19 July 2009

Eternal Truths

When I was growing up people filled my head with information—the days of the week, the months of the year, the alphabet. Stuff like that. Eternal truths.

I liked memorizing stuff, once I got the hang of it. When I had the alphabet down through W X Y Z, I wanted more. What comes after Z? (And no, I didn't know of Dr. Seuss's On Beyond Zebra or I might have his extra letters memorized to this day.) My mother told me (probably to shut me up) that there were no letters beyond Z, but there were other alphabets, and gave me the Greek alphabet to memorize, which I did, two letters at at time through upsilon, and the last four all at once. I memorized other things that caught my fancy—the sequence of geological ages, the order of the planets outward from the sun, and probably other stuff. In school I learned other eternal truths—the words to the pledge of allegiance, that our President was Eisenhower and our vice-President Nixon, that our country consisted of forty-eight states.

Now I've got to tell you, it's kind of hard to shake the stuff we learn in our formative years. Even though I was a child when Alaska and Hawaii became states, somewhere in my mind they are "extra" states, so to speak. The "real" states are the forty-eight, and Alaska and Hawaii are somehow—I don't know, honorary states or something like that. Jupiter has twelve moons and Saturn nine; it's just like the seven days of the week and the twelve months of the year—these are basic facts.

On the other hand there are certain things I never bought into as a kid. The books we had showed ages called Mississippian and Pennsylvanian between the Permian and Devonian periods, but for whatever reason I never considered them real. To me the "real" period was the Carboniferous, which wasn't even mentioned in our texts. (I might have got that from my father; he had a considerable knowledge of the geological periods and the kind of fossils that turned up in them, and maybe that was his take. But I don't really know.)

And by the same token, I never regarded the words "under God" as part of the "real" Pledge of Allegiance; even though we were taught them in kindergarten, visiting adults never seemed to know them, which made them seem bogus to me. (In real life they had just been added, but I didn't learn that till many years had gone by.)

What got me thinking about all this is a pointless matter. I keep up with scientific developments, sort of, as best I can. I'm aware, for example, that birds are regarded as descendants of dinosaurs, and that Pluto is no longer a planet. Both of these are changes from what I learned as a child. And yet my, shall we say, emotional reaction is very different to the two developments. Somewhere, deep inside, I remain unconvinced about the bird-dinosaur thing. Something inside me "knows" that dinosaurs never had feathers, that they were oversized cold-blooded reptiles like modern-day alligators and they looked and lived very much like the pictures in Life's The World We Live In. On the other hand Pluto not being a planet—that feels right to me. Pluto as a planet has bugged me ever since I can remember.

I don't absolutely know why. We had some very old reference books around when I was young, and some of them (I'm quite sure) predated Pluto's discovery. Maybe the old solar-system diagrams without Pluto influenced my thinking. Conversely, there were so many things that were uncertain then about Pluto in contrast to the other planets; maybe that made it seem less real to me. Or maybe it was something really lame. None of the other planets, after all, were named after Disney characters. A planet called Mickey Mouse might have given me the same feeling.

Another thing that bothered me as I learned the sizes and characteristics of the various objects in the solar system was how arbitrary the division between planets and satellites seemed to be. Some of the satellites—our own Moon, Ganymede, Titan—were pretty substantial objects in their own right. It seemed like a fairly arbitrary distinction to consider them a different class of things from say Mercury just because they orbited another planet instead of orbiting the sun. And however you wanted to look at it, Jupiter and Saturn seemed like very different creatures from say Earth and Mars. At one point I sat down and "classified" the objects of the solar system into three groups (not counting comets): gas giants, real planets, and space junk. (I don't know what terms I actually used, if any; I just remember the categories.) The gas giants were Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The real "planets" would have included Mercury, Venus, Earth, the Moon, Mars, Io, Ganymede, Europa, Callisto, Titan, and Triton. Things like Phobos, Oberon, and Ceres were just so much space junk as far as I was concerned. Pluto made me uncomfortable; there was too much that was simply unknown about it. Even its size was uncertain, if I remember correctly. (I think the inspiration for this was a book my Uncle Marvin helped me buy on a visit to California; it was called Pictorial Astronomy, and I still had my old copy of it us till very recently. I'd like to take a quick look at it and confirm (or deny) my impressions, but alas, it is gone.) I'm pretty sure, though, that I included Pluto in the planet category, but I really don't know now.

Dinosaurs, on the other hand—I don't know how much I really knew about them. Of the major dinosaurs I knew which belonged to which geological period—Brontosaurus belonged to the Jurassic and Tyrannosaurus to the Cretaceous, for instance. (And yeah, Brontosaurus is the real name, not that unreal Apatosaurus thing.) I knew the difference between Saurischia and Ornithischia, and that Pterosaurs and Ichthyosaurs weren't actually dinosaurs, even if they lived at the same time.

For many years I had a little booklet my brother had started, but then was finished by a kid who lived across the street from us and was a couple of years older. It had everything in it I mentioned above, and quite a bit more. Each dinosaur was assigned to its period and family, and details of its size and presumed habits (meat-eater, swamp-dweller) were included. For quick reference it was invaluable, though it had its limitations. The pronunciations given for each beast, for example, were the way the kid across the street pronounced them, and differed from those given in actual printed works in some cases. I may still have the booklet somewhere, though I don't have it right in front of me, but I've seen it recently enough to have some idea of the things we knew and didn't know about dinosaurs.

And there was nothing in that booklet about dinosaurs having feathers. Or being warm-blooded. Or looking after their young. They were big reptiles, scaly toothy critters out of some surreal nightmare. They probably would have eaten their own young if they could catch them—the carnivores anyway. It was hard to picture how they could have fit into a world that had people in it. It was a good thing they'd all died out at the end of the Cretaceous period.

And that was another eternal truth. We would never know what killed the dinosaurs off. There were theories. Maybe tiny egg-eating mammals had done them in by preying on their unprotected unborn young. (Yay for our egg-eating ancestors!) Maybe the climate changed, becoming cooler, so that the cold-blooded dinosaurs couldn't cope and just died off. Maybe they just plain got too big and died off from over-specialization. Maybe disease did them in. Maybe it was some combination of causes. Whatever it was, it had undoubtedly been a gradual event taking millions of years, not some catastrophe like a gamma-ray burst from a nearby supernova.

(My brother and I were both fond of the idea of some extra-terrestrial cause, even though the authorities were against it. I see from a quick bit of googling that gamma-ray bursts weren't discovered until we were in our teens, but I know we discussed possible extra-terrestrial causes from way back. My favorite was that an alien race had used Earth as a big-game hunting ground until they had driven everything huntable into extinction and moved on.)

In any case, we would never know. That was one thing you could take to the bank; whatever had happened, it had happened so long ago that there was no conceivable evidence that could ever be produced that would give any plausible answer. Fossil skeletons could tell us the size and shape of the critters, radiometric dating could tell us how long ago they lived, comparison with living beasts could give us some idea even of what they ate and how they lived, but there was nothing, nothing at all, that could solve the mystery of their extinction.

Now I don't go by my childish feelings about stuff to decide what to consider as probable or what to reject as impossible. I'm perfectly willing to accept that some dinosaurs had feathers, or that astronomers now classify Pluto as a dwarf planet. Pluto, yeah—that fits with some long-time prejudices. And a comet causing the Cretaceous-Tertiary extinction—that feels satisfying But there is a very basic part of me, deep inside, that knows damn good and well that dinosaurs never had feathers. And that there are forty-eight states in the union. And that the words "under God" are not really part of the Pledge of Allegiance. And I don't think anything—not seeing the feather impressions, not hearing the pledge—will ever entirely shake the eternal faith of the child inside me.


DuWayne Brayton said...

You know, it is distinctly possible that recent interactions with you have somehow actually increased my desire to get back to P-town - though it is hard to beat my preexisting desire to live there again. But I think I would greatly enjoy having coffee or somesuch with you...

I can so very relate to this post - though not necessarily the specific content. I really appreciate some of my childhood convictions and the shear absurdity of them. Like finding a packet on rolling papers on the stoop of one of my brother's houses, noting the "makes your cig burn longer" and assuming one would put one of these around their cigarette to make it last longer. Or believing that bisexuality meant someone who had sex with more than one person at a time. I also have some of those that were more "sciency," but I should save those for my own blog...

And for the record, Pluto will always be a planet to me...HATER!!!!

Jason Thibeault said...

I can't recall any apocrypha I believed expressly as a child, outside of having been raised Catholic of course, and all the antiscience that comes with that early indoctrination.

The idea of Pluto as a planet was one that I accepted as rote, though once I started pro-actively seeking out astronomy facts I came to realize Pluto was so absurdly small and so oddly shaped that it seemed much more likely to me to be some floating space jetsam than an actual planet -- like Halley's Comet, which sparked the beginning of my love affair with space. It makes sense, to me, that it is a Kuiper object, and not a planet, knowing what I do about its eccentric orbit, its size, its shape, and its distance from the rest of the solar system (including the overlap with Neptune).

So, I have to ask DuWayne -- what do you think about Eris? Should it be a planet? It is after all bigger than Pluto,

DuWayne Brayton said...

Should it be a planet?

Hell Yes it should, there's room at the table for ALL the motherfucking planets!!!!!11!1!!1


sbh said...

Actually it wouldn't bother me to have thirty-odd planets (or whatever we're up to by now) in the solar system--the more the merrier. I do think there should be some rules, however; there are a lot of asteroids and random space debris floating about out there. It was reading Kirshenbaum's and Mooney's account of the whole Pluto demotion thing that sort of inspired this entry; also I read something or other about new dinosaur discoveries about the same time, and it more or less came together from that. Plus it's a lot easier to reminisce than to do actual research.

You know, another thing that bothered me about Pluto was that business of the orbit crossing Neptune's. Did that mean sometimes Pluto was the eighth planet out, and sometimes the ninth? I remember once--I think this might have been in grade school--somebody questioning my version of the solar system because I'd drawn Pluto's orbit crossing Neptune's at one point. I think whoever it was thought I was being sloppy when I was trying to represent the facts as I understood them.

And DuWayne: hope to see you come by some time; that would be a kick.

Jason Thibeault said...

Eris is sometimes, once every thousand years or so, closer to the Sun than Pluto. Imagine if that time happens to coincide with Neptune -- that'd make Neptune the 10th planet out. How crazy is that?

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