Lectures for a New Year: Neil deGrasse Tyson on Pluto


Neil deGrasse Tyson is ridiculously distinguished: the man holds at least fourteen honorary doctorates, not to mention his real doctorate in astrophysics. He was also declared "Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive" by Time Magazine in 2000. But he's most (in)famous for leading the charge to demote Pluto from its planet status to a "dwarf planet." (We made a shirt about that.) As Wikipedia explains:

As director of the Hayden Planetarium, Tyson bucked traditional thinking to keep Pluto from being referred to as the ninth planet in exhibits at the center. Tyson has explained that he wanted to look at commonalities between objects, grouping the terrestrial planets together, the gas giants together, and Pluto with like objects and to get away from simply counting the planets. He has stated on The Colbert Report, The Daily Show, and BBC Horizon that this decision has resulted in large amounts of hate mail, much of it from children. In 2006, the I.A.U. confirmed this assessment by changing Pluto to the "dwarf planet" classification. Daniel Simone wrote of the interview with Tyson describing his frustration. "For a while, we were not very popular here at the Hayden Planetarium."

In this talk, NDT talks to Google employees about his book The Pluto Files. I went through a lot of NDT lectures to find this one -- it stuck out partly because it's actually about Pluto, and partly because the tone is so wonderfully fun, smart, and I daresay geeky. All of his lectures are smart -- but this one is full of stories that make sense of planets, their history, and the work of scientists.

Topics: the history of planets, their discovery, and some of Tyson's own history, presented in conversational fashion with jokes. Also, the Q&A touches on The Matrix.

For: everyone, but especially people who are interested in space or history.

Representative quote:

"[In Roman times,] there were seven objects that would move against the background sky [including the sun]. ... Unambiguous! Everybody could agree that those were the planets." [Then everything got weird when Planet George showed up.]

Further Reading (and Viewing)

NDT is everywhere. He's about to host a reboot of the classic science program Cosmos, his Nova scienceNOW episodes are on Netflix, Hulu Plus, and free from PBS (albeit in slightly lower video quality). He even hosts a radio show. He has various books out (including Death by Black Hole), and the latest Space Chronicles: Facing the Ultimate Frontier lands in February, and of course the book he discusses above is The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet (you might enjoy the brief 4-star Amazon review on that page...by Clyde Tombaugh's son!).

You'll almost certainly enjoy this Q&A with Tyson (he's feisty) and Stephen Colbert and Neil deGrasse Tyson in discussion.


I haven't found a transcript of this lecture, but the YouTube/Google auto-captioning system works fairly well. It frequently mixes up proper nouns, but it's better than nothing.

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