Pluto and Other Things That Aren’t Planets


Pluto

Pluto: Not a Planet

While the actual data and images coming back from New Horizons have been awesome, it’s been a little frustrating that they’ve come mixed with a heaping helping of posts about how Pluto should totally be a planet again now.

And the bulk of that comes down to “Pluto is interesting, Pluto is awesome, I like Pluto,” ergo Pluto should be a planet. To be sure, Pluto IS interesting. Pluto IS awesome. I DO like Pluto.

But my dog Amos is also interesting, awesome and likable, but I don’t think he should be a planet, ya know?*

Ultimately, taxonomy is relative. Language is subjective, and we can decide how it’s used. If we want the word “literally” to mean “figuratively,” that’s within our power as a literate people. There is no cosmic absolute that determines whether something is a planet or not, it’s just our subjective view of what we want the word planet to mean and how we want to use it.

Scientifically, there’s no reasons we can’t use the term planet to mean “The nine bodies recognized as planets in the year 2000.” In which case, Pluto would officially be a planet. Or even “”The nine bodies recognized as planets in the year 2000, plus David and Rebecca’s dog Amos, who’s pretty awesome and interesting and likable.” In which case, Amos would also totally be a planet.

David and Amos at the Space & Rocket Center

Amos: Also Not a Planet

It comes down to what purpose you think a taxonomy should serve. If you want a system of categorizing celestial objects that’s “merit-based,” “rewarding” bodies that we find more “worthy,” then, sure, there’s no reason you can’t have that sort of classification system, and no reason Pluto can’t be a planet.

But if your goal is to have a taxonomy that promotes better understanding of the solar system (and thus the cosmos), it makes far more sense to use a classification system that groups like things with like things and thus encourages the use of what we learn about one body to help us better understand similar bodies. Calling Amos a planet doesn’t mean he can teach you anything about the other planets. (Trust me on this one; he totally won’t.)

Pluto is utterly unlike any of the other planets in all but the most superficial of senses. Like the other planets, it’s round, as are moons and baseballs. Like the other planets, it orbits the sun, as do asteroids and comets and the S-IVB stage for Apollo 8. (Actually, this one is less true of Pluto, which is substantially affected in its orbit by Charon, than of asteroids and comets and the S-IVB stage for Apollo 8, all of which have a greater claim to planethood under this standard.) Yes, it’s more rare for a body to meet both of these requirements, but it’s not that rare, and there are lots of other things that do that don’t make the “My Very Educated Mother…” list.

Saturn V S-IVB Stage in space

Saturn V S-IVB Stage: Also Also Not a Planet

On the other hand, from what we’ve seen, Pluto is a lot like other Kuiper Belt Objects, tiny objects that populate the far reaches of our solar system. The sad cartoons that depict Pluto as being lonely or sad for being kicked out of the planet club fail to understand or acknowledge that Pluto has far far more celestial cousins than our Earth does.

When we first discovered Pluto, we had not discovered anything else in the solar system like it, so we classified it with the things it was most like. Since then, however, in the Kuiper Belt, we’ve discovered a lot of things that are a lot more like Pluto than the other planets. So we corrected a mistake made in ignorance, and reclassified it with the new discoveries it was most like.

This exact situation happened once before, with Ceres. When Ceres was discovered in 1801, we’d not seen anything else like it. But even though it was small, it was round and orbited the sun, so the most logical classification was to call it a planet. But then we found another body near Ceres. And another, and another. And we realized that Ceres was a lot more like this new type of thing, which we called asteroids, than it was like the other planets.** And when we study Ceres, we study Ceres to learn about asteroids and their place in our solar system.

Ceres

Ceres: Interesting, Crazy Mysterious, But, Yep, Also Also Also Not A Planet

Today, we have a much greater understanding of the asteroid belt, but the same is not true to nearly the same extent of the Kuiper Belt. And right now, Pluto is our best tool for understanding these mysterious worlds; which in some ways have been more alien even than planets orbiting other stars. Pluto has little to teach us about the eight planets, but it has a lot to teach us about the Kuiper Belt. So if scientific understanding is the goal of your taxonomy, you classify Pluto in the latter category rather than the former.

I was inspired to write this post by this article, which hits the nail on the head: It’s not sad that Pluto isn’t a planet. It’s awesome that Pluto is something even more valuable — our Rosetta Stone to distant worlds shrouded in secrecy that remind us how little we still truly know about our universe, and how much wonder still awaits us on our outward odyssey.


*All opinions in this post are purely my own. I make no claim of representing the views of NASA or any other organization on whether Amos (or any other body) is a planet.

**Fair or not, I judge whether someone’s desire for Pluto to be a planet or not is scientific or sentimental based on what they say about Ceres. If you weren’t posting during the Dawn approach that Ceres should be a planet, I assume your interest in Pluto’s planethood is probably based more on your childhood attachment to Pluto than in taxonomy.

Why I Love My Job


Neil Armstrong

 

Why I love my job…

The guy in that picture? Forty-six years ago today, he was walking on the moon.

Which, really, is kind of amazing.

On his right shoulder, that man, who walked on the moon, is wearing a red-white-and-blue patch. The symbol of the agency that put him there.

Some days, I get to wear that same symbol and go tell people what that agency is doing today.

Which, really, is kind of amazing.

I don’t, in my line of work, get to do things quite as amazing as that man did. But I do get to do some amazing things. And it is humbling and inspiring in the midst of those things to remember that the same agency that saw fit to send Neil Armstrong to the moon has seen fit to let me blog on its behalf or represent it in another country or share with the public the excitement of a rocket launch or an engine test.

But here’s the really amazing part…

It’s tempting and easy to be overshadowed by that history, by that legacy. It’s easy to go to work one day and listing to Gene Kranz talk about the landing of Apollo 11 or the rescue of Apollo 13 and to feel like our job now is simply to be worthy of what we have inherited.

It’s not.

Our job is to do better.

The NASA I am incredibly incredibly lucky to be a part of is one that is in the midst of undertaking endeavors more ambitious than any it has undertaken before. It is in the midst of beginning a journey monumentally more challenging than the one marking an anniversary this week.

Just as Neil Armstrong will hold a larger place in the history book than Alan Shepard, our job today is to write history that will hold a larger place than his.

That? That’s amazing.

Lackluster Secrets of the Pluto Time Capsule


For nine years now, people all over the world have been looking forward to today. After years silently sailing through the vast void of deep space, the New Horizons spacecraft today finally has its closest encounter with distant Pluto and its moon, giving us an unprecedented look at what has been the greatest mystery of our solar system, a world we’ve known of for the better part of a century, but seen only ever as through a glass darkly.

And, I mean, that’s cool and all.

But me — well, sure, I’ve been looking forward to that part, too — but today is also the day that I got to open my New Horizons time capsule, and unveil the surely equally compelling secrets contained therein.

(Brace now for disappointment.)

Time capsule in a tennis ball case

So back in February 2006, maybe a couple of weeks after New Horizons launched for Pluto, I was attending the Space Exploration Educators Conference in Houston, and attended a workshop about how to get students excited about the mission (and about Pluto, then still a planet), in part via a time capsule activity.

Everyone in the group was given a tennis ball tube and a sheet to use as the basis of the time capsule, and allowed to make their own time capsule during the session so they could have their students do it when they got back to their schools.

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And so, there in the class, I worked on the two sheets of the activity, rolled them up into the cylinder, brought it home to Huntsville, and dutifully put it away in a drawer where it has remained untouched ever since. Every once in a while I’ve come across it and wondered what it said (having long since forgotten), but I’ve been good and never opened it again since the session.

UNTIL TODAY!

(Did I mention you should brace for disappointment?)

Here, then is page one of the two-page contents I wrote back in February 2006:

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How’s that for a revealing look at life in 2006? Future historians will no doubt consider this a foundational document for understanding life in the early 21st century.

“Grade: A” So clever, ten-years-ago, David! Don’t ever change! (Spoiler: You totally will. Get ready.)

That said, I still don’t have a favorite color, I still enjoy writing, and I’m trying to do low-carb again. I haven’t worn that shirt in a few years, but I’m pretty sure I know which one I was trying to draw.

So that’s the past.

Now, on to THE FUTURE!!! (Which, er, is actually now the present. But you know what I mean.)

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So, yes, the future remained largely unwritten.

I’m guessing I didn’t have time to finish the activity in the session, and was so determined in not touching the capsule again that I forgot I hadn’t finished it. Or, possibly, that’s all the thoughts I had about the future. Either way.

But — “wireless iPod”? What does that even mean? It’s like you had to keep your iPad plugged into anything to use it? Was I wanted one that didn’t involve headphones? Or that, I don’t know, charged or synced without wires?

I’m choosing to believe I accurately predicted how common and important the then-still-a-year-and-a-half-off iPhone would be in today’s society. But who knows?

So there you go — the secrets of the Pluto Time Capsule.

Thankfully, the actual secrets of Pluto have proved much more rewarding. Go check them out now!

Pluto and Charon

Credit: NASA

RIP, B.B. King: “See That My Grave Is Kept Clean”


B.B. King at his final homecoming concert in Indianola, Mississippi, in 2015

B.B. King at his final homecoming concert in Indianola, Mississippi, in 2015

“Did you ever hear a church bell tone?
Then you know old B is dead and gone…”

B.B. King has stopped touring.

I haven’t looked, but I’m sure there are folks today posting variations of the obvious “The King is dead” or, of course, “The Thrill Is Gone.”

But it’s just not true. As I’m typing, I’m listening to B.B. King. And I will for decades to come. As prolific as he was, I’ll even probably still keep discovering new music, new performances.

B.B. King, the King of the Blues, lives on.

A good man died last night.

I don’t recall ever hearing anyone call him Riley in person. To people talking to the performer, he was B.B. or Mr. King or Dr. King. He bristled at the latter one; while he was touched by his honorary doctorates, “Dr. King” was the Reverend Martin Luther King, and B.B. felt unworthy to be called by that name.

To friends, when he wasn’t B.B., he was, more casually B. And that’s who the world lost last night.

I didn’t know him — he certainly wouldn’t have known me — but we had mutual friends, and I had the privilege that I had more direct experience with B than with B.B. King.

I went, once, to see him in a true and proper concert, here in Huntsville at the Von Braun Center five years ago. It was a bucket list item, and I’m glad I had the opportunity.

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But most of my experiences were when B came home. He was born in Berclair, Mississippi and died at his house in Las Vegas, but Indianola, Mississippi is where B.B. King considered to be home.

Home being a relative concept. B.B. spent far and away most of his time on the road; I honestly thought he would die there. He nearly did, and probably would have if he could have. He bought some property in Indianola many years ago and long talked about building a house there, but never did. I’d hoped the building of the B.B. King Museum might make it more appealing, it was pleasant to imagine him sitting in a big chair at the museum talking to visiting children. I think he could have been happy, but it’s not who he was.

But for a couple of days each year, who he was was the man who grew up in Indianola, picking cotton and playing gospel on a street corner and hanging out with his friends. His visits home involved long visits with good friends and often food that the well-known diabetic really didn’t need to be eating but that it wouldn’t be home without.

Over the years I lived and worked in Indianola, my job with The Enterprise-Tocsin newspaper gave me glimpses of this side of B.B. – one of the friendliest, most good-natured men you’ll ever meet, loyal to his friends and humble and accessible to strangers. It wasn’t hard to imagine, if he ever could build that house, passing him in the vegetable aisle of the Sunflower Food Store like anybody else in town. He was so real, so genuine, so friendly. He enjoyed being B.B. King, but he never let it go to his head.

T-shirt I designed for the 1997 homecoming festival, signed by the man himself.

T-shirt I designed for the 1997 homecoming festival, signed by the man himself.

And then at the heart of it all there was the annual homecoming concert. Every other night, he performed for other people. On that one night, he performed for himself. He indulged himself, he had fun, he did what he wanted. He didn’t make a dime that night, and anything that was charged for tickets went to local parks and later to the museum. He didn’t make anything, so he was beholden to no one. He played a few songs, he let his band riff, he held a dance contest for kids. People who came to see the King of the Blues sometimes left disappointed, but that’s not what it was about. It was about B.B. coming home.

I saw him there many times over the years. When I moved to Alabama, it became harder to make it back, but on rare occasions I did. Last year, they announced that it would be the final time B.B. would play the homecoming festival. It seemed an odd decision, since he was still touring. The concerts recently maybe hadn’t been as good as they’d once been, but he was still performing and people still wanted to see him. Why decide then that it would be his last? I read something just this week about the festival being held at the end of this month, for the first time without B.B. And then, this morning, that he was gone. Whoever made the decision last year, it appears they were right. Or maybe a road that didn’t go through Indianola was a road nearing its end. Either way, B.B. King died 10 days before the Indianola Homecoming Festival was to be held for the first time without him.

I’m so very glad I went last year. I’m glad I got to see him again. I’m glad Rebecca got to see him in person. I’m glad I got to stand by my former editor and my friend Jim Abbott for the historic moment that B.B. King left the stage in his hometown for the last time. And I’m glad I saw that performance. He was old — so very old — but he gave all he had, and that night, he was all he’d ever been. It was worthy of the King of the Blues. No dance contest, just B.B. King doing well what he made his name doing. It was an amazing concert, far better than the one I saw in Huntsville.

There are other stories I could tell, like getting to give him t-shirts on a couple of occasions, or Lucille getting lost in the Mississippi Delta, but I’ll tell instead my favorite story of B.B. King, the story that, more than any other, captured why — beyond being a good man and a great musician — B.B. King matters.

I said the homecoming performances were for him. He had fun. I mentioned the dance contests. They were ostensibly for the kids, but I think they were, even more, for B.B.

There was a section at each homecoming in front of the stage reserved for children. B.B. would play songs for a while, but at some point, he’d start the dance contest. He’d call kids up on stage, the band would play, the kids would dance. B.B. would walk across the stage, hold his hand over each kid, the audience would clap. The kid that got the most applause was the winner. Depending on the year, B.B. would hand out cash.

This could go on for a while. The audience would get bored, some people would leave, but the kids, and, most importantly, B.B. were having fun.

It was important to B.B. to get a diverse group of kids on stage – boys and girls, different races. If it was getting too heavy loaded one way or another, he’d ask for what was needed to balance it out. This was important.

And, let me point out, is not the way things always were in Indianola, Mississippi. In days past, Indianola was the birthplace of the White Citizens Councils, the white-collar, as it were, version of the Klan. It was important to B.B. that today’s Indianola look different than the one he grew up in.

So one night I’m at the homecoming festival, and after the dance contest had stretched on for a while, I decide to walk back home. Indianola’s a small city; home is just over a mile away, and you can hear the festival clearly the whole walk.

I’m walking home, through Indianola, Mississippi, the birthplace of the White Citizens Councils, and I hear a seventy-something-year-old black man call out across town, “I need another little white girl.”

There was a day when that would not have been OK.

B.B. was not a crusader or an activist. He was a man who believed things should be better, and made it inevitable. B.B. King was a force for integration because he made people want to open doors for him. He mattered. He matters.

The world is the less without him in it, but it’s better for him having been here, and always will be.

“It’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you
Please see that my grave is kept clean.”

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Interviewing The Man Who Taught Me To Interview


Joe Atkins at his Lafayette County, Mississippi home.

Joe Atkins at his Lafayette County, Mississippi home. Photo by Lauren Wood, Mud & Magnolias

Twenty years later, there aren’t a whole lot of my former professors I still keep up with. And there’s a case to be made that Joe Atkins​ might have been an unlikely candidate to be one of the few, since I failed one or two of his classes, depending on how you count.

But Joe, as much as anyone, is the person who taught me to be a reporter. Not just the technical aspects of how to be a reporter, but what it means to be one. He was tough but fair, and played a huge role in the foundation of the arc my career would follow.

So it was very interesting to get to write an article about Joe for the most recent issue of Mud & Magnolias about his first published novel, Casey’s Last Chance.

Most of my stories for Mud & Magnolias​ are assigned to me, but this is one I asked to be allowed to write. I thought it would be an interesting subject, which is was, and I wanted to be able to help promote his book, which you should read. What surprised me, however, was how interesting the interview prep was. I’ve known the man for over 20 years now, but I’d never actually researched him before. He’s even more fascinating than I realized.

The experience of the interview itself was also interesting. I was a pretty decent reporter back in my day, and even if I’m not in the newspaper business anymore, I do get opportunities to keep those skills from becoming too rusty. It’s been a long time since I’ve been nervous about conducting an interview. But I’ve also never before interviewed the person who taught me to interview someone. Going into it, I almost expected to be corrected on my technique. In reality, we had a really great conversation about the differences between journalism and fiction, the creative process, the future of the newspaper industry, and a lot more. The hardest part of the process was how much I had to leave out of the article.

Ole Miss historically has a great journalism department and produces great student journalists (I read Tuesday that The Daily Mississippian​ just won another regional best daily student paper award), and professors like Joe Atkins are a bit part of why. I was blessed to be one of his students 20 years ago, and am honored to call him a friend today.

And, in conclusion, buy his book.

“The Safest Way to Travel”


Picture Rebecca took flying over the Alps on Monday.

Picture Rebecca took flying over the Alps on Monday.

They shut down Tower Bridge earlier this week after finding unexploded ordinance in the area. Almost exactly a week ago, I was right by Tower Bridge, although, to be fair, on the other side from this. Kinda weird. (And, also to be fair, where I work, finding unexploded ordinance is just something that happens every so often.)

In a similar vein, and much more sobering, is that three days ago, we were admiring the beauty of the Alps as we flew over them. We landed in Huntsville a few hours before Germanwings Flight 9525 crashed in those mountains.

The process of flying requires being reminded of the danger of doing so. You take off your belt and your shoes and take your laptop out and present your bottled fluids as testament to the fact that you can being killed doing what you’re about to do. You do it because you convince yourself that it won’t be you.

And, to be sure, to quote Superman, “Statistically speaking, of course, it’s still the safest way to travel.” Odds are, you’re right; it won’t be you. I fly a fair bit, and I do so without reservation. Sure, there’s danger. There’s danger driving to Target.

But it’s easy to convince yourself that there’s a REASON it won’t be you, why your flight is safer than the ones that make the news. From everything I’ve read so far about 9525, there’s no reason it was them. No reason it wasn’t us.

We put down unexpectedly at Dulles between Boston and Atlanta because we had a medical emergency on our flight. There but for the grace of God. It was inconvenient, but you can’t weigh that against the reason we were doing it. The situation was handled competently, calmly and professionally.

I was patted down at multiple airports on our honeymoon, and, afterwards, I always said thank you. The closest thing there is to “a reason” is that every time you fly, there are folks who work hard to make sure you also land.

To them, thank you.

To Love And To Cherish


“In the end I want to be standing
At the beginning with you…”

Rebecca on a turntable

The very first picture I ever took of Rebecca. In my mind, she wore that hat constantly in those early days, but she assures me that she had really only just bought it right before I took that picture.

David and Becky by a turntable

Revisiting the spot of that picture during our engagement photo shoot with Caleb McPherson

Rebecca,

Today I marry my best friend. My adventuremate, my partner, my complement, my help, my home. Today is a good day.

Today, we go back to the Depot. Back to the beginning, back to where we met. Over the years, we’ve seen a lot of weddings there, and it was hard not to think “what if…” and gradually “someday…” and finally “soon…” I saw a lot of really neat things done at weddings there, and occasionally thought about whether I’d like them in mine. I like our wedding. I like that it’s “us.” I like that it’s us.

I remember when I first saw you there. I was an overwhelmed new tour guide on my first day of museuming. (Well, professional museuming.) You were, in my mind, one of several of the veteran seasoned tour guides I’d be working with. I didn’t know until much later how new you were yourself. You seemed so competent and confident. And you seemed so nice. You made me feel welcome, more than any of the others. I appreciated it.

It was fun getting to know you in those early weeks. You inspired me and challenged me. You made me push myself as a tour guide. You impressed me. And we talked some, and I got to know you not just as a tour guide, but as a person. You impressed me again.

And then there was a first date. And a second. (Or a first-and-a-half and a first-and-three-quarters and a second?) And then many more to follow.

Between meeting at the Depot and returning to the Depot today, it’s been a long journey. With museums and ducks and rockets and cheese and airplanes and ghosts and hardtack and music and histories.

A lot of that journey has been good. To put it mildly. And I’ve loved having you as my companion, sharing in those things. I’ve grown accustomed to your face. I like having you be there. I like you being the person I tell my stories to. I like you being the person I share my stories with. One day when I realized I truly couldn’t imagine you not being the person beside me, I realized I should probably do something about that.

Some of the journey was less good. And those parts made me realize how truly lucky I am. You have loved me in a way I’ve never been loved. You have taught me how to love better. You loved me selflessly, and, again, inspired and challenged me.

I am lucky. So very lucky. If I’m blessed to have you there to share my stories, I’m just as blessed that I get to share yours. I admire your excitement, your passion, your incredible incredible sense of pure wonder. To stand by you is to see the world and be reminded how beautiful it is. I love to see you smile, to bounce, to sing, to dance, to experience and radiate the underappreciated awe of creation.

I admire your heart. I admire the way you treat me. You make me proud to be associated with you. You, again, make me better. People like me better as part of us. I’m very OK with that.

I love that we can adventure together, that rockets and history and Huntsville and so many other things are not a thing one of us shares with the other, but are who WE are as a couple. I love what a strong and tangible “us” there is. That in so many of our undertakings, we are better together than both of us apart.

And if someone is going to be always by my side, it certainly doesn’t hurt that I find her incredibly beautiful.

I love our friends. Our love story is not just ours; it’s an ensemble. A story told with an amazing and beautiful cast of supporting characters, without whom we wouldn’t be us. I’m grateful for them, and love them.

I could go on forever. You would probably prefer I stop and go put on some fancy clothes. And so I will.

See you soon, beloved.

Soon, and forever.

David

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