on the Implementation of the United States Space Exploration Policy, dubbed the “Moon, Mars, and Beyond” commission. This group navigated a path by which the new space vision can become a successful part of the American agenda. And in 2006, Tyson was appointed by the head of NASA to serve on its prestigious Advisory Council, which will help guide NASA through its perennial need to fit its ambitious vision into its restricted budget. Tyson is currently the director of the Hayden Planetarium.

However, it is not all this that Tyson is remembered for. No. In fact, Tyson is generally thought of as the man who demoted Pluto. He explained in an opinion piece written for Natural History Magazine in 1999, that:

Pluto’s orbit is tilted 17 degrees out of the plane of the solar system, 2 1/2 times that of Mercury. Pluto moves in the most eccentric ellipse and is the only planet whose orbit crosses that of another planet. Pluto has tidally locked the rotation of its moon Charon, forcing it to forever show the same face to Plutonians...The embarrassing part is that Charon is so large compared with Pluto that its tidal forces have tidally locked Pluto’s rotation where both moon and planet show the same side to each other as they waltz forever in space. With a diameter of 1,400 miles, Pluto is, by far, the smallest planet.      Seven moons in the solar system are larger: Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Titan, Triton, and Earth’s Moon (although Mercury is smaller than both Ganymede and Titan). Finally, neither rocky, nor gaseous, Pluto is the only planet made primarily of ices.

So while there is an abundance of reason that Pluto should not be a planet, there was also a huge outcry against its demotion. After all, it was the first American discovered planet. And it has a Disney dog named after it! What’s more cuddly and friendly than that? For an entertaining read, hate mail written by third graders to Tyson can be read here.

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