Friday, September 22, 2006

Skeptic Podcast with the 'Bad Astronomy' guy! (Plus, a fun little surprise!)

` I just now got around to listening to the edition from August 30:

` According to the podcast, a new perpetual motion machine is going to be tested. Well, hooray for them. When the time comes, I'd better pull me up a chair and a bucket o'chocolate-covered crickets. ...Or has that already passed? I wasn't paying close enough attention.
` Finally, it's getting interesting! The astronomer Phil Plait (of Bad Astronomy) is talking about some meteorites he had sent to Derek and Swoopy.

` People want to know; why was Pluto classified as a planet in the first place? Scientists were looking for a planet to explain why Uranus and Neptune weren't doing what was expected unless another planet was present and found something that was, at first, thought to be the size of Earth. It was all a big misunderstanding.
` If, however, Pluto had been discovered more recently, along with all the other Kuiper Belt Objects, we would wind up classifying it as one of those, especially: The very same thing had happened with Ceres - it was thought to be a planet, along with several other objects discovered soon after, until a huge amount of others were discovered and all then of them were classified as Asteroids.

` He discusses planet classification a little bit and mentions one criterion - that the difference between a planet and a moon is its center of gravity. For example, the center of gravity between the earth and the moon is a thousand miles below the center of the earth. Therefore, it is a planet. However, the moon recedes four centimeters each year. In a billion years (and presumably four billion centimeters or so), the center of gravity would be closer to the moon, and so it would be classified as a planet according to this definition. (And, since the center of mass between Pluto and Charon is outside of Pluto, both of them are considered planets.)
` They're all bunches of hydrogen and metals! They do not evolve and split into groups as life forms do - instead, they are separately and largely randomly formed - therefore, classification is impossible.
` As Plait says:

` This is just silly. Who cares what we call a planet? Pluto is what it is and Charon is what it is, and Ceres, by the way, the largest asteroid, meets all these criteria.... The point is, you can't define what a planet is. I've been saying this for years... you can't define a planet.... The problem here, is that we're trying to wrap a scientific definition around... a cultural phenomenon. There is no such thing as a planet.
` It's just a name we hung on some objects, but what does it mean? I mean, look at Jupiter and look at Mercury - these things couldn't be any [more] different: Mercury is dinky and hot, and full of metal, and Jupiter is this enormous, bloated gas giant with lots of moons, and a hugely thick atmosphere. They're as different as plants and animals. And yet we're both calling them planets.
` So that right there should tell you there's something silly about doing this. And in fact, most scientists just don't give a crap about this, except that the public does, the media has whipped up the public into kind of a frenzy.... it's sort of taking away from the science of this.... It just seems that there's no real reason to do this scientifically and to have scientists debating this, is a colossal waste of time.
` Yes! It's all about consistency, and I've thought about this long and hard; will anyone ever find such a thing? I sure as heck never could.
` We could call them rocks and spheres and gas giants, but not planets! In fact, if people want to think that Pluto is a planet, then that's fine because the classification of a planet - being intangible - is technically not a part of science. It's just our tendency to classify things - works with life forms (because they have genuine commonalities) but not random rocks banging around in space.
` In fact, most people don't even know enough about it to know what's going on anyway. I found this particularly scary:
Plait: ...Did you know that half the people in this country don't know that the earth goes around the sun in a year?
Swoopy: Half? A whole half?
` Hmmm. Then again, I think about 85% of people will say that a year is when the earth goes around the sun once. Yet not nearly as many can answer the question when it is phrased; 'How long does it take the earth to go around the sun?'
` The workings of the human mind.... And I think Plait put my own message about skepticism well when he said;

` Pluto is what it is, it doesn't care what we call it, and we still have a probe heading there that's still gonna take nine years to get there and we're gonna get pictures of it, and so, whether we call it a planet or not, it's gonna do whatever it is it does. As far as the public perception, this is a PR... not a disaster, but certainly it's a blow to the head.
` Ya know, people in the United States already are not loving science in many ways. Now, most of the public is actually enthusiastic about science if it's taught correctly, if they get involved with it with someone who knows what they're doing and it's fun, and so they're pro-science that way and they wanna know about this kinda stuff.
` But there's also a sort of a general mistrust of scientists, and you get that a lot, you know, the scientists are constantly changing their minds and all this kinda thing.... What a lot of people don't get, is that science does change its mind and that's its strength, it's not a weakness. And people feel that religion is strong because it's unflexible, and it's like 'well, if you can't bend, you're gonna break!' ...When you literally translate religious text, when nature says 'uh uh!' one of these things has to bend and break, and nature is reality, so... science is strong because it's flexible, because it can say 'oh, we were wrong, let's look at it this way'.
` The problem is, this is such a trivial point, Pluto not being a planet is not science. And so, with the public looking at these scientists, they're gonna say 'oh, these scientists can't make up their mind,' or 'scientists don't even know what a planet is' and everyone knows what a planet is. O' couse, if you start to poke people in the chest and say 'okay smart guy tell me what a planet is', they kinda go, well, ep, deh,uh, because, as I've been saying, you can't define it.
` And so, in that sense, it's kind of a mistake. On the other hand, the third hand, if you have three hands, is the idea that this is a teachable moment in that, if you want to teach students that science is not a compendium of facts, its not an exncyclopedia that you look things up in, it is a growing organism that learns and changes and looks around itself and figures out what's right and what's wrong. That is something that students don't get.
` And it's something that a vast majority of science teachers don't teach. Because, I don't think they're really trained to. They're just sort of thrown into teaching scinece. And so, this is a great moment to teach something like that. You could, as far as I'm concerned, what I'd like to see is having teachers say 'why is this not a scientific problem?'

` Listen to it all here. If you dare.

` ...And for you creatures who crave strange, satirical skeptical matters, Plait has also pointed out (on his blog) the miraculous appearance of Jesus Christ on a dog's ass!

` Oh yes. He went there.
Check it out!


wed-nes-day said...

Not knowing what Jesus really looked like, I'd have to say that a picture of the dog's anal region doesn't do anything for me.

Perhaps placing the animals backside on a scanner might give better results......

Galtron said...

Ha-le-lu-jah! Dog's Ass Jesus will save us!

I'm all for not classifying planets as well!

S E E Quine said...

` Glad to hear.