Friday, July 24, 2009

The Pluto Files

The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet
Neil DeGrasse Tyson

The Pluto Files is a rather tongue in cheek look at the demotion of Pluto from it's status as a planet by the International Astronomical Union, written by the director of the Hayden Planetarium at New York's Museum of Natural History.

In 2000, the freshly renovated Hayden Planetarium, under Tyson's direction, opened a new exhibit showing the relative sizes of the planets - excluding Pluto. The exhibit classified the planets as either Earth like - the inner group or gas giants, the outer group. Pluto, being very small and made mostly of ice, did not fit in either group, and was left out of the exhibit. This led to a large controversy, many angry letters from elementary school students and, eventually, a vote, in 2006 at a gathering of the IAU, to define the term planet in a way that excludes Pluto.

Tyson's reason for leaving Pluto out of the exhibit is that it is not a member of either class of planets, neither a rocky Earth like planet nor a gas giant. How can you have a class of one? he asks. Pluto is a very small object, smaller than our own moon. It's orbit is eccentric, dipping in closer to the sun than Neptune's for one part of each turn around the Sun and veering off from the plane of the ecliptic. Pluto is like a small child running around and between the legs of a group of adults.

Later, as other Pluto like objects have been found in what is now known as the Kuiper belt, named after Dutch astronomer Gerard Kuiper. At least one, Eris, is larger than Pluto. We now have a class of objects with several thousands of examples, of which Pluto and Eris are the largest known members. Are they both planets, then? No because the AIU had voted on a definition of a planet with three criteria: 1. that it orbits a star and not another object 2. That it has enough gravity to give it a spherical shape and 3. That it has cleaned up it's orbital zone of debris. Both Pluto and Eris, and also one Asteroid, Ceres, meet the first two of these criteria, but not the third.

This last criteria is problematical. The Earth is always being struck by meteorites, which are debris in it's orbital zone. Is the Earth not a planet? Just last weekend Jupiter was struck by a large object which has created an Earth sized impact disturbance in it's atmosphere, visible by amateur astronomers, arguably an object not previously cleared from Jupiter's orbital zone. It appears to me that this is an arbitrary criteria, with exceptions being made in order to include, really, any planets at all. Besides, since when is science subject to a vote?

I suggest that the orbit clearing criteria be abandoned as a bad job and be replaced to the requirement that a planet must have an atmosphere. this would restore Pluto to the status of a planet, possible Eris, too, and exclude Ceres. We would then have nine or ten planets and counting. Pluto has been redefined as a dwarf planet. OK, but a dwarf planet is still a planet.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

How To Build A Dinosaur

Extinction Doesn't Have To Be Forever
Jack Horner and James Gorman

The title and especially the subtitle of this book are somewhat, deliberately, misleading. Paleontologist Jack Horner was a consultant on the movie Jurassic Park, however, he is quick to point out that he does not propose, or have any idea how, to produce living examples of Tyrannosaurus Rex or the much touted Velociraptor. He wrote this book, with the help of New York Times science editor, James Gorman, to propose the idea of modifying the development of a chicken, to express the dinosaur like traits of a long tail, teeth and forelimbs with clawed fingers.

This book is written in the realm of science popularization. Like Stephen Jay Gould and Carl Sagan, Horner chose to write a book explaining his idea to the general public. Why? Most popular science books are written about advances in science that are already accomplished. This one is a proposal for experiments that scientists do not yet know how to perform. By doing this he has made the reader a part of the process, the way science is really done. Here is a thought experiment that may or may not ever be tried in the laboratory.

What the book does is show how ideas are bandied about in scientific circles, how new experiments are proposed and argued for and against, how they are not necessarily ever given the chance to see the light of day. The work needed to produce this chickeasaurus would cost many millions of dollars.

There would be a lot that could be learned from the effort, according to Horner, about the development of embryos, which could be applied to medical science, possibly preventing birth defects in human children. Or possibly producing embryologically modified, designer ubermenschen. Producing a dangerous invasive species that would have to be fought and destroyed by the air force is an impossibility, however. Science fiction fans will have to live with the disappointment.

Horner says that the traits that he wants to produce, a tail, teeth and clawed forelimbs, are already present in the genes of the domestic chicken, which is a descendant of an upright walking dinosaur. Horner insists that birds ARE dinosaurs and not just their descendants. His proposal is to learn how to trigger, and to stop, certain traits that appear during the development of the chicken embryo, in order to make the tail, teeth and forelimbs appear in the hatched adult chicken. His would not be a genetically modified creature, just one that had been coached along the way to be more dinosaur like than bird like.

I rather like dinosaurs. The chapters in which he discusses the latest discoveries and theories in paleontology were, to me, the most intriguing of the book. Although I can see that there would be spin offs, like those from the Apollo space program, from his chickenasaurus proposal, I was have not really bought in to the idea. Maybe you will think differently. Horner says that he would like to be able to bring a chickenasaurus out on a leash, when giving a lecture. King Kong anyone?

Friday, July 3, 2009

Book Review Blog Carnival XXI

Welcome to the twenty first Book Review Blog Carnival. This carnival is published every other Sunday on a different blog. You my submit a book review post from your own blog, for the next carnival here.

We have a wide selection of book reviews this week, starting with:


On his blog The Truth About Lies, Jim Murdoch reviews Australian writer Gerald Murnane's new novel, The Plains, a dense story about a filmmaker who spends years researching a film on the seemingly featureless Australian outback and its people. In place of the salt-of-the-earth sheep farmers one might expect to inhabit central Australia the narrator encounters an idealised world filled with aesthetics and intellectuals; wealthy landowners divided into factions idly speculating on metaphysics; I don't believe there's a sheep in the whole book.

Jim Murdoch also wrote a review of The Very Thought of You by Rosie Allison. Jim says it's a story about love, but not a love story. Jim doesn't read love stories.

Ms. Smarty Pants Know It All has read the oldest book in this edition of the carnival, The Castle of Otranto by Horace Walpole, first published in 1764, a trailblazing work that practically makes itself its own parody .

Joy, writing in This Girl's Bookshelf compares the movie version of Chocolat the the book by Joanne Harris.

Nymeth reviewed Swimming in the Monsoon Sea by Shyam Selvadurai on her blog Things Mean A Lot. It is a coming of age story set in Sri Lanka.

Sandra read Doris Lessing's 1988 novel The Fifth Child for her blog Fresh Ink Books.

Sandra also reviewed Doris Lessings Ben In The World and Becoming Abagail by Nigerian writer Chris Abani. People who have time to read annoy me.

Science Fiction:

Jeanne, of Necromancy Never Pays, says that she has changed her mind about Joan Slonczewsk"s Daugher of Elysium, which she now sees as a far less optimistic than she thought when she read it after it's debut in 1993. Children will do that to you.


Guest blogger Zarabeth writes about Miranda’s Big Mistake by Jill Mansell on Love Romance Passion.

Normal Girl's Guide to Great Books reviews Summer Blowout by Claire Cook., a summer read by the Author of Must Love Dogs.


KerrieS reviews a Norwegian mystery novel, The Redeemer. by Jo Nesbo, on her blog, Mysteries In Paradise. I guess the existence of Norwegian mystery novels should not be a surprise to me or to Garrison Keillor.

KerrieS also read and wrote a review of Peril and End House by Agatha Christie. Poirot's 6th novel, and his biggest challenge yet. Even the great Hercule Poirot can be swayed by sentiment.

KerrieS must be on vacation, because she had time to read and write a third review, of Shadow by Karin Alvtegen. This one is a Swedish mystery novel.

Children' Books:

Nathan at Inkweaver Review
has written a review of Penny from Heaven, by Jennifer L. Holm, a Newbery Honor Award book about a young girl living in the 1950’s.

Non Fiction:

Global Implications begins a series of weekly book reviews on the subject of Iran with The Devil We Know by Robert Baer.

Serena Trowbridge enjoyed The Suspicions of Mr Whicher by Kate Summerscale, despite herself, and tells us why at Culture and Anarchy.

GrrlScientist wrote, in Living The Scientific Life, a review of Unholy Business: A True Tale of Faith, Greed and Forgery in the Holy Land by Nina Burleigh. This book describes one of the greatest hoaxes of all time as the author follows the path of several ancient biblical artifacts from illegal archaeological digs in Israel through shady antiquities markets and even into the display cases of several famous museums around the world.

GrrlScientist also reviewed Sleeping Naked Is Green: How an Eco-Cynic Unplugged Her Fridge, Sold Her Car, and Found Love in 366 Days by Vanessa Farquharson. Wow, I've been saving the environment all my life and didn't even know it.

Stephen Martile writes about Secrets of the Millionaire Mind by T. Harv Eker, in his blog Freedom Education.. Steve bought this book in 2006. He must be well on is way to a huge fortune by now, don't you think?

Grant McCreary, of The Birdir's Library, reviews Birdscapes: Birds in Our Imagination and Experience
by Jeremy Mynott., a book that asks why and how people look at, and watch, birds.

Bruno Vigneault, of How To Make A Miracle Happen, watched the video version of What the Bleep Do We Know again. Those miracles are harder to make than it seemed at first.

In Science On Tap Arj has a few quibbles with astronomer/blogger Phil Plai's Death From The Skies, starting from it's cover design. I immediately recognized the cover as a parody of a 1950's science fiction movie poster. Arj calls it ""National Enquirer-like."

I submitted a review of my own, which is located just below this post, Street Gang is a history of Children's Television Workshop and Sesame Street.


Thursday Bram will give away one copy of Wanderlust and Lipstick: The Essential Guide for Women Traveling Solo by Beth Whitman, to a lucky person who leaves a comment on her review at Working Your Way Around The World.