Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Pluto Files by Neil DeGrasse Tyson

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Why I Read It: 
A dedicated stargazer, with a passion for science in general.

Summary: The story of the demotion of Pluto from an insider's point of view.

My Thoughts: First, let me just say this one (what I consider to be a) fact. Astronomers have too much fun naming celestial bodies.

It's really a fascinating sidelight to the deeper story of scouring the universe for new planets, dwarf planets, comets, asteroids and the debris floating around out there clogging up the spaces in between. Tying in classical mythology to our stars is an interesting phenomenon on its own, but it makes one wonder, had the first planets not been discovered until today, would we have gone that route? Since the ancients knew "the wanderers" and gave them names they knew, would we have done the same today? Since we (many of us, anyway) don't believe in pantheons of gods, would we have gone with kings and queens? with Olympic athletes? with composers? Could the old mnemonic device (some version of My Very Elegant Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Porcupines) have stood for "Mozart, Vivaldi, Elgar, Mahler...?

I think also that the question of astronomical classification, which is generally the crux of this book, is interesting when juxtaposed with the processes for such with biology today. The latter science has a key to work from: DNA. We know - or are slowly getting to the point where we know - where all living things fall in the great tree of life (and where that tree should be listed as well). Every year, for instance, the august ornithologists of the world announce new changes to the global bird taxonomy, with the list being shifted around to accommodate the latest learning. Astronomers don't have that luxury. In fact, a few years before this book was written, they didn't even have a formal definition of the word "planet." In other worlds, it's entirely subjective, springing solely from the human brain, though based on the soundest scientific principles they can throw at the problem.

We all know what happens in the end. Pluto loses planethood. Sentimentalists do their best to fight off logic, but it prevails. Tyson, who was in the midst of redesigning the exhibits at New York City's Hayden Planetarium, became the public face of the museum's decision not to include Pluto as a planet before the formal vote was taken. The New York Times outed the museum, and the emails and letters started to fly in (he does a great job of formally recognizing in print many of the people who took the time to send them, including, I was surprised to see, a science teacher from a local school a few towns over from my current home). And, by the way, he writes with a lot of wit, making the book a fun read.

As for me, personally, I believe the right decision was made. But I remember feeling that twinge at the time. Really? Something I've "known" my whole life is wrong? I remember seeing a small exhibit at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum announcing that Pluto was no longer playing with the big kids, and thinking, "This can't be right!" But scientific evidence is what it is. I still feel a little nostalgic now and then, but then I realize that Pluto hasn't gone anywhere, and (probably) won't in my lifetime.

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Marvelous: The Marvin Hagler Story by Damian and Brian Hughes

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Why I Read It: Marvelous came straight out of Brockton, right here in Plymouth County.

Summary: A straightforward, in-ring heavy account of the career of the greatest middleweight champion of all time (my opinion).

My Thoughts: Hagler was nearing the end of his reign when I was coming of an age to truly understand and respect the sport of boxing. Unfortunately, the sport itself went on a long decline in the following few years and lost its relevancy with the American public, and I drifted away, too.

But, I had a personal connection that made me want to watch Hagler fight, and win in those days. Through the machinations of parents' second marriages and the instant familial connections made to other kids of similar age, I suddenly found myself in the mid-1980s the stepbrother of a kid who was friends with one of the Hagler children, on my first go-round as a resident of Hanover, Massachusetts. Here was a champ who was not only local - he grew up in Brockton, a few miles away - but lived in my new hometown. (I've since donated my copy of the book to the Hanover Historical Society, as the town is mentioned a few times).

I'll never forget how stunned I was when I watched the Hagler-Leonard decision come down after watching the fight, thinking how he was robbed of his title. It was my first true taste of sports injustice.

The authors of this book, both British boxing aficionados, take us on a blow-by-blow journey through Hagler's career, bringing us into the ring for almost all of 67 pro fights. The book focuses quite a bit on his pre-fight strategies, his methodical training and the classic banter that shot back and forth between the fighters and their camps until the bell rang to start each contest. They do an excellent job of characterizing the champ's inner beast, the monster that drove him to be as ferocious as he was in the ring, and capture a sense of his home life as well. But this book is written for boxing fans, those who will revel in tales of Roberto Duran, Thomas Hearns, John Mugabi and Vito Antuofermo.

I wish it ended differently for Hagler, that he got that 15th successful title defense, so he could claim, once and for all, to be the greatest middleweight champ of all time (Carlos Monzon had 14). But it didn't happen. It took a while for him to adjust to life after being the champ, but Hagler moved on. In my eyes, he always was, and always will be, the champion.