Pluto: Unexplored, Exploring, Explored

“Yay! Pluto will always be part of our hearts,” a 17-year old exclaims to her companion. “Pluto just needs a good PR rep,” a dad jokes to his son after reading the formal definition of planet and figuring out why Pluto isn’t one. “Pluto’s a dog.” “I know it’s a dog. It’s also a dwarf planet,” two friends banter back and forth. These were a few quotes I overheard while eavesdropping at the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum a few weeks ago. Pluto, though demoted from a planet to a dwarf planet in 2006 for failing to “clear the neighborhood of its orbit,” remains part of the “Exploring the Planets” exhibit. A scale model of New Horizons—the probe that made its closest approach to the icy underdog on July 14, 2015—hangs above a kiosk that in bright yellow letters reads “Exploring Pluto.” A screen shows the latest images and encourages users (more...)

Diary of a Space Zucchini: Ventriloquizing the Future in Outer Space

This post is written by Debbora Battaglia, a professor of anthropology at Mount Holyoke.  Currently, Dr. Battaglia is working on a book project to be titled Seriously at Home in '0-Gravity'. Not long ago, New Hampshire Public Radio broadcast Diary of a Space Zucchini – an adaptation of astronaut and chemical engineer Don Pettit’s blog from aboard the International Space Station, in 2012. The piece is a gem of expressive cross-species anthropomorphism. So tenderly did producer Sean Hurley enact the voice of the little aeroponic sprout that one listener was moved to “smiles and tears.” Indeed, the words of the self-conscious squash, floating above a sound mix of ethereal music, electronic beeps, humming computer atmospherics, and static-rich Ground Control “we have lift off” moments; the zucchininaut’s refined observations of living on orbit, in a baggie; its near-death experience and its sadness as fellow crew-member Sunflower browns and, after a struggle, returns (more...)

Cosmos: A Spacetime Conversation

Cosmos: A Spacetime Odyssey, premiered on Fox on March 9, 2014 and will run until June 1, 2014. Hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the Rose Center for Earth and Space, it is a 'reboot' of Carl Sagan's series similarly titled Cosmos: A Personal Voyage. Ann Druyan and Steven Soter serve as lead writers for both series (Sagan also co-wrote the original, though Tyson is not involved in the writing process for this series) and there are clear aesthetic connections between the two series.* Today's Cosmos, though, is airing on Fox, not PBS, and American science in 2014 operates in a different landscape with a different set of concerns than Sagan's series of 1980.** There has been an active social media engagement with Cosmos (#cosmos) and many historians of science, STS scholars, and journalists have been blogging and live tweeting their reactions to how the (more...)

1977 Called. They Want Their Headline Back.

I have a fuzzy recollection of going to the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum when I was a kid in the late 1980s. There was an exhibit about whether or not Mars hosted life.  On display was a clear plastic tube, filled halfway with dirt.  There was a shallow layer of water and the surface was bubbling. To my kid brain, this was dirt from Mars and the fact that the water was bubbling clearly indicated life – not some pump hidden behind the display. I wasn’t really into space or science fiction or aliens, but this stuck with me.  I was very willing to be deceived if it meant that life existed on Mars. As it turns out, I was in good company. The other day, the opening lines of a New York Times article titled "Life On Mars?  Maybe Not" caught my eye: In findings that are as scientifically significant as they (more...)

Why Should I Obey a Machine?

ÜBERLINGEN MID-AIR COLLISION 2002 It is evening, in the sky over southern Germany. Two commercial aircraft are flying on a collision course: a Russian charter flight from Moscow to Barcelona, and a DHL cargo flight from Bergamo to Brussels. Their courses should be corrected by an air traffic controller in Zurich, but he is doing the job of two controllers, at two different work stations, as his equipment is degraded by ongoing maintenance work. Both planes are equipped with TCAS, an automated warning system that is the last line of defense if air traffic control fails to separate planes soon enough. Less than a minute before the crash, the air traffic controller notices the collision course, and gives the Russian crew a command to descend. Seven seconds later, the automated warning system orders the Russian crew to climb, while ordering the DHL crew to descend. The Russian crew begins to (more...)