Pluto: Still a planet, always a planet.

Poor Pluto. I wrote a detailed essay about my feelings back in 2014, before New Horizons had gotten close enough to reveal the stunning images of Pluto and Charon that it painstakingly sent back at 38 kbps.

nh-pluto-charon-v2-10-1-15 (1)

Pluto and Charon. ©2015 NASA

Yeah yeah, I get it. Science moves on. Clyde Tombaugh discovered the Kuiper Belt; Pluto is just another trans-Neptunian object that happened to get captured, and not even the biggest. There are doubtless many more large ones yet to be discovered.

large_kbos

But Pluto was a part of the public’s consciousness as a planet for 76 years – from 1930 when Dr. Tombaugh discovered it, until it was reclassified by the IAU, a move that was opposed by many scientists and astronomers.

I even wrote to Mike Brown, who has referred to himself as “the man who killed Pluto,” and expressed my feelings that for historical reasons, Pluto should have been “grandfathered in” as a planet; he was kind enough to reply, and explained that while he understands why I and others feel emotionally attached to Pluto, the IAU took an opportunity to make planetary classification meaningful instead of arbitrary, which is scientifically more important than nostalgia.

But I’m still sad. And I’m not the only one. Dr. Maggie Lieu, a research fellow at the ESA (European Space Agency) recently posted on Twitter,

esa

The cleaners took Pluto down, but he was quickly replaced:

thug

And the current status is this: (If you can’t read the text, it says

  • Don’t worry, Pluto! We dwarf planets will be your friends.
  • Yes, those stuck-up full planets are the 1% living in their “cleared neighbourhoods” and oppressing the rest of us with their unequal distribution of mass.

Thug 2

I accept the science, but the IAU’s designation is, after all, just academic nomenclature – and whatever the scientists of today or the future choose to call Pluto, for me it will be the 9th planet in our solar system, Sol IX, forever.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

PS: One of my all-time favorite Woot! shirts, “Gardening at Night.”

gardening

Scientific American, Don’t Do This

Recently saw this article on SA’s website about the Dragonfly Galaxy, a mysterious, diffuse star cluster that appears to be made predominantly of dark matter.

scientific

The problem is that the picture on the article is not the Dragonfly galaxy, but rather the Sombrero galaxy. Yes, the caption says this – but clearly Sombrero cuts a much more impressive figure than Dragonfly (seen below.)

dragonfly44-1200x840

There’s nowhere on SA’s website to give feedback, so I’m obliged to post it here, in the hopes that someone who cares might just possibly see it.

This is called “clickbait,” and even if it’s a very small example, it should be above the standards of this publication. So please, editors and webmasters – have a bit more integrity than this.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

A visit to the new planetarium, and so much more.

Earlier I posted some memories of the old Hayden Planetarium in New York City. As a child it was one of my favorite places to go.

1956, Planetarium 1

Finding myself in New York City once again, I decided to take the opportunity to visit the American Museum of Natural History along with its new Science Center. With one small exception, I was not disappointed.

I started out with a wonderful presentation narrated by the Planetarium director, the illustrious Neil deGrasse Tyson, called “Dark Universe.” It was visually stunning and extremely enlightening. I mentioned to my Facebook group that if Carl Sagan were still alive, and had he been able to see this presentation, it probably would have brought tears to his eyes – such was the respect paid to the wonder of the universe in this beautiful show.

Next on the docket was a visit to a very brief presentation about the Big Bang, narrated by Liam Neeson. Only 4 minutes long, it was light on science but a good introduction to the subject for the many people who come to visit the planetarium.

Leaving the Big Bang theater, one exits the dome and proceeds down a spiral ramp with many exhibits along the way relating to the formation of the universe from the Big Bang to the present day.

20160204_122149

Other exhibits artfully and powerfully illustrate the scale of the universe from the subatomic to the farthest reaches of our observation. On the bottom floor one finds some familiar things: the Willamette meteorite which was salvaged from the old planetarium,

20160204_120914

and many scales embedded in the floor showing your weight at various locations in the universe, such as the moon, a red giant star, the Sun, and a neutron star.

One never stops learning. I was surprised to see that my weight on the “surface” of a red giant star was almost negligible. Had I stopped to think about it, I would have realized that these expanded giants are so large that their photosphere is far, far, from their center of mass, meaning that the effect of gravity is almost nil.

I was crestfallen to find out that the Copernicus room with its amazing clockwork orrery which I so dearly loved as a child no longer exists; the entire building that housed the old planetarium was torn down to make way for the new Science Center, and apparently the mechanisms had stopped functioning as early as 1980. Modern day knowledge and technology has far surpassed the needfulness of the old mechanical device… but it was cool. The planets actually moved in real time, and the glowing orange Sun at the center was captivating. At least I have the memories.

Orrery

Leaving the planetarium, I wandered around the Natural History Museum and reacquainted myself with many of its amazing exhibits. Like the movie in Paris, this is not a building that one can experience in a single day so I had to be selective. I was not, however, disappointed.

The old dioramas in the African mammal room and elsewhere have been lovingly preserved and maintained; they look exactly the way I remember them and are still stunning to consider. These are true works of art.

My first girlfriend, to whom my mother introduced me when I was about four or five, was still there, along with many other wonderful fossils. In the hall of dinosaurs, I learned something new again: the old conventional wisdom that a Stegosaurus had a brain in its ass to control its back end the same way a hook and ladder truck has a second driver is simply not the case. Live and learn: farewell, Brontosaurus. Farewell, butt brain. (But Pluto is still a planet, dammit.)

The museum is now home to one of the largest dinosaur fossils that can be seen by the general public. It’s so long that they had to have its head stick out of one of the exhibit rooms.

“The new, much larger occupant grazes the gallery’s approximately 19-foot-high ceilings, and, at 122-foot, is just a bit too long for its new home. Instead, its neck and head extend out towards the elevator banks, welcoming visitors to the “dinosaur” floor.”20160204_123143

 

 

 

 

The so-called “titanosaur” is so new that it has not yet been officially named, but it certainly makes for quite the sight.

There were so many other things to see. If I were to ever live in New York City again, which given real estate prices is far beyond the realm of possibility, I would certainly become a member and support the museum with regular visits.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

 

Sometimes the Universe smiles, and sometimes it doesn’t

Karma. Everyone wants good Karma.

Over at reddit, it’s measured in orangered or periwinkle (props to the author of this gif, whoever you are):

upvote downvote

In other locations, one doesn’t accrue upvotes and downvotes, but there is still a certain intangible karma that people collect for creating / sharing “cool” images, so we often see things like this:

smileinthesky

or this:

sunset_smile

The two images above are almost certainly photoshopped, and I’ve seen them in my inbox more times than I can count. Not that they’re not really cute, but on occasion nature can one-up the photoshoppers.

Smiley-Philippines_1124654c

AP Photo

In December of 2008, a beautiful conjunction of Venus, Jupiter, and a crescent moon created a lovely “smile” in the night sky, although depending on where you were in the world, it probably didn’t appear straight-up like this.

More recently, however, the Hubble telescope captured a lovely smiley face created by gravitational lensing:

A smiling lens

You can read the science behind the capture at spacetelescope.org.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Memories of the Hayden Planetarium

I grew up in New York City in the 50s. My mother was a Utah girl who had dreams of going to the Big City to become an actress, and by dint of sheer determination she did just that; but while her roots were in the West, she did her best to make sure her offspring (me) was given as much cosmopolitan exposure as possible. This included regular visits to the Museum of Natural History and the Hayden Planetarium.

I have posted a couple of the images below before, but I thought I’d get a few thoughts about this wonderful place of education down in one place. Other images have been gathered from various places around the internet; I have tried to give appropriate attribution where available.

The centerpiece of the Planetarium was the Zeiss projector.

1956, Planetarium 1

Publicity shot for “Pepper Young’s Wife”, TV-Radio Mirror, March 1957, showing the Zeiss Mark II projector in use at the planetarium from 1935 to 1960.

Sitting in the auditorium, watching that behemoth rise up out of the floor, and seeing the stars and planets and nebulæ and galaxies swirling around the ceiling long before Heinlein had written Have Space Suit, Will Travel fired my imagination and gave me a longing to know about what was out there. I remember one show where they gave the audience a little controller and asked them to try aligning two objects in freefall, much the same as a space docking maneuver… it was a great lesson in the nature of inertia.

155034_183077295042955_8272470_n

The control booth of the Star Theatre. I loved that flashlight the operator had which would project a little arrow on the dome – a precursor to today’s laser pointers.

Around the planetarium, as with the modern version and others like it around the country, were scattered various exhibits that I would stare at for hours.

1956, Planetarium 2

Here I am mugging for the photographer (“Look excited! Look excited!”), but it wasn’t much of an acting job. I loved looking at that rocket. A color postcard of the same scene is below:

HaydenPlan006

Photo of a planetarium postcard by Andy Porter. Caption reads, “THE VIKING ROCKET. This authentic 45 foot precision instrument is an actual rocket composed in part of sections recovered from the wreckage of Vikings built by the Martin Company of Baltimore and used by the Navy to probe the upper atmosphere. A rocket like this reached an altitude of 158 miles in May 1954.”

984.tif

Photo above and text from the archives of the Museum of Natural History: In 1955, the “most notable event of the year” at the Hayden Planetarium was the opening of the Viking Rocket exhibition. “One of the pioneer exploratory vehicles of the Space Age,” according to a 1961 Museum publication, the rocket was one of 12 that launched from 1945 to 1955, allowing new research on Earth’s upper atmosphere to be conducted.

The next exhibit that comes to mind was the orrery in the Copernican room; the original theatre was outfitted with folding chairs.

Orrery

From a postcard. The description on the back reads: “Copernican Room showing solar system. Animated model of the solar system showing the sun in the center, and six of the nine known planets revolving around it. The planets also rotate on their axes as the real planets rotate, moving always at the correct relative speeds. Circling the Earth is a smaller globe, the moon, while Mars has two moons. Jupiter is shown with four of its eleven moons, and Saturn with five of its nine. Around the walls are shown the twelve zodiacal constellations and in the center of the floor a reproduction of the Aztec Calendar Stone.”

This model, while not to scale and not terribly dynamic, was intriguing in that it represented the orbits of the planets in real time. That meant slowly.  The planets would change imperceptibly, with the inner rocky planets changing somewhat between visits, and the outer planets moving hardly at all. The sun glowed a deep orange.

167054_189460954404589_6798595_n

Closeup of Saturn with five of its then-known nine moons, 10/10/1935. From the Collections of the Museum of the City of New York.

It is of interest to note that we have since identified 67 moons of Jupiter, and 62 around Saturn.

167079_194043760612975_6406948_n\

American Museum of Natural History Library http://images.library.amnh.org/, image #327132 March 1960. Later, the room was transformed into a more formal auditorium.

164514_186091644741520_3335509_n

The Aztec Calendar Stone

In another room was a place where you could weigh yourself on a series of scales which would show your weight on the Moon, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. Each scale glowed a different color, and to the eyes of a five-year-old, these were some of the most wondrous things in existence. Cards were provided with which to record your individual results.

165690_194038407280177_8232508_n

Image from Popular Science, August 1952. Explanation from the Hayden Planetarium at their Facebook page:

“Another innovation, which has proved of great popular interest, was an exhibit illustrating the principles of the force of gravity by means of six specially calibrated scales showing the actual weight of the visitor on different planets. In this undertaking the Planetarium enjoyed the cooperation of the Toledo Scales Company.”
– American Museum of Natural History Annual Report July 1950-June 1951

John Pazmino of NYSkies Astronomy pointed out that the effect of different weights was done just at the level of the display, not internally. In other words, the needle went to the same angle on each scale, and only the numbers in the background varied.

The exhibit was later updated and modernized:

163143_194038340613517_7743556_n

American Museum of Natural History Library http://images.library.amnh.org/ image #334305 September 1969

Like any good museum, there were souvenirs to be had.

164870_187385094612175_668584_n

From the collection of Tom Lesser.  I would swear on a stack of waffles that I had one of these; Heaven only knows what happened to it. I was too young at the time to appreciate much astronomy, but nowadays there are some wonderful planetarium and space-exploration programs available online and offline both.

know I had one of these keychain perpetual calendars, and loved it:

165750_186608861356465_146155_n

Again, sadly, lost in the mists of time.

The Willamette Meteorite was on display as well:

Willamette Meteorite

That is one huge hunk of extraterrestrial iron.

Many, many more photos can be seen at the Original Hayden Planetarium’s Facebook page. The ones I have gathered here represent my clearest memories, but the original planetarium had much more to offer. It was a place of wonder and delight. On my next trip to New York, I must be sure to visit the modern incarnation and see what has happened in the last 60 years or so.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

I’m going to Mars!

Well, at least my name is.

pass

Today’s the last day to get your name on a chip that will be included on Orion’s test flight on December 4th; later submissions can still get on subsequent missions, including to the red planet itself.

You can sign up today, October 31, 2014 at NASA.

My old bones may be earthbound, but my spirit soars to the stars.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

There! Are! NINE! Planets!

Nine Planets Thumb

Maybe.

See, for the longest time, I’ve been fascinated by space, and the stars, and astronomy. When I was a kid in the 1950s I’d go from New York City where I lived to visit one of my uncles in the country, and he had an interesting and eclectic library, which things like CS Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet or The World of Å by A.E. van Vogt. He also had this book:

zim stars

which I would spend hours and hours perusing, right around the same time Alfred Bester was publishing the exploits of Gully Foyle. In my own mind, the stars were my destination.

And of course, there were Nine Planets. Nine.

Solar System

This was cemented into my mind when, during the same epoch, I read Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel. Beyond being a delightful space opera, it was full of hard science, too. Kip Russell was a genius who thought higher math was as addictive as peanuts, and had all sorts of astronomical data tucked away in his mind which helped him figure out where his evil worm-faced kidnappers were taking him and his little companion, Peewee.

“Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no protest.” Could you forget that after saying it a few times? Okay, lay it out so:

Mother Mercury $.39
Very Venus $.72
Thoughtfully Terra $1.00
Made Mars $1.50
A Asteroids Assorted prices,
unimportant
Jelly Jupiter $5.20
Sandwich Saturn $9.50
Under Uranus $19.00
No Neptune $30.00
Protest Pluto $39.50

The “prices” are distances from the sun in astronomical units. An A.U. is the mean distance of Earth from Sun, 93,000,000 miles. It is easier to remember one figure that everyone knows and a lot of little figures than it is to remember figures in millions or billions. I use dollar signs because a figure has more flavor if I think of it as money – which Dad considers deplorable. Some way you must remember them, or you don’t know your own neighborhood. (Heinlein, Robert A., Have Space Suit, Will Travel).

And no, I could never forget it either. There were nine planets. Nine. And the mnemonic was seared into my consciousness forever. When Pluto was demoted from planetary status to “dwarf planet,” I was devastated. I refused to give in. No. Still a planet, always a planet. Apparently, others felt the same way I did, and for similar reasons:

I really wasn’t too concerned about Pluto’s demotion from being a planet. It was a non scientific discussion about a silly serious definition.

Well, at least that was until they decided to TAKE AWAY PLUTO’S NAME. WTF? So, please Mr It’s-Not-A-Planet-Just-A-No-Name-Dwarf Astronomer, what am I supposed to use for my mnemonic now? Huh?

I learned “Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no protest” as a teenager reading Robert Heinlein. And now? “Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no 134340” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

[Update: Thanks Dan]
Pluto may have lost it’s planetary status, but it GOT A NEW NUMBER! It went from merely 9 to a rocking 134340! Wow, what a raise. I am however bummed that my favorite memonic, “Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no protest” learned as a teenager reading Robert Heinlein, no longer works.

Perhaps “Mother very thoughtfully made a cherry jelly sandwich under no protest. Excellent!”  (Hmmm, still doesn’t ring well.) Anyway I still stand to-

Sure tell me Pluto it isn’t a planet, but stop MESSING AROUND WITH MY CHILDHOOD! (From Eclectics Anonymous)

And that’s the crux of my objection: don’t screw around with what I learned as a child. If nothing else, Pluto should have been grandfathered in, because despite its true status as a captured Kuiper Belt object (as clearly shown by its off-kilter orbit and the identification of countless other trans-Neptunian objects), it was treated as a planet since it was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh.

Sadly, science moves on. As Neil de Grasse Tyson has said, the universe is under no obligation to make sense to us – it’s just out there, waiting to be discovered. In much the same way as they took away my beloved Brontosaurus, we learn new things every day. Now, as New Horizons approaches Pluto for a scheduled 2015 rendezvous, my excitement to see our last little solar system outlier (at least, that’s the way it was in the 50s) knows no bounds.

xaqbwrmxwyqtn68mqecd

“The [above] animation of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was created using a series of images captured by the New Horizons spacecraft as it continues its long journey to the distant planetoid. Taken from a distance of 422-429 million km, the images are not for scientific study, but for optical navigation between worlds. (From i09)

Those pictures are going to get a lot clearer and more wonderful as New Horizons approaches, if the results from Cassini and other planetary probes are any indiation. But based on what I’m seeing there, it may turn out that Pluto and Charon are not really planets at all, but nothing more than space junk, garbage that looks more like comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. And if that ends up being the case, I’ll have to throw my visceral but irrational defense of Pluto’s planetary status onto the trash heap of disproven theories, as sad as it may be.

Our Solar System is a lot bigger now than it used to be. No one ever made mention of the Kuiper Belt or the Oort cloud. It was just us, although some scientists even back then were looking for the mysterious “Planet X” [1] which would help to explain certain orbital anomalies.

splash-planets-600x312

Image: NASA’s Solar System Exploration. Click through for the full interactive graphic, along with a lot of other wonderful information.

Some other really good stuff about space and stars and especially planets is found at Starts with a Bang!

In the end, better minds than mine have come to terms with advancing knowledge. A quote at Wikipedia’s article about Clyde Tombaugh is particularly comforting:

Tombaugh’s widow Patricia stated after the IAU’s decision that while Clyde may have been disappointed with the change since he had resisted attempts to remove Pluto’s planetary status in his lifetime, he would have accepted the decision now if he were alive. She noted that he “was a scientist. He would understand they had a real problem when they start finding several of these things flying around the place.”Hal Levison offered this perspective on Tombaugh’s place in history: “Clyde Tombaugh discovered the Kuiper Belt. That’s a helluva lot more interesting than the ninth planet.”

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Old_Wolf_Cry


[1] They’re still looking.