Benny and his friend Griffin at Ocean Beach in San Francisco.

Thursday, August 24, 2006

Great Hades! Pluto's Not a Planet!

New York Times article

Well, it's official. A bunch of astronomers in Prague have plucked Pluto out of the planet lineup and tossed it into an icy trash bin labeled "Trans-Neptunian Objects."

And I, for one, am pretty upset about it. Not just because Pluto’s one of my favorite planets – that small, icy changeling with the big moon and funky orbit. Like the other planets, it took its name from Roman mythology based on a specific characteristic. (Mercury is fast, Venus is pretty, Jupiter is big, Saturn is slow … you get the picture.)

Named after the God of the Underworld, Pluto’s name evokes more than an ancient god. It’s a place: dark, harsh, cold, remote, a true underworld. Its largest moon, Charon, is named after the ferryman who took dead souls across the River Styx into the Underworld. Its two smaller moons, Hydra and Nix, are named after a nine-headed monster and the Goddess of Night.

But now the International Astronomical Union, drunk with new data about the numerous icy bodies beyond Pluto, launched a thorough housecleaning of the whole classification system. Their central question: what is a planet?

It is, admittedly, a tricky question: if a planet is simply a round object that revolves around the sun, then astronomers would have to promote Ceres, the biggest asteroid in the asteroid belt and Xena, that new planet beyond Pluto. And then what if scientists find a zillion more little worlds? Are they all planets too?

The astronomers didn’t solve this problem like scientists; they solved it like bureaucrats. Determined to strip Pluto of its rank, they sought a clear way to separate it from the other planets beyond the basic criteria: “It’s really small and way the fuck out there.”

So they said a planet, in addition to being round and revolving around the sun, “must have cleared other things out of the way in its orbital neighborhood.” In other words, it had to be alone, except for objects orbiting around it, like moons or rings. That knocked out Ceres in the asteroid belt and Xena in the Kuiper Belt.

Sounds like Pluto’s safe, right? It’s got three moons. Well, Pluto was betrayed by its largest moon: Charon. Apparently Charon doesn’t orbit Pluto like most moons do, the center of gravity is between them. So boom! There goes Pluto on a technicality.

I suppose these astronomers know what they’re talking about when they discuss centers of gravities of objects 3.7 billion miles away. But they’ll look pretty stupid if the NASA's New Horizons spacecraft turns up at Pluto in 2015 and finds out they were wrong.

I think it’s kind of creepy that something so basic in our scientific culture can be changed like this, just because a planet is small and distant. Does this mean a bunch of cartographers will gather in Lisbon next month and decide that Australia isn’t a continent?

Or will Congress enact a law that Hawaii is no longer a state? (“Our new definition of a state includes 'must be connected to the North American landmass. And yeah, Hawaii is small and way the fuck out there.'”)

Scientist by their very nature like things all nice and tidy, but the universe will never cooperate. I’m rushing out today and buying Benny a Solar System mobile with NINE Styrofoam balls. Maybe I’ll have to add a little Xena, but they'll never take my Pluto away.

Friday, August 11, 2006

Pursuit of Power III: The Cure is Worse than the Disease

When we last chatted with William H. McNeill, author of “Pursuit of Power,” old military patterns were busy withering and dying in the 17th century. You could almost hear him cackling and rubbing his hands, crying “Now I can prove my thesis! Hahahahaha!”

Maurice of Nassau and his buds had developed new methods of army organization, and their ideas spread through the world like a virus. McNeill triumphantly returned to his big medical analogy, reminding us how military changes resemble the genetic mutations of microorganisms; they break down old limits or explore new geography.

So now warmakers had the fancy weapons, the new drills, the bitty regiments. The developments kindled in Holland in the 16th century spread like wildfire. In the 17th century the new methods hit western Europe; in the 18th, they transformed Russia under Peter the Great. Then the methods spread to the New World and India during colonial expansion and infected even the Ottoman Empire.

Hoo boy. But these new methods weren’t all-powerful. Generals still had problems controlling armies of more than 50,000 men. They needed better ways to communicate. They needed some decent topographical maps. Supply was a big problem. (Isn’t it always?) Personnel administration was still all screwy, with meatheads with money and connections beating out professional officers for advancement. (That’s changed?) But most of all, war was still a sport of kings. Civilians were left alone.

But not for long. The French Revolution broke social barriers, and then the Industrial Revolution solved communication and supply problems and brought in more nifty new weapons. War became industrialized, Germany was united, everyone in Europe was squabbling, and the next thing you knew, you had World War I.

Talk about breaking old limits. As long as all military movement except for trains depended on horses or humans, the limit of muscles were the limits of armies. But the internal combustion engine changed all that, McNeill said, beginning with the taxicabs that carried French soldiers from Paris for the first Battle of the Marne in 1914.

Even a serious dude like McNeill admitted that World War I was bizarre. Germany, Britain and France were willing to fight despite massive deaths and military stalemate. McNeill tried to explain it, but gave up after a rambling page or two.

You could almost feel his relief as he turned to armaments, treating us to pages of tank photos. Tanks were first developed in 1916, and two years later they were all along the front line.

The British high command even came out with this amazing plan, called Plan 1919. I’d never heard of this plan. Apparently it laid out the blitzkrieg tactics the Germans used 20 years later in Poland. But the war ended a year early, and the Brits never used it.

But it’s still intriguing. Military eggheads before then tended to draw plans based on weapons that, um, actually existed. The British planners, on the other hand, tried to shape the future by deliberately altering the development of weapons to fit the needs of the plan. I can just see them sketching out Plan 1919 to their subordinates, airily saying, “Now if we can just put some big guns on treads, old boy …”

Except for this interesting aside, McNeill used the rest of this book to launch a broad, sociopolitical discussion of the two world wars. I plowed through some of it, but it made my head hurt. So I gave “Pursuit of Power” a respectful farewell salute and toddled off to watch “Supernanny.”

So did McNeill prove his thesis? I don’t feel qualified to judge. I mean, when you think about it, it’s a weird little thesis. So the advanced armies are the deadly viruses, and the backward natives are the once-healthy cells, falling by the millions to the scythe of progress. Does that make my new buddy Maurice a genetic mutation? Oooh, my head hurts.

I think McNeill successfully showed how technological advances in weapons break previous limits, allowing armies to run amok until they hit new limits. Seventeenth-century armies became unwieldy at 50,000 because communication broke down. Then came telegraphs and phones and armies grew larger.

Now we have the Internet and satellites, and the sizes of future armies seem almost infinite. Perhaps if we refrain from blowing ourselves up long enough to develop space travel, we’ll see history repeat itself over planets and systems instead of countries and continents.

And perhaps that’s one of the book’s points. In mankind’s pursuit of power, our ambition will always outstrip our capabilities. Yet while our reach exceeds our grasp, we struggle to handle the technology we hold now, today. We’re like greedy toddlers, unable to eat the candy in our hands, yet always crying for more.