April 28, 2006

Pluto, the "Has-Been" of the Solar System

Category: Science And Technology — Cranky @

For some time the astronomic community has wrestled with the question of whether or not Pluto should retain its status as “planet”. One can certainly understand why the debate exists. After all, Pluto is very small. In fact, it’s smaller than Earth’s moon.

One of Pluto’s moons has been given, without a doubt, the single coolest name ever given to a celestial body – Charon. In Greek mythology, Charon was the ferryman of the dead. Souls were brought to him by Hermes, and each paid for their trip with a coin, which was usually placed under the tongue of the deceased. Tell me that’s not the perfect name for the moon of an incredibly distant, lonely, and very cold planet.

Pluto circles the sun about once every 248 years, it’s thin atmosphere, likely nitrogen and carbon monoxide, alternating between freezing and sublimating to gas. It’s on an axis that is tilted 17 degrees with respect to the plane of the solar system, and it’s a rocky planet, which again makes it an oddity, since all other rocky planets are closer to the sun. Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune are gas giants. It’s orbit is highly eccentric, and periodically it passes closer to the sun than Neptune. These hints seem to suggest Pluto was not formed in the manner of the other planets.

Most people, though, grew up in a solar system of nine planets. We were taught their names, and their order, and we never questioned Pluto – it was just there, having been named a planet in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh. The idea of reducing the planet count to eight simply feels wrong. Pluto earned its place, didn’t it? Well, no. Pluto is just a big old hunk of matter out on the fringes of our little corner of the universe, and it could care less how we classify it.

We’re reluctant to reclassify it for sentimental reasons, but it’s one of billions of astronomical objects, and if it no longer fits the definitions we’ve agreed on, we should change its status. Otherwise we are preventing ourselves from maintaining consistency in our sciences – and that’s bad.

The bell has been tolling on “Pluto as planet” for some time. Pluto is an object in the Kuiper Belt. The Belt is composed of comet-like debris left over from the formation of the solar system, and sits beyond Neptune. Astronomers estimate there are over 30,000 different Kuiper Belt objects greater than 100 kilometers across. If they were to find a number of comparably sized objects, the debate would be over, and Pluto would become just another body in a sea of similar bodies. However, Pluto has thus far escaped this fate because it is large enough to have held that wisp of an atmosphere, which changes its albedo (reflectivity), and thus makes detection easier from Earth.

Now along comes 2003-UB313. It’s roughly 97 times farther away from the Sun than we are – nearly twice as far out as Pluto – and it’s larger, too. In fact, it might be large enough to really be considered a planet. It’s been named Xena, informally, but it’ll get an official name eventually.

So what does this mean? Well, potentially it means that we no longer need fear an eight-planet solar system. We just have to change planet nine. I’m all for it. Science is about the acceptance of change, following rigorous analysis.

Bye bye, Pluto! I think we should name the new planet “Miata”.

Cranky

April 24, 2006

The Project

Category: Life — Cranky @

Most people lead busy lives. Parents, especially, have little extra time to spend on frivolous tasks. Often if they can get a half-hour of relaxation in the evenings they are doing well. But in the bustle of life, one can’t simply move from moment to frantic moment. People need time to regroup, to reassert control. They need to feel like they are in charge of their lives, rather than simply reacting to it.

I think that everybody should have a project – something that spans months, and potentially years. Maybe even decades.

Even if you can only get to it once in a few weeks, there’s something about having a task that adds a sense of continuity and steadiness to life. Anybody who builds model trains with terrain knows that feeling. When you have a few moments, it’s waiting.

Musicians get this feeling from continuing to learn new techniques or songs for most of their lives. True jigsaw puzzle aficionados spend years completing massive works over ten thousand pieces in size. Many women knit – it’s become hip to be square – and many are knitting on a large scale, working months on a single piece. Hobbyist carpenters are always looking for the next project. There are many retirees building boats in their garages.

Whether it’s learning something new, or practicing an already mastered craft, a project changes the way you think. It calms the nerves, and becomes a source of peace. When I’m feeling like things are a little complex, I pick up my guitar, start learning a new computer language, or write.

Finding a project may not be simple, but there’s one out there for everybody. And if one day you finish your project, sit back, revel in the pride, beat the drum a little and show off to your friends and family, and then quietly start another one. Life is very long, and very short. Use the time in a way that makes you happy.

Cranky

April 21, 2006

Hippies Don't Impress Me.

Category: Social — Cranky @

I can’t really nail down just what modern day hippies are all about. It used to be that hippies were about peace, love and happiness. They sometimes marched… but more often they “sat in”. Non-violent protest… by which they meant non-active protest. If they had to actually do anything, it seldom got done.

Nowadays the average hippie seems to be a university student who can afford to hide because he doesn’t yet have to have a job. The defining characteristic of the male of the species is the presence of a ragged little patch of fur under their mouth… the goatee. For women, it’s a ragged little patch of fur under the mouth of her boyfriend.

Still other hippies are participating in that age-old tradition, the seeking of acceptance. They proclaim their individuality by looking and acting just like an entire subculture. More power to them. But it seems to me if you want to be an individual, melding seamlessly into the crowd a bad way to go about it.

Other hippies are a bit more true to their roots, but they all share a common thread. They do very little. There’s a very good reason for it – the same one that kept the 60’s hippies from really contributing.

Marijuana.

Let’s face it. The other major characteristic of hippies is that they get high. A lot. And when you’re high a lot, the only thing you really want to do is whatever is necessary to ensure that there’s more weed available later. That’s why those cute hippie chicks date these ugly Shaggy clones. They’ve got great weed hookups.

Hippies believe they stood for something. I can’t really see what. The ideals got lost in the inactivity. Communing, getting “in tune with nature”, and participating in “free love” is simply partying, getting stoned, and screwing. Nothing new there.

That’s not to say that hippies don’t expand their minds… but usually it happens with acid, rather than weed. Weed treats the mind to a paddleboat ride for two on a placid lake. Acid drives it like a rented Ferrari. Guess which one holds crazy revelations? Acid hippies are the much, much rarer cousin of the extremely common “baked” variety.

Every once in a while one of those darned hippies gets all motivated. So what do they do? Why, they open up a bong shop or a hemp store, of course. If they REALLY get into it, they might string their own crappy necklaces and wristbands out of uncoloured hemp string and cheap beads. God forbid they should do anything really well, or (gasp!) anything unrelated to some form of weed.

I’m not saying to the average hippie, “Get a job!” That’s against the rules. But I AM saying, “Do something!” Paint a picture. Write a book. Or write a song that doesn’t have one crappy guitar line, a bunch of lyrics about peace, togetherness, or the land and who it does or does not belong to, and a pointless harmony line that your partner can sing.

Stop being a stereotype. Contribute. We’re all in this together.

Cranky