When Franklin Almost Met Netwon

Mr. Benjamin Franklin and Sir Isaac Newton

Happy Independence Day to my fellow Americans.  I usually don’t write about holidays, unless I can find some mild hook into the content of this blog.  My only other attempt was when I wrote about the possibility of the Star of Bethlehem being a supernova.  Consider this post then the second in an obscure series.

There are a few foundational works I wish every American would read.  One of those is the autobiography of Benjamin Franklin.  He was, in my view, the true “proto-American.”  From his curious nature, to how he rose and excelled at his careers, his advice to others, to his views on government and public service, his suspicions of politicians on both sides of the Atlantic, to his perspective of the world at large, Franklin was of course a core contributor to America’s independence philosophy.  If you struggle with what is means to be an American today, reading Benjamin Franklin’s account of his life is a wonderful starting point.

My favorite part of his autobiography has nothing to do with America or any of the latter events of the late 18th century (and spoiler, he never really talks about 1776 directly; his narrative is like a prequel of events long before the American Revolution).  It is just one brief comment, where Franklin mentions his interest and hope as a young man to meet Isaac Netwon, while Franklin was in England:

My pamphlet by some means falling into the hands of one Lyons, a surgeon, author of a book entitled ‘The Infallibility of Human Judgment,’ it occasioned an acquaintance between us. He took great notice of me, called on me often to converse on those subjects, carried me to the Horns, a pale alehouse in ——— Lane, Cheapside, and introduced me to Dr. Mandeville, author of the ‘Fable of the Bees,’ who had a club there, of which he was the soul, being a most facetious, entertaining companion. Lyons, too, introduced me to Dr. Pemberton, at Batson’s Coffee-house, who promis’d to give me an opportunity, some time or other, of seeing Sir Isaac Newton, of which I was extreamely desirous; but this never happened.

As an American interested in science and the historical contexts of both, it would have been very cool for the young Franklin to have met the old Newton in the 1720s.  Even though this was over a half century before America’s independence and Franklin’s rise to prominence, it nonetheless would have been an unlikely crossing of two legendary men, both slightly out of their own times.

It’s also fun evidence how this one small note from Franklin affirmed Netwon’s importance and notoriety even while he still lived.

The Mark Hamill Trilogy

Star Wars is in desperate need of a reboot.

Disney’s first three-movie set was a failure long before the third movie will have arrived (within a few days as of this writing).  It’s not a trilogy, for that would imply a consistent and coherent arc of characters and story across three acts.  Anyone who saw The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi, even if they liked them, knows these two movies were disjoint and had little relation to each other.  All major threads from the first movie were abruptly abandoned in plot and/or tone in the second.  TLJ was a Star Wars parody marginally disguised as a space epic.

There is no reason to see the third film, The Rise of Skywalker, regardless of how hard it may try to mend the “trilogy.”  A car totaled as a wreck cannot be returned to working condition.

Don’t buy the marketing tagline all over commercials: TRoS is not “the end of the Skywalker saga.”  The true end of the saga, Return of the Jedi, was released in 1983.

The new characters will not be remembered in any meaningful way.  Rey, Kylo, and Finn are not the cultural successors to Han, Luke, and Leia.  A fatal flaw of the new movies was in not appreciating how the performances of Harrison Ford, Mark Hamill, and Carrie Fischer were intricate to what made original Star Wars so special.

It seems like Star Wars is doomed to relegation as streaming service content bait.  But is there a path forward to make Star Wars, well, Star Wars again, in film?  Optimistically, I believe so.

The solution would first require the wholesale removal of LucasFilm’s current executive leadership, to be replaced by creative talent that understands what made classic Star Wars great, that their task is neither to focus on contemporary social issues nor plagiarize A New Hope again.  Disney, this action is on you.

What could the new team do to reboot Star Wars?  How about giving the fans exactly what they want this time.

Jake Skywalker

We went to The Force Awakens to see Luke Skywalker in action, but instead got an opening crawl that decreed, “Luke Skywalker has vanished.”  So we went to The Last Jedi to see Luke Skywalker in action, but instead got the bitter, whiny, and depressed Skywalker known as Jake.  So when are we going to get to see the real Luke?

It’s time for the Jedi Master Skywalker trilogy.  It will be faithful in character, tone, and story to the original Star Wars movies.  It will be all about Luke Skywalker, as the main character and in action as we expect the last Jedi Master to be.

Though respecting the past, it will be a completely separate story from anything we have seen before.  The Star Wars galaxy is very big – give Luke an amazing, original story that takes him and us on adventures we have yet to realize.  Make it fun and timeless.

There are multiple levels of beauty to this.  The portrayal of Luke Skywalker by Mark Hamill could carry an entire trilogy, in a way that few if any other pop culture icons could.  You don’t need any other original characters, although his faithful companion R2-D2 would be an appropriate pairing, with the droid having a proper character role and not as a discarded hood ornament.

Further, and this is the win for Disney, a trilogy for Hamill’s Skywalker would provide sufficient time to cultivate a core of new characters around Luke, that through their association with Skywalker, would create a genuine emotional investment for fans, leveraged afterwards for future Star Wars projects.

What about the Rey movies?  Here, Disney can use their newfound kit of discarding past precedent and internal consistency to their advantage.  Simply ignore, completely, the Rey movies.  They never happened.  Call them “Legends” content just as Disney relegated the Expanded Universe prior.  Ultimately, there would be nothing to stop Disney from producing content for that other line of characters, if they think the revenue is there.  But hopefully the Hamill trilogy would become the de facto starting point for all new Star Wars content.

It’s nice to dream of what could have been.  I would like to retain hope that someday, Star Wars will be course-corrected and I will want to see a Star Wars movie in a theater again.  Until then, I will take Mark Hamill’s advice and wait until the movies reach cable.

What Star Wars Meant to Me

I am very aware, intellectually, that I am, emotionally, far too vested into Star Wars. But regardless, there is no denying that Star Wars was a key part of my childhood, and continues to be a significant background imprint on my life in adulthood. I was barely a toddler in my parent’s car at a drive-in for 1977’s original release of the sci-fi-fantasy classic.

It should go without saying that I was a child of Star Wars. There were few popular culture forces (no pun intended) that were more significant to me than those mere three movies. Except for one, no other movie, no music, no television show, certainly no books, made an impression upon me as a young boy in the way that Star Wars did. The only other contender for my childhood attention, and for being instrumental in the development of my ways of thinking, views, and philosophies, was Doctor Who. The Time Lord is another matter entirely which I will not get into now. But I do consider Doctor Who and Star Wars to be the twin pillars of my boyhood foundation.

It is with this background that I felt compelled to write a little blurb. It is partially related to my blog, for Star Wars, being as important as it is to me personally, is a core reason why I took an interest in the stars and in the universe and astronomy. It was certainly not the only reason, but it is hard to deny that it did have an influence, and I wouldn’t have this blog today if it wasn’t for that impact. No, in this aspect it is not about Death Stars and space cruisers and X-Wings and TIE fighters duking it out in the vacuum of space. It is about the imagination angle, of being able to freely travel amongst limitless stars and their worlds. To fantasize about a reality where space travel was the norm, to wonder about the many planets and adventures that awaited anyone with a starship willing to explore them; this was a little dream of mine. It may be a small aspect of Star Wars, but again, it’s a part of me that this fiction built.

One Hero

Where to begin this conversation? I think you need to start your understanding of Star Wars at a very core and simplistic level. What is Star Wars? If you strip everything away, i.e. the episode numbers, the novels, the video games, the comic books, television shows, and all the toys and merchandises throughout the decades, what do you have left? Star Wars, at its most fundamental, was a movie trilogy. And if you want to go further, and strip things back even further, you can contest, very strongly, that Star Wars was a single classic and culturally-impactful movie. Everything else that came after was a variation or a slight extension on that one movie. Yes, you can argue that The Empire Strikes Back may have been the better movie in story, characters, and plot, but it doesn’t change what Star Wars was at its genesis

Now you could pull this contraction back a little, and recognize that the original three movies, plus the prequel trilogy, were the anthology of Anakin Skywalker. Combined, they were a set of six movies telling of the rise and tragic fall and eventual redemption of a single hero. And that hero was not Luke Skywalker, or Princess Leia, or Han Solo, or Ben Kenobi; the character most central to Star Wars was Anakin.

Anakin’s story ended in Return of the Jedi. The story had a beginning and an end, which of course was a little complicated, because the episodes went 4-5-6-1-2-3. But be that as it may, it was still the story of one storyteller, George Lucas. There was obviously an ensemble group of many people who contributed to the Star Wars imprint upon our culture, but Lucas was the center of it all. And just like any novel, or other movie, or any series of any genre (think Tolkien for The Lord of the Rings or Rowling with the Harry Potter series) these are the works of artists. Their works, as their own, have a great authority and credibility to them, that make us, the consumers of their works, greatly appreciate and want to invest in them. We want to follow their creations, to believe in the characters, and to imagine and fantasize about their worlds and fictional realities. It’s a wonderful relationship, when great storytellers can do this and inspire hundreds, thousands, millions around the world, in all different countries and within many different cultures.

Expanding Expectations

For most, the first movie and maybe the first trilogy and possibly the second trilogy are all that is sufficient to consume and be satisfied with Star Wars. But then there are those like me, who even at an early age wanted more. The movies, of course, were considered the one true “canon,” and anything else created around the movies were effectively interpretations and even opinions of that canon. Now I have never been a big fan worrying about canon in fiction, as it is largely meaningless and irrelevant. Its only point of relevancy is in keeping stories internally consistent and believable to their audiences. In our example of Star Wars, if one novel claimed something about one character, and a second novel made a contrary claim to the first, only the movies would be considered the standard by which to determine the correct interpretation. Again, we are talking about the canon of fiction, and it is only an attempt to keep the past, current, and future stories relevant and consistent.

I jumped slightly ahead in bringing up the novels of Star Wars. Past the movies, there was a whole group of novels and video games and comics that were eventually called the “Expanded Universe” of Star Wars. Back in the 1990s, I read about 25 of those novels. I started with The Corellian trilogy, and then read other trilogies and books, like The Jedi Academy trilogy, the tales of the bounty hunters, and of course the Timothy Zahn trilogy. The Zahn trilogy is referenced quite a bit even today because it was a great post-Return of the Jedi story as well as for the villain it introduced, Grand Admiral Thrawn.

Expanded Universe content was great for fans like me who wanted to keep abreast of the Star Wars universe during the hiatus of the movies. And it is important to note here, even though these extra stories were not considered canon, they still either directly or indirectly received the blessings of George Lucas. This is very key, as it goes back to the consistency and believability of the stories regardless of whether or not they sometimes contradicted each other. The fans knew, or at least I knew, that Lucasfilm was ultimately trying to expand the Star Wars universe with good stories, in ways that would make fans anticipate and want more future content.

Who shot first?

Not everything was bliss with Star Wars from the fans’ perspective. Many portions of the prequel trilogy were not well-accepted. In addition, Lucas had a near-aggravating tendency to want to continually meddle with his original works. This gave rise to the special editions in the mid-1990s, around the 20th anniversary of the original film’s debut. Much of the latter un-favorability in fan reaction towards Lucas stemmed from his decisions during this era. But after much hindsight, I really believe that much of what Lucas did during this time could have been ultimately forgiven by the fans, if only Lucas had recanted on one sole item. Forget about Jar Jar and midichlorians and a gross overuse of CGI.

There was only one true sin to all the remakes and editings and post-original trilogy content that Lucas was responsible for. That the creator of Star Wars himself felt it necessary to change the character of Han Solo was something that I do not understand to this day. For many, Solo was Star Wars. In a galaxy filled with creatures and wizards and fantastical space armies, Solo the smuggler represented perhaps the most grounded character outside of Luke in the original movie. Whereas Luke was the untested nephew of a farmer who had never seen the galaxy before, Solo offered a glimpse into a very believable underground that engulfed the characters and events that we were just starting to learn about. And in this regard, it was totally believable that a smuggler such as him found it necessary and proper to take the initiative to kill the one who had come to kill him. Yes, Han shot first. This may have been the single most important early scene in the entire movie. It revealed Han’s world and character in a way that could never be described directly by spoken words. And this made his own journey and transformation by the end of the film all the more amazing for the viewers to see.

So why did Lucas find it necessary to edit his original film so that Greedo shot first? Based on what I remember of his interviews from that era, I recall he was trying to soften the character image of Solo for the more contemporary and younger audiences that would be seeing Star Wars for the first time. For whatever it is worth, it certainly seems shortsighted in hindsight, and I really do believe that is the one single unforgettable edit that makes many view Lucas unfavorably to this day.

This is the Star Wars that I knew. For everything that I can say about it, the good and the bad, but mostly good, it was an overall very positive impression upon me and I’m sure upon many others.

Contemporary Matters

If you have been following Star Wars news for any recent length of time, then you should know where this discussion is heading. Earlier this decade, George Lucas sold Star Wars to Disney, prompting a big shift in mindset for the fans, as the original creator of the Star Wars mythos would no longer be involved in the creation of future content. Why is this relevant? Because now the onus was put upon the new owner of the Star Wars intellectual property, to make the case for why fans should still follow the continuing stories within the Star Wars universe. Up until this point, all Star Wars movies and extra materials had either the direct or indirect concurrence of the man who began it all.

Maybe you do not see this is a big deal. Maybe you take the mindset that it was merely time to pass the torch on to others to continue the work. I agree with that to a point. You need to ask yourself, do the new owners truly understand what Star Wars is? This is a question not just of today but when Star Wars was sold to Disney. All content since the purchase has to have been viewed with this mindset.

The official episodes aside, I was fairly optimistic after the release of the standalone movie Rogue One. Perhaps there were points to criticize with that film, but I viewed it all in the context of Disney’s first attempt to reimagine the Star Wars brand in their own way while still remaining true to the original source material. By this test, Rogue One passed very well. It was an interesting take on the events leading up to the first Star Wars movie and it did not contradict prior plots or characters in any noticeable way. There were known issues with the directorial path of the movie, but in the end, you can liken the final result to that of an airplane’s crash landing where everyone survives. It worked, but it just barely avoided disaster.

Now we get to the sequel trilogy. Were the first two movies of this new trilogy consistent and faithful with the original source content? The first movie, The Force Awakens, also known as Episode VII, was a fledging disappointment right at the very start of the film. I think this has to do with my expectations from the Expanded Universe. In all those stories (which Disney has demoted to “legacy” status) that took place after Return of the Jedi, there was an assumption that the defeat of the Emperor was a real turning point for the course of any story thereafter. The evil Empire was over, and in its place was a fledging New Republic. The first critical mistake with The Force Awakens was the complete disregard for this assumption.

It would have made much more sense, along with being a telegraphed intention to longtime fans, if the New Republic was the backdrop for the entire sequel trilogy. The prequel trilogy took place in the context of the Old Republic that had lasted for countless millennia. The middle/original trilogy was all done within the context of the Empire. And so the sequel trilogy could have logically followed to be taking place within the assumption that the new Republic, the benefit derived from the conclusion of Return of the Jedi, was the new reality for the next chapter of the story. It would have made even further sense because of the many decades that have passed in our real-time, to see a new generation that did not remember life under the old ways. It would’ve made for some interesting storytelling.

Instead, Episode VII introduced a rehash and reboot of the old Empire versus Rebellion scenario. From the first scrolling text of Episode VII, I immediately had a depressing feeling that all the gains from Episode VI (Return of the Jedi) were swept aside for reasons unknown, and I couldn’t believe that any storyteller who truly understood Star Wars would do that.

Be this as it was, at the time I did not consider this a fatal course. I was willing to give the new trustees of Star Wars the benefit of the doubt that The Force Awakens was setting up a truly riveting and engaging trilogy. There were a lot of unknowns and questions introduced in the first movie of the sequel trilogy and I just had to believe that there were going to be major payoffs to those set-ups in the second and third films.

Fool Me Once, Shame on You…

As of this writing (September 2019), the last movie of the trilogy is still several months away from release. While there was some hope after the first movie, it was abruptly squelched by the second movie, and I would say fatally. For The Last Jedi, Episode VIII, dealt for me the tragic blow that voided my interest in anything that will be produced as “Star Wars” from here on out.

From the beginning of The Last Jedi, it simply did not feel like a Star Wars movie. Starting with an awkward in-space flat comedy routine, much of the ensuing space battle and dialogue were unlike anything we saw in any prior Star Wars film. Star Wars has always been a space opera, and all of the prior movies kept to this format. Some parts of Star Wars, as in any property, have to be kept sacrosanct. To give an example of what I mean, if Episode IX’s music score were going to be all dance hip-hop instead of orchestral, what would your reaction be, even if you really like hip-hop? Whatever your impression, you’d have to admit that it would not be Star Wars. The Last Jedi broke much Star Wars structure and convention in the same way.

A Trap Worth Setting

And much could be said of all these internal inconsistencies throughout the movie, but others have documented this far better at other locations on the Internet. Still, I will give just one example of what I felt was a glaring opportunity for a wonderful interjection of original Star Wars material bridged into the contemporary story.

The character of Vice Admiral Holdo was not only unnecessary, but a true missed chance to leverage one of the most memorable classical characters. Instead of her story arc, which felt like a befuddled attempt at contemporary political commentary, the character of Admiral Akbar was both present and available for a compelling, non-divisive, epic conclusion to his own story arc. It’s worth pointing out that Admiral Akbar, who first appeared in Return of the Jedi, and despite his relatively minor role, became a beloved character from the original trilogy. He is precisely the type of character that should have been leveraged more effectively to invoke nostalgia and to help build the foundation of new Star Wars material in the Disney era.

Instead of killing him off without even a thought and barely a notice, it should have been him who took over Resistance command when General Organa was incapacitated. Now before I go on, I should note that there were a number of flaws with how the story got to that point. Leia’s resurrection in space, as well as how the ship chase came about, were problematic in the overall context of the story’s plot and Star Wars canon. But for the purposes of this small argument, let’s assume that it all made sense, and the First Order chasing the single remaining Resistance capital ship is the moment of story we wish to improve.

It would have been Admiral Akbar’s prerogative to attempt several daring escape plans that could only stem from a venerable military mind like his. Attempt one would fail. Attempt two would fail. These would have been the “B” plot worked alongside the “A” plot of Rey and Luke. And then finally, realizing that there was no other option, Admiral Akbar would make his final command decision, to buy time for the fleeing Resistance ships to reach the planet Crait. He would set a trap of his own for the First Order, which would allow him to steer the capital ship back towards their star destroyer and, in conventional fashion, ram his ship into theirs. It would have been a glorious scene that would have left me, and I’m sure many others, crying that one of our favorite characters gave his life in such dramatic fashion so the good guys could retain hope.

Maybe my Akbar story arc would not have worked for reasons I have not thought of. But still, something like this or very similar could have been written by any well-versed story writer with a deep understand of Star Wars context. If I could do it, why couldn’t Disney hire one of the best and brightest in Hollywood to think of something along those lines?

Repeated Mistakes

Just as Lucas had his one core infraction for altering the character of Han Solo, so Disney has made their fatal mistake with The Last Jedi and their treatment of Luke Skywalker.

Many others have discussed this as well, but it is so relevant and important in the context The Last Jedi’s flaws, that it is worth restating again. How did the most optimistic character in this story universe go from seeing the good within such a dark agent of evil (Darth Vadar) to believing that he had to kill his own nephew in cold blood over a dream? True, there was precedent for this, as we saw in the prequel trilogy, as well as Luke’s own failure from his visions at Dagobah, but it still didn’t fit the character of Luke. And keep in mind that we are talking about an older, mature Luke, the Jedi Master, who already underwent his trials. In the prequel trilogy, Anakin was seduced by the dark dreams planted upon him when he was still young and impressionable and did not know how to deal with them.

In the context of Kylo Ren, I am sure all fans of Star Wars knew that Luke would be dejected and demoralized for his own failure, regardless of what we think of this as a reflection of the writing of Luke’s character in Episode VIII. But you also have to admit, that there was quite a bit of bait and switch between The Force Awakens and The Last Jedi. I would even go so far as to call it false advertising given the cliffhanger of the first movie. For we saw Master Luke in his light side robes, and you probably thought the same as I did, that he would fit in perfectly with the Jedi Council in another era. Yes, Luke had a final journey of his own to make and to ultimately save his friends one last time, but then we were treated by the most grievous of insults to every longtime Star Wars fan.

First was the casual tossing away of his father’s lightsaber. Now this did not make sense even with regards to these new movies. Do you recall how much of a reverence and special significance the lightsaber was given when Rey found it? Regardless of how you feel about the lightsaber apparently taking on some form of sentience, you knew that in the story there was a respect for the article and where it came from and its significance to Star Wars. This is where we get to the true crux of the issue of subverting expectations. For there is a line between good storytelling and insulting your most loyal longtime fans. I would’ve thought that for a corporation of Disney’s size and resources, that staying on the proper side of that line would have been easy and of course the safe alternative.

The second heinous act committed at the very beginning of the movie was the actual bait and switch. For no reason at all Luke decides to change from his venerable Jedi robes and into the attire of a hobo. It was a trick, almost as if the intent was to purposely alienate those who respect Star Wars classic material. We waited over 30 years to see Master Skywalker in action, and this was the best Disney could come up with?

If you’re not with me, then you’re my enemy!

It has been said that the director of The Last Jedi, Rian Johnson, wants half his film’s viewers to love it and the other half hate it. As a personal goal for his own works that is clearly his prerogative to hold such a philosophy. But is Disney really okay with that? Was it Disney’s implicit goal to alienate a sizable portion of its fan base?

Count me in the camp of the alienated. A consistent and well-thought trilogy story, this new movie series from Disney is not. The Last Jedi broke my interest in new Star Wars content. I will always have my memories of the original movies and the extended content that spanned over three decades. They are good memories to have and my only altruistic regret is that the current generation of young fans will not have the same experiences with Star Wars.

Will anybody care in 40 years what happened to Rey, Finn, Poe, or Ben Solo? These are not iconic characters. They are the creation of a collective, uncaring hive mind mentality indicative of a large corporation that pushed cautioun when it did not need to and was ideological when it should have focused on mythology.

No Expectations

I have no plans to see the next Star Wars movie, Episode IX, The Rise of Skywalker, in theaters within the next few months. I am sure I’ll eventually see it, but I am in no hurry. In fact, this is the very first Star Wars movie that I have actively checked to see what the latest leaks and theories are on the story. I did none of this during the prequel era nor for Episodes VII and VIII. For all those movies, I wanted to go into the theater with no expectations and to be entertained, to learn a new chapter in the Star Wars saga. But all that is ruined now. I care nothing for these characters nor the convoluted story they’ve been part of. Who is Rey? Is she is a Skywalker, a Kenobi, a reincarnated clone of Anakin, or the nobody Episode VIII claimed her to be? The key failure of this trilogy was its inability to get the core fan to invest into understanding the main character’s plight and story and struggle…because she had no plight and struggle! In some ways it is remarkable that Disney, with all of its resources, could not come up with a halfway interesting main character for one of the most important intellectual properties that they now own.

As I stated at the beginning of this conversation, the burden was on Disney to give fans a reason to remain vested in the new Star Wars. That reason never came about and they squandered their chance.

It is time to take the advice of Kylo Ren and let the past die. Unfortunately for Disney, this advice comes to their detriment, at least for my minuscule corner of the Star Wars fan base.

Always pass on what you have learned.

Star Wars was truly special 40 years ago. Kids and kids at heart were inspired by it, loved it, invested their time into it, and cared for it. The canonical arc from that time was unique and not replicated since. I don’t need any new Star Wars material to validate my original interest in the real Star Wars. It remains foundational to my perspective on science fiction, fantasy, and imagination, and I require no further advice on how to reinterpret or reform a legacy that does not beckon for alteration.

Philosophical Anathema

The constellation Gemini.

The danger within this post is that you may surmise me to be a cold, logical rationalist.

I don’t believe I am anything of the sort, but that may be for you to decide.

When you look up into the sky on a clear evening, what do you see?  If you cannot see anything, that may be the first problem.  Perhaps you need your glasses on, or cleaned, but more likely, your vision of the Heavens is obscured by an inordinate amount of light pollution.

(Time for a “gotcha” moment…this post is not about light pollution!  But I encourage you to read all about it here.)

Hopefully you see stars.  More hopefully, you see a lot of stars.  They are amazing.  And through most of Man’s history, they were a great mystery, surpassed only by the mystery of mortality.

Along with the stars, closer to our own solar system you may see the Moon, as well as the bright planets Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. If you peer deeper, you might see nebulae within the Milky Way Galaxy.  Those in the darkest nights will also see the arms of the galaxy itself.

When you look upon all the delights above, what do you think?  What do you feel?

The night sky is remarkable, stirring thoughts of wonder and possibilities, invoking the imagination and likely, if you gaze long enough, forcing you to ask questions about your place in the universe.

You would not be alone in your reactions.  Many around the world are touched by the same impressions.  Undoubtedly, this cadence has endured for millennia, before recorded time.

On one level, looking into the Heavens is a deeply personal experience, especially when you are alone, at night, with only the scant sounds of nature interrupting your privacy along with the occasional gust of wind.

On another level, it can be overwhelming, to see all that there is above, way beyond Earth, indeed for all these wonders to exist irrespective of your own life.

Aren’t we all connected?  Are we not of this planet, this solar system, this galaxy, this universe?  Shouldn’t that connection have larger meaning?

The human mind struggles with these questions.  It is difficult, if not impossible, to contemplate how so much, in fact effectively all, of the universe has existed for billions of years in the absence of you, and will continue on long after your life on Earth has ended, after the Earth itself is gone, the Sun expired, to the true end times when the galaxies produce no more light and the only matter left to decay are protons.  These are disturbing realizations, when you put your mind to the philosophical task.

The Sun will continue to shine and burn regardless of whether we or Earth, or any of the other nearby planets, continue to exist.  Jupiter and Saturn remain on their perpetual courses with little-to-no influence from the inner planets.  And the Milky Way Galaxy, of which our Sun is one star among billions, shall remain and continue on long after our Sun burnt its last hydrogen fuel.

Where do we humans fit into the universe’s grand scheme?

Our need to admire and wonder about the cosmos must always endure.  What has changed in recent history, though, is our ability to understand all this within the general blanket field of astronomy.

We can now explain the motion of objects within our solar system and the forces that interconnect them.  We can discover and predict the birth and death of stars, galaxies, and the universe itself.  There is still much to learn and understand, but the progress made within the last century, when considered against the entire span of human history, is astounding.

What we see in the sky is defined by astronomy.  This wasn’t always understood, and in times past, without the tools provided by astronomy, the explanations of the sky defaulted to a more personable or societal level, upon the notion that the positions of cosmological objects heralded blessings and omens (relative to your side of a quarrel), and may even have had some direct message to individuals.  This latter method is astrology.

When I talk to people about my interest in astronomy, they sometimes mistake it as astrology.  But astronomy and astrology are diametrically opposed in their purposes and aims.  I don’t believe in astrology, at all.

I should emphasize before proceeding that I won’t dismiss entirely that it could be possible humanity’s fate and your individual destiny are strongly connected to the movement of the universe.  Anything is possible.  It just seems, based on everything I understand as true, to be extremely implausible.  And it should also be noted that this has nothing to do with faith in Divinity, for that is a different realm of philosophy and humanity altogether.  Yet I believe that our quest to understand the universe is one and the same with our need to understand God, but we’ll save that, perhaps, as a discussion for another time.

What does it mean that Jupiter is currently between Antares and Saturn, with the Sun in Gemini, and you were born when the Sun was in front of Taurus?  Absolutely nothing.  Nothing multiplied by anything is still nothing.  So it doesn’t matter when the Moon is full, or a planet is at opposition, or even if a star goes supernova.  The fallacy of astrology is that all of these events mean something, either to people at large or to you specifically.

Celestial events have been used as markers of convenience throughout history.  Halley’s Comet appeared in the Spring of 1066, and the Battle of Hasting happened in October of the same year.  It was a blessing for the victors and an omen for the losers.  You could look at the appearance of a comet, or a meteor or an eclipse, and interpret them in any way, shape, or form that will easily fit into the narrative of contemporary events.

As for the Zodiac, it’s a useful reference tool for exploring the night sky, to know, for example, that Aquarius and Capricornus sit next to each other.  But it is an extreme disservice to yourself believing there is meaning written in the stars for you because of that positioning.

Do all “Leos” share something in common?  Maybe, and it could be the commonality of birthdays to certain seasons of the year.  Everyone who celebrates their birthdays in hot Summers may have developed a perspective apart from those who have birthdays in the dead of Winter.  And because of the seasonal flip across the Northern and Southern Hemispheres, a Leo in one hemisphere will have the opposite seasonal experience to one born in the other.  And then you have to take into account minor regional shifts that could nudge perspective and experience every so slightly.

These are not the workings of Fate illuminating points of light in the sky, but a component of the aggregate geographical and cultural forces acting upon all of us, both as groups and individually.

The Zodiac was once made up of twelve constellations, which all conveniently lie on the Sun’s elliptic path in Earth’s sky.  And they were divided roughly according to twelve months per annum.

But through thousands of years, the expansion of the galaxy has caused the stars to shift.  If the classic constellations were assigned originally by their star positions, then there are now thirteen constellations in the Zodiac path, because stars in the constellation Ophiuchus have shifted into the elliptic.  Yes, constellations are not Zodiac “signs” and this is only within the Western interpretation, but the twelve signs have this origin.  Ten thousand years from now, the stars will have moved so much that our current understanding of the constellations, and those part of the Sun’s elliptic, will mean little due to their positional changes as seen from Earth.

The mysteries of the universe are vast.  The mysteries of the soul are even more.  But the orbit of Jupiter is simply the orbit of Jupiter.

There are other places to find guidance for your life, or to understand the ebb and flow of nations and societies and cultures.  Those sources are not in the sky but much closer to the ground.

I love looking up.  I am the beneficiary of the toil that created the means to understand the cosmos as we do today.  You are as well.  Civilization is about building upon that which came before, while reaping benefits within our own lifetimes.  The best service I can give to the progress of astronomy is to appreciate our sky within the context of the understanding already provided, to wonder how much more we’ll be able to achieve thanks to that chain of skill and knowledge and exploration.  This realization binds my own Fate to the Heavens far more than astrology ever could.

A Certain Point of View on Pluto

Nine decades ago, the largest of the most distant objects in our Solar System was discovered by an observer in America.  Even today, it is still king over thousands of similar known objects residing past the gas giant Neptune.  All of these objects share many of the same physical characteristics.  Some leave their distant neighborhood to embark on a long journey towards and around our Sun, and are known as comets.

The discovery of this one object is a fascinating tale, for it was not found at random.  Neptune was discovered 75 years prior, and astronomers had noted over that time that Neptune’s orbit was not quite the same as the other three known gas giants (Uranus, Saturn, and Jupiter).  It was thought that a planet similar in size to Neptune and Uranus must lie just beyond the orbit of Neptune, pulling at Neptune via gravity.  And so a search was underway.

After its discovery in 1930, the newfound object was thought to be the solution to the Neptune orbit question.  As such, it had to be very large.  Soon it ranked among our Solar System’s magnificent residents.  In short order and for the next half century, it would be counted in science textbooks across America as one of the nine planets orbiting the Sun.  This harmonic order was solidified in schools and reinforced by all the amazing advances happening in science generally and our space program in particular.

Also during that half century, astronomers continued to learn and understand so much more about how our Solar System is built.  They realized, for one, that the inner four planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars) are a family of objects.  The outer gas giant planets, starting with Jupiter, are another family.  Each family was created in their own similar manners and composed of the same basic materials.

More importantly, the inner versus outer distinction among the planets is strongly related.  The four inner planets, being so close to the hot Sun, long ago burnt off all their access gas, primarily hydrogen and helium, to leave mostly their rocky cores.  The inner planets really are rocks, and we’re on the third from the Sun.  By contrast, the outer planets were not close enough to the Sun to burn off their access hydrogen and helium, so they remained, and still do, in their large, gaseous forms.  That is why we call them gas giants.

Like an ever-increasing jigsaw puzzle, more and more parts of our Solar System have been revealed thanks to advances in astrophysics.  How many parts to the Solar System are there?  Classically from ancient times, there were only a handful of planets, including the Moon and Sun.  For a while, in the early 19th century, there were more than ten planets accounted for, but eventually those newly-discovered objects, such as Ceres, were determined to be asteroids, a class of objects on their own.

Returning to the object discover almost 90 years ago, it was the first of the newest Solar System class, known today as Kuiper belt objects.

So we classify our Solar System roughly by five major object types:

  1. The center star, our Sun
  2. The inner rock planets
  3. Asteroids, most predominant between the orbits of Mars and Jupiter
  4. The outer gas giant planets
  5. Kuiper belt objects, which include comets

Around the same time that this first and largest Kuiper belt object was discovered, an important cultural genesis was happening elsewhere.  Mr. Walt Disney was creating his beloved cartoon characters, which are still the core of his Disney empire today.  One of these was a dog named Pluto.

Thanks to the intersection of planets traditionally being named for mythological gods and Disney’s cultural phenomenon, a star, err…planet, was born.

First Impressions Are Everything

We all know today the cultural battle – and it is cultural, not scientific – around Pluto’s demotion from the ranks of the other eight planets.  What exactly happened, and why is it still such a hot-button issue?

Some 15 years ago, a group of scientists, including Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, whose writings on the Pluto affair I base much of this post on, created a museum exhibit in New York to show the scale of the entire universe.  When it came to the Solar System part of the exhibit, being good scientists and knowing how Pluto is best classified as a Kuiper belt object, they placed Pluto not with the other eight planets, but with the Kuiper display.  Their exhibit made no specific mention of why Pluto was not in the planet exhibit.

This was mistake #1.  Culturally, Pluto has been ingrained into every school student for the past 60+ years as one of the nine planets.  Pluto was a planet just as the Sun rises and sets each day – it was taken for granted and never questioned by the general public, because they were never given a reason to question Pluto’s status.

But during that 60-year span, astrophysicists gradually realized that Pluto was not like any of the other planets.  It is mostly ice, smaller than Earth’s Moon.  If Pluto was ever near the Sun, it would form a tail, just like a comet, because Pluto is essentially a comet that never gets close enough to the Sun to start melting off its ice.  Its chemical composition is unlike the eight planets as well, but it is similar in makeup to the other Kuiper belt objects that reside at the farthest known space of our Solar System.

So it was obvious in the field of astrophysics that Pluto was unique and separate, but scientists never made mention of this (certainly not enough to change Pluto’s textbook status as a planet), particularly in their universe museum exhibit.

A reporter for the New York Times saw the exhibit, noted Pluto’s exclusion from the other eight planets, and wrote a sensational published article on how scientists unilaterally decided to demote Pluto.  At that point, scientists lost the battle for the narrative, because they allowed someone external from their profession to control it.  Dr. Tyson claims the exclusion was innocent and not intended to offend, but this reaction only reinforces a problem scientists have even today – they don’t understand that their knowledge has the power to upend common assumptions, and importantly, the aftershocks they can cause.

People prefer stability over change.  In a chaotic world, they look for constants.  The basics of what every contemporary adult man and woman was taught in elementary school is like a sacred foundation.  What happens when you tell them 2+2 no longer equals 4?  That is how most everyone reacted to the news that Pluto was, effectively, no longer a planet.

Digging a Hole

Like you, I grew up believing Pluto to be the ninth planet of the Solar System.  Like you, I was affronted when the news about Pluto’s apparent demotion began circulating.  And like you, I was even more upset when I heard, about a decade ago, that a group of scientists “officially” decreed Pluto no longer a planet.

Dr. Tyson is correct in that if Pluto was not named after a Disney character, the storm around its planetary status may never have gotten so big.  It may have flared and then subsided.  But Pluto is not just a planet to most, it is a beloved planet.  The sacred textbook matter is reinforced by the public’s fondness for something named after a Disney character.

The official reason and decision on Pluto only made matters worse.  This was mistake #2.  First, nobody (in the general public) is going to be swayed into rethinking Pluto because it has not cleared its orbit of debris.  That may make sense to an astrophysicist but not to a New York Times reporter.  Secondly, the problem was only compounded by calling Pluto no longer a planet, but a “dwarf planet.”

With apologies to Snow White’s hardworking miners as well as Gimli, nobody and nothing ever wants to be relegated to the status of “dwarf.”  Yesterday, you were an apple.  Today, you are a dwarf apple, because scientists say so.

The optics of calling Pluto a “dwarf planet” are horrible.

Fruitless Amends

After reading Dr. Tyson’s full explanation, I am thoroughly convinced Pluto is not a planet like the four inner and four outer planets.  I contend that any reasonable person who reads Chapter 9 of Dr. Tyson’s co-authored book Welcome to the Universe will agree as well.  There was no ulterior motive, no political agenda in demoting Pluto.  It was not about making our knowledge of the Solar System fit to keeping Pluto a planet, but recognizing that today’s accumulated knowledge puts Pluto into another class of object.

Mistake #3 has been the ongoing attempt by scientists to make some sort of compromise classification of Pluto, to return it to full planet status.  This is an Occam’s Razor matter – any new, refined definition to make Pluto a full planet again comes along with its own complications.  Pluto is the largest and most famous Kuiper belt object.  That is a grand status on its own.  But status is not science.  So why are scientists trying to “save” Pluto?  Perhaps for the fame of being the savior of a cultural icon is my guess.

I will not say, “Scientists should have done X, Y, and Z to have avoided the Pluto public relations nightmare.”  The Pluto matter is about the need for scientists to understand the enormous power they wield, especially as science itself becomes more potent in challenging long-held beliefs.  This is particularly true for how scientists communicate their knowledge to the public at large.  “You don’t have that option,” to not believe what scientists tell you to believe is no way to dispel the stigma of scientists being arrogant, over-educated fools who want to be your new high priests.  Science may be objective, but scientists are still human, complete with their own failings and prejudices.  That public figures like Dr. Tyson don’t appreciate their own complicit role in Pluto’s problem is one example of how scientists have to change their strategy for convincing the general public that the causes of science are sincere and real.

Dr. Tyson is likely very much aligned ideologically with his childhood hero, Carl Sagan.  Sagan, however, had a demeanor and way about him that invited everyone, regardless of their beliefs, to the knowledge of the cosmos.  It is to Sagan’s approach that I would look for the communication answers, not to the contemporary scientist’s abrasive method.