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A ride with the man who killed Pluto

Managing Editor

Published: Thursday, April 1, 2010

Updated: Monday, November 5, 2012 20:11

5969 Tyson

Clinton Hodnett/ The Spectrum

Neil deGrasse Tyson, astrophysicist and host of Nova on PBS gave an energetic lecture at UB as part of the Distinguished Speaker Series

    Neil deGrasse Tyson is one of the lead men responsible for declassifying Pluto as our solar system's ninth planet.

    Yet, Tyson is perhaps the most famous living astrophysicist. He is the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, host of NOVA scienceNOW and a graduate of Harvard, University of Texas at Austin and Columbia University. He was also People Magazine's "sexiest astrophysicist".

    The resulting debate stirred up protestors, hate mail and left a permanent mark on Tyson's career.

    I was invited to an informal question and answer session and prior to his presentation at Alumni Arena. I spent nearly an hour and a half with the distinguished scientist as we talked about TV, Buffalo, his love for pens and of course science.

    The guest list to the Q&A included children from local grade schools and members of UB's physics clubs. Basically, I was surrounded by brainiacs of all ages and I felt quite out of place.

    The 6-foot-2-inch scientist strolled into 145A Student Union to a round of applause. His style was quite casual, matching the atmosphere of the room. Tyson's dark jeans matched his charcoal gray sport coat, which he wore over a beige vest and collared shirt that had the first few buttons undone.

    The first question came from a fifth grader: "Why is Pluto no longer a planet?"

    Tyson explained that nothing about Pluto has changed, saying the planet is that what it always has been. But what scientists have learned has changed.

    With bigger and better telescopes, scientists have discovered many similar objects like Pluto, which resulted in a new classification for "dwarf planets."

    "Pluto is much happier now," Tyson said. "It's the first in a class of new objects."

    He followed with a story of the time he appeared on The Today Show and Al Roker said comparing Pluto to other planets would be like comparing a regular size car to a Mini-Cooper. But, according to Tyson, this was far off.

    "The realistic comparison [of Pluto to Earth] would be to compare the size of a matchbox car to a regular car," Tyson said.

    After a few more questions regarding Pluto, a young girl wondered why every star doesn't have a name.

    Tyson said about two-thirds of visible stars have names and said it's difficult to name every star. He explained that when a telescope is used, that even more stars become visible. With even bigger telescopes, stars are so abundant that it is impossible to name them all.

    "There aren't enough names in the history of Earth to name all the stars," Tyson said. He added that many names of stars have Arabic names because the first people to actively name them were people in the deserts of the Middle East.

    He went on to explain how the first cultures to discover something in science typically name things accordingly, which is why constellations have Roman names and why recently discovered heavy elements on the periodic table have American names.

    After the session ended, I spotted Bill Regan, the director of special events. He had gotten me in this conference and I was relying on him to set up the next steps.

    A car ride was in order. I'd be accompanying the pair, along with a few others, on Tyson's trip back to the Center for the Arts.

    The vehicle was a university-owned Dodge Caravan. A few of us piled in like we were off to soccer practice and I was ready to fire away a few questions to Tyson, who took shotgun in the van.

    As we were getting situated, I asked Tyson if he was more of a Star Wars or Star Trek fan when he was younger.

    "Star Trek, for sure," Tyson said. "It was on TV and was all about space and exploring new frontiers." He knew at a young age he wanted to focus his life and career on matters beyond Earth.

    "I couldn't believe people wanted to do anything else, like be lawyers or accountants. This stuff is cool stuff," he said after talking about his inspirations to study the heavens.

    One of many reasons came from visits to the Hayden Planetarium in Tyson's hometown of New York City. The planetarium resides in the Museum of Natural History, the same setting for Night at the Museum.

    I asked where his favorite place in the world was to stargaze.

    "Inside a planetarium," he said very quickly. "It gives you the best night sky. The only other thing better is getting way into the countryside. A good way to analyze if a place is good for looking at stars is by checking your cell phone service. If it's really bad, then [observing] will be good."

    As the mini-van pulled onto Putnam Way and we headed to Alumni Arena for a sound check, I asked Tyson which one of his many talk show appearances were his favorite.

    "The Tonight Show with Jay Leno was my biggest achievement," Tyson said. "It's rare that he has a scientist on as a guest … it was a great opportunity to talk about breakthroughs in the space frontier."

    The two-minute ride was over already and we walked into an empty Alumni Arena. Tyson was led up to the stage. Nobody stopped me from following.

    Tyson came prepared, setting up his own Macbook, leaving the A/V team to stand around. "Do you need a VGA adapter for that?" a technician asked.

    "Now, who do you think you're talking to here?" Tyson replied jokingly, pulling the device out of his black bag.

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Laurel Kornfeld
Mon Apr 5 2010 18:19
Tyson never "killed" Pluto; in fact, he has gone out of his way to distance himself from the controversial IAU vote in 2006, saying publicly that he never said our solar system has only eight planets. Pluto is still a planet because dwarf planets are planets too, in spite of the IAU decree. In fact, Earth has far more in common with Pluto than with Jupiter. Only four percent of the IAU voted on the controversial demotion, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto. One reason the IAU definition makes no sense is it says dwarf planets are not planets at all! That is like saying a grizzly bear is not a bear, and it is inconsistent with the use of the term “dwarf” in astronomy, where dwarf stars are still stars, and dwarf galaxies are still galaxies. Also, the IAU definition classifies objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. If Earth were in Pluto’s orbit, according to the IAU definition, it would not be a planet either. A definition that takes the same object and makes it a planet in one location and not a planet in another is essentially useless. Pluto is a planet because it is spherical, meaning it is large enough to be pulled into a round shape by its own gravity--a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium and characteristic of planets, not of shapeless asteroids held together by chemical bonds. These reasons are why many astronomers, lay people, and educators are either ignoring the demotion entirely or working to get it overturned.

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