Friday, January 23, 2009

Remembering the planet Pluto

On Monday’s Tonight show, Jay Leno interviewed the man he said was the smartest guest he’d ever had. (Given he normally interviews starlets, TV actors and politicians, that wouldn’t be hard.)

But in this case, the guest was Neil DeGrasse Tyson who holds a PhD in astrophysics from Columbia. Maybe not a rocket scientist in the literal sense, but in the figurative sense.

Tyson has served on presidential commissions — including the NASA Advisory Council, writes popular and scientific articles, and is director of the Hayden Planetarium in NYC. He was also named the “Sexiest Astrophysicist” by People magazine in 2000.

As is often the case, Dr. Tyson was there to flog his latest book, in this case The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet. In recalling his own role in fueling the controversy (and Pluto’s demotion to planetoid) he mentioned that there was a Facebook group entitled “When I was your age, Pluto was a planet”:

This is a group dedicated to the kids who were taught that Pluto was the 9th planet from the sun!!!!

Pluto, we salute you. (February 18, 1930 - August 24, 2006)
I checked it out the next morning, and I’m proud to say I’m now member 1,546,518 — the first group I’ve joined since joining Facebook over the weekend. The group doesn’t seem to do anything other than collect members, but I imagine it’s not the only group like that on Facebook.


Laurel Kornfeld said...

Tyson may be smart, but he's wrong about Pluto. Significantly, he is not a planetary scientist but an astrophysicist, meaning the study of planets is not his specialty.

Pluto has not "fallen," and even now, there is a movement among both scientists and lay people to get its planet status reinstated. You can find a petition of 300 professional astronomers who rejected the demotion here:

Pluto's status is still very much an open debate. I encourage anyone who believes Pluto is a planet to visit and use the information there to email the IAU, asking them to revisit this issue (especially since only four percent of the IAU voted on it in 2006). For more on why Tyson is wrong about Pluto, visit my Pluto blog at

Joel West said...

I'd certainly agree that training as an astrophysicist does not qualify someone to be an expert in planetary science.

As someone trained in climatology, I can say the same thing about all the geologists and biologists that claim to be experts in upper atmospheric heat transport. But that’s another story.

Of course, the real planetary scientists aren’t writing NY Times bestsellers. It’s quite something to be the author of the solar system book when your field of expertise is cosmology.