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What, then, are the criteria for a planet?
In our exhibits, we abandoned the word planet as a useful word completely. We don't organize by planet status. We organize by what objects look like compared to what other objects look like. So we look at the family photo of the solar system, and in it, you have the sun, which obviously is its own thing. Then you have the terrestrials Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars, all small, all rocky, all dense. Then you have the asteroid belt craggy chunks of rock and metal orbiting between Mars and Jupiter. Tens of thousands of them, likely hundreds of thousands of them. Then you have Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. They're all big, all bulbous, all gaseous; they have rings; they all have many moons. That's a group of objects. (See pictures of Mars.)
So when people say, "How many planets are there now?" I say, That's the wrong question. Do not distract yourself over the answer to that question, because that question contains no science. Now I am partly to blame, as an educator, because to third-graders you teach the planets in sequence, and books celebrate this, and kids boast about memorizing planet names, thinking that they've accomplished something. But it would be much more effective intellectually if you tell me what Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars have in common. Or why they are different. That's a much more useful scientific inquiry than the recitation of planets in sequence. (See pictures of Earth's mysteries and miracles.)
Is the way we teach kids about the universe in schools too simplistic, then?
Its not that it's simplistic, but it doesn't train the mind to think scientifically. There's a lot of memorization that goes on in school. You memorize vocabulary words and all these sorts of things. But in science, memorization is not the ticket to understanding, and so, given that fact, why not teach it in a way that fosters insight into the form and structure of the solar system? (See pictures of animals in space.)
How does one get in your position, where you're essentially the most famous astrophysicist in America and one of the most famous scientists in America? How does one even do that?
I've thought about that. I'll tell you what it is. My first-ever interview for national television was in 1995 for NBC Nightly News. And I was interviewed about the discovery of the first planet outside of our own solar system. So, they came to the planetarium. I'm an easy date for them because I'm just up the street. I give them my best professorial reply. I talk about the Doppler shift and the measurement and the spectra, and I say, There's not really a wobble which is how it was commonly described it was more like a jiggle; and I do a little jiggle with my hips. I rush home, watch the interview on TV, and hardly anything I said made it onto the clip. It only shows my hips jiggling. And I realized that I am visiting their medium. They're not in my medium. My medium would be the lecture hall. But you're going to put me on the evening news now that's a different way of communicating.
So I had my wife call out words, concepts, phrases that relate to the universe, and I stared in the mirror, and I delivered two or three sentences on each topic, in rapid fire. For each word, I would come up with two or three sentences that were informative, interesting and at best a little bit fun to listen to. I worked it. Then on the next interview, I handed them a sound bite. I essentially trained myself in sound bites. They can't edit it; they don't need to edit it. It's self-contained. You just slot it right in. It fits in, and it makes you smile. And so, when that started, they kept coming back. And they never stopped.
With this new Administration, is there a sense in the scientific community that there is at least an attitudinal change coming to Washington with regard to science?
What's driving attitudinal change is the fact that we need solutions to our energy crisis, and we need them fast. You can't get those solutions from politics. You have to get them from scientists and engineers. So the value of science to the nation, I think, is currently being driven by our economic needs. But what people need to keep sight of is that the bigger value of science and technology to a nation is so that you can thrive as a nation going forward, so that you can thrive five years out, 10 years out, 20 years out. And investments in research and development today pay dividends on those time scales, not on the time scales of the re-election of politicians. Someone has to have foresight beyond their own election cycle.