Thursday 28 September 2006

Astronomical controversy

You expect controversy in politics. Every religious story comes served with intense debate. And you almost demand hullabaloo in sport.

But controversy in science?

Scientific controversies are actually quite common, and throughout history, within and outside the scientific community, battles have raged over many topics, from Galileo vs. the Catholic church over the motion of the planets, to Einstein not believing in quantum mechanics, and current debates over global warming, intelligent design and stem cell research.

But the controversy that we are dealing with today is astronomical in size, yet deals with the runt of the litter. Whatever do we do with Pluto?

A few months back, when we did a Mr Science show on Pluto, we all slept soundly in the knowledge that Pluto was a planet. But now things have changed, and Pluto has been demoted to a new class of heavenly body called a Dwarf Planet. Over the last month as I was travelling through India, I stayed up-to-date with the intense debate over how to classify a planet. The International Astronomical Union (IAU) was meeting in Prague, and as remarkable as it may seem, there has never been a universally agreed definition of what a planet is. The Union, which represents national astronomical unions and is the official authority for naming stars and other celestial bodies, decided to solve this problem.

At one stage throughout the debate, it was almost agreed that there would be 12 planets, with the addition of 3 new bodies – the newly discovered world 2003 UB313 (nicknamed “Xena” and now coined Eris), Charon (Pluto’s moon), and Ceres (the largest of the asteroids in the asteroid belt near Jupiter). However the final decision, which not only renounced this pronouncement but also demoted Pluto, upset school children and provided work for textbook publishers world over.

The IAU came out with the following rules that you must meet if you wish to qualify as a planet:

A “planet” is a celestial body that:
  1. is in orbit around the Sun,
  2. has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape,
  3. has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.
A “dwarf planet” or a planetoid is a celestial body that:
  1. is in orbit around the Sun,
  2. has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape,
  3. has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit,
  4. is not a satellite.
The reason that Pluto was classified as a dwarf planet is that it did not meet criteria (3) – it has not cleared its neighbourhood. The lead scientist on NASA’s robotic mission to Pluto, Alan Stern, contends that even Earth, Mars, Jupiter and Neptune have not fully cleared their orbital zones, and so if we are going to demote Pluto, we should demote these bodies as well. However, there is a substantial difference between the extent to which Pluto has cleared out its neighbourhood with its gravitation pull, and the amount of clearing done by these other planets. Indeed, the IAU debates clarified that criteria (3) refers to the process that happened during the formation of the planets and not to bodies that may have strayed into these orbits after the planets were formed. It is this debris that is now in the orbit of these planets, unlike Pluto, which did not have the gravity to clear its orbit of all other material during its formation – there is plenty of material out in the orbit of Pluto.

The 8 classical planets are all in the same plane, all travel in roughly circular orbits and were all formed by the accretion of solar system material. In contrast, Pluto’s orbit is highly inclined to this plane (up to 17° above it) and non-circular. Indeed, sometimes it is closer to the Sun than Neptune. Also, Pluto (and its moon Charon) is what is known as a Kuiper Belt object. The Kuiper Belt contains objects formed out in the far reaches of the solar system, or ejected there by the gravity of Neptune or Jupiter – they are different beasts all together.

One controversy lies in the fact that the definition was only voted on by a very small percentage of the 9000-strong Union. I like the idea that the new rules specify that the planet must have enough gravity to be spherical – that is, it doesn’t propose an arbitrary diameter for planet qualification. I also think that science is one of the most changing and dynamic disciplines this world has, and we should not fight decisions simply because we are afraid of change or upset that our favourite cartoon character now represents a so-called lower form of planet. Science is always changing, I’m sure we’ll see new definitions in the future.

For me, I like the change, but I’m not sure it was really necessary! Pluto was only a planet because it was the first of its kind discovered, but now we have new information, we should not be scared to change our thoughts about it. It doesn’t make it any less scientifically significant – indeed the New Horizons probe, due to reach Pluto in 2015, will provide us with a lot of information on Kuiper belt objects and how the solar system was formed. Anyway, I probably wouldn’t have spent all that money and time on making this edict, but rather let people decide for themselves how to designate “planet”. I like the following division of objects in our solar system – notice no mention of the word “planet”:
  1. Terrestrial bodies (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars) – the solar wind didn’t allow them to accrete very much gas
  2. Asteroid belt – thought by some to be the remains of a terrestrial planet destroyed by the gravity of Jupiter
  3. Gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune)
  4. Kuiper Belt Objects (Pluto, Charon)
  5. Scattered Disk Objects (Xena – between the Kuiper belt and the Oort cloud and probably formed by gravitational interactions between the Kuiper Belt objects and Neptune)
  6. Oort cloud – where comets come from
In any case, it’ll all change when we discover different solar systems and new celestial bodies. But debating this sure beats politics!

And in breaking news, Pluto has a new name: Asteroid number 134340. So now he's not even a cartoon character, and is just a number. Oh dear.

Listen to this show here

Wednesday 20 September 2006

Farewell Steve Irwin

Steve Irwin, probably one of the best known advocates for wilderness and animal conservation in the world, tragically passed away recently in North Queensland, Australia. He was arguably Australia’s best-known science communicator, although he was more popular overseas, particularly in America, than he was at home. His unconventional methods of communicating his work – some say he provoked animals to get them to attack on camera in order to bring viewers to his Crocodile Hunter television series – drew criticism from some and inspired others, yet it is unarguable that Irwin will have a lasting effect on the environmental and conservation movements in Australia and around the world.

Unlike so many other “wacky and zany” science communicators – and there are plenty of them in Australia – Irwin was so genuinely passionate about his cause that he bought millions of dollars of land worldwide in the name of wilderness and animal conservation. How many people can you name that have become famous to some degree through their television persona that have taken the next step and invested a large percentage of their rewards in their cause? I can barely think of one other. And nothing he ever did on screen was fake – he loved what he did and this shone through in everything that he did – whether it was on his television show, in interviews or just when he was being himself. He was genuinely passionate about what he did and was not afraid put his money where his mouth was. Personally, I admire his passion and wish that I had had the chance to meet him.

I must admit my viewpoint here is slightly informed by having met other well-known science communicators in Australia who bank on their personality rather than their in-depth knowledge of science – even Irwin admits he was not the smartest bloke around – who off-camera are still “wacky and zany” but are in no way nearly as passionate about their cause as Irwin was. I can not imagine Irwin fobbing off a young person passionate about conservation by saying “its all too hard to get into this industry”, which has happened to me more than once with high profile communicators. Indeed, Irwin employed over 500 people at the amazing Australia Zoo (which I visited this year) and was constantly encouraging people to take up his cause in whatever way they could. He never said it was all too hard.

His belief was that in order to educate, you need to get people excited. The following quote is from an interview he did with Scientific American:

I believe that education is all about being excited about something. Seeing passion and enthusiasm helps push an educational message. That's the main aim in our entire lives is to promote education about wildlife and wilderness areas, save habitats, save endangered species, etc. So, if we can get people excited about animals, then by crikey, it makes it a heck of a lot easier to save them.

Some say that he deliberately provoked animals into attacking him to make good TV. I have not analysed his whole body of work, so it is probably not for me to comment. But in any case, David Attenborough gets chased by elephant seals and does not have to say “Don’t try this at home”. The reason Irwin was popular was not because he made animals attack (if that’s what actually happened), it is because he got into people’s hearts and minds. Australian’s sometimes did not like the cultural cringe that came with him, but who cares?! He was funny, passionate, called great ugly crocodiles “beautiful sheilas” and inspired millions of people world wide to take an interest in animal habitat conservation. It takes all kinds of communicators to effectively convey science to the public, and Irwin fantastically fitted his section.

Indeed, a lady from Brisbane was able to save her son from a snakebite because of what they had watched on his show – now that’s effective science communication!

And finally, I would like to also make mention that the RSPCA in Brisbane called him a modern day Noah because of his conservation work. “His loss will be felt by animal lovers not just in Australia but all over the world”, said RSPCA Qld chief executive Mark Townend. RSPCA Queensland spokesman Michael Beatty, who first worked with Irwin when Irwin was just 15, said Mr Irwin's contribution to society would only truly be recognised in the years ahead.

“He put his money where his mouth was”, Mr Beatty said. “Other people talked about it, Steve did it.”

If there is any organisation in the world qualified to comment on whether Irwin’s methods were cruel to animals and whether he became popular through less than noble means, it would be the RSPCA. Yet they are calling him a modern day Noah. I hope that into the future we realise Irwin’s legacy and pay tribute to a man who, although he didn’t appeal to everyone, has made a tremendous difference to the environmental and conservation causes around the world. My deep sympathies also for his family, as his other passion was clearly for them. His is truly a tragic loss.

It is not the critic who counts - not the one who points out how the strong man stumbled or how the doer of deeds might have done better. The credit belongs to the one who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred with sweat and dust and blood… Who strives valiantly… who errs and comes short again and again… who knows the great enthusiasms, the great devotions, and spends himself in a worthy cause - and who, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who know neither victory nor defeat.

Theodore Roosevelt’s "Man in the Arena" Speech (April 23, 1910)

See the Enough Rope interview with Steve Irwin

Listen to this show here

Friday 15 September 2006

India - Mr Science continues being the travelling scientist

India - the 2nd in my travelling scientist series, and the second stop in my all-to-brief tour of South Asia. I have edited together my recordings from India into a 30 minute feature about science in the developing world.

India is a fascinating combination of developed and developing worlds, and this contrast was seen on my very first day on landing in Delhi. Simply comparing Old Delhi with New Delhi set me up for an amazing tour of an amazing country. I also gained a little bit of insight into the types of illnesses one can encounter on the subcontinent. Some of the serious, and not-so-serious, topics dealt with this week include:
  1. A storm in a coke bottle - the Indian political debate over minute levels of pesticides in soft drinks - whilst most of the country does not even have clean drinking water.
  2. How to make the "Mother of Satan" bomb, and other Indian takes on terrorism - a real day-to-day issue for the country.
  3. Travel bugs - helping my suffering brother through Indian hospitals.
  4. Maharaja scientists.
  5. Sun burn makes you crazy.
  6. Music and HIV.
  7. The Taj Mahal's own "Da Vinci Code" -esque intrigue.
  8. Bollywood.
We also take in some India music, interview ex-pats and locals, ride elephants and suffer at the hands of dodgy rickshaw drivers.

Listen to this show here

Saturday 9 September 2006

Thank God for Camera Phones

This post is a follow-up to a couple of the stories we have recently run on Mr Science. This week, I have had the good fortune to meet a couple of superstars, directly related to our Mr Science topics.

We have done a couple of stories in the past on the science of music:
  1. Can scientists predict your music taste, and
  2. Music and Science on the brain
I was fortunate this week to meet one of my all-time favourite artists, Ben Folds, after his concert with the Sydney Symphony Orchestra. I also managed to make a fool of myself in front of his wife, by commenting to my friend Laura, "You dressed up for Foldsie", and then when Mrs Folds, who was in front of us in the line, turned around, Laura said "Are you a Foldsie too?" meaning something like "Is your name also Folds?", whilst I exchanged smiles with her friend, who I thought at the time maybe liked me, but was clearly smiling at my stupidity. Then when we looked around from our seats a bit later, we commented when looking at the best seats, "That's where Ben Folds would seat his family, where Foldsie is sitting." It then sunk in that Foldsie was actually Frally Hynes, wife of Ben Folds and subject of many songs. Good one Marc.

We recently did a story on the science of soccer, and this week I had the fortune to meet the highest profile football player playing in Australia of recent years, and all-time great, Dwight Yorke. When a group of us wandered over to the local field for a game of soccer at lunch time, this big black 4WD pulled up, the window wound down, and the driver said, "Can we have a kick around with you, its your chance to play with a superstar." We were all thinking, "Who is this guy", until we looked passed him to the passenger seat, to see the diamond ear ring and gleaming white teeth of Dwight Yorke. When the 4WD finally returned, Dwight had changed into his sporting gear, and was accompanied by two lovely ladies and a minder, who went off to buy him prawns and whatever else he wanted. Dwight turned out to be a great guy just wanting to have a kick around before his long-hall flight back to English football.

Thank goodness for camera phones, otherwise I'd have no proof of these celebrity encounters (I have now got myself one too - these were taken by others - thanks to one of Dwight's lady friends, and to Laura's mum).

Tuesday 5 September 2006

The Philippines - Mr Science becomes the travelling scientist

I have edited together the travel Philippines podcast feature. The podcast contains recordings made during my recent two weeks in the Philippines, as well as a little Pinoy music. The podcast investigates serious, and not-so-serious, Philippino scientific topics through interviews with Philippinos and ex-pats, and my own musings (I'll give a plug here to the belkin dongle that I bought to turn my ipod into a recording device - form your own opinions on the recording quality, I was pleasantly surprised). Some of the topics covered are:
  1. Scientific Philippino facts (i.e. 80% of the world's tropical fish come from the Philippines)
  2. Our trek to the world's longest navigatable underground river on the island of Pelawan
  3. The role science in the developing world
  4. How science and analysis can inform developing world governments
  5. Balut - boiled chicken embryo still in the egg (see this Mr Science story for more details)
  6. Speech therapy in the Philippines
  7. Pollution, rabies, immunisation
  8. Strange Philippino fruits
You can subscribe to this podcast by clicking on the following clicklet, which should be flashing up how many subscribers we currently have (we currently have around 1000 - 1500 downloads per week, depending on whether there is new material up). This will allow you to subscribe using your favourite podcast client (itunes, ipodder, PodNova etc).

Or listen to this show here

So, enjoy the podcast - it is in a slightly different format to what I usually do as it is a 30 minute feature. I hope it is entertaining as well as scientific, so please email me or leave comments if you have any thoughts, and let me know if the longer features are a good idea. I plan to do them for special occasions - next up is a feature on India, so stayed tuned.