Pluto, David Bowie, and the Flu

Week in Review / by Evan Lerner /

The president's science advisers tackle swine flu's resurgence while Pluto’s defenders mourn its "demotion," and a researcher writes the perfect Bowie song.

Picking up where we left off last week, death still hangs in the air. But in place of stories of government bureaucrats callously sending the old and infirm off to the glue factory, we have tales of them proactively defending us from a resurgent wave of swine flu.

The springtime scourge of subways and grade schools is poised to make a comeback this flu season, and public health officials are, to use a technical term, freaking out. Fortunately, the president’s panel of science advisers (PCAST, which we profiled here) are freaking out in an extremely controlled and thoughtful way.

Their recommendations, released this week, come in two flavors: lite (an executive summary) and extra-strength (the full 86 pages). The extra-strength version has been mined for the requisite scary numbers: PCAST predicts that up to 50 percent of the US population could be infected, and up to 90,000 people could die, from the H1N1 strain (the Centers for Disease Control have since distanced themselves from these numbers). But in any case, the real danger is that millions of symptomatic people will, fearing the worst, rush off to emergency rooms, overburdening hospitals and diverting care away from people with more serious ailments.

Which is why both reports stress the precautionary step now being taken: the bottling of H1N1 vaccines before they get FDA approval. These vaccines are currently being tested on military personnel, but it’s doubtful that the vaccine makers will be left with warehouses full of a rejected product. The small risk of that happening is preferable to being totally unprepared for the first wave of fall cases, which could begin in mid-September. PCAST even mulled the possibility of allowing high-risk individuals to get the vaccine before its approved for the public. 

But the last thing the Administration wants is a repeat of the 1976 swine flu scare, in which the number of deaths from complications arising from an aggressive vaccination program outstripped flu deaths an estimated 25 to 1. Fortunately, despite what these clowns say, we’re a bit better at making and administering vaccines now. 


This week also marks the third anniversary of the International Astronomical Union’s “demotion” of Pluto to dwarf planet status. And though “plutoed”—defined as “demoted or devalued, as was the former planet Pluto”— was voted the 2006 word of the year by the American Dialect Society, it’s important to note that this totally mischaracterizes what the IAU did with its April 24, 2006 resolution.

Pluto wasn’t demoted, or even really singled out. As there are at least a handful, and potentially hundreds, of celestial bodies that are as equally qualified as Pluto for planetary status, the IAU raised the bar for those qualifications. Pluto simply no longer makes the cut, having not cleared its orbit of other, smaller ice-balls, to which it bears a striking resemblance. 

Astrophysicist Neil DeGrasse Tyson may have accidentally touched off the debate in 2000, when his redesigned Hayden Planetarium grouped the planets by type. The inner rocky planets and the outer gassy planets were in two cliques, leaving Pluto in the cold of the Kuiper belt, the icy cousin of the inner solar system’s asteroid belt. Tyson breaks down the whole story in his recent book, The Pluto Files, but the takeaway is that if you want Pluto as a planet, you need to take a host of asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects along too. 

Though this should have been the last word on the subject, the debate rages on for some stalwart Pluto defenders who have made their voices heard. There was a spate of space news this week that the Pluto coverage may have overshadowed, so in no particular order:

  • South Korea’s first satellite launch was a “half success”, as the rocket launch went swimmingly but its payload never made orbit.
  • NASA had some satellite trouble of its own after its LCROSS orbiter accidentally burned up most of its remaining fuel, leaving no room for error in completing its mission: slamming a rocket into the moon, then flying through the debris to look for traces of water.
  • That wasn’t NASA’s only problem this week. A test firing of the first stage of its ARES rocket was scrubbed on Thursday. ARES will take the place of the Space Shuttle, assuming President Obama can scrounge up another $30 billion for the program.
  • After another series of scrubs, the Space Shuttle Discovery is slated to launch the COLBERT treadmill (among other things), to the ISS tonight. The satirist Stephen Colbert crushed the competition when the name of the ISS’s new module was put up to a public vote, though NASA balked and went with “Tranquility” instead. The exercise equipment was named after him as a compromise.

Moonage Daydream, Oh Yeah

The planet’s first Martian rock god, David Bowie, got a bit of unsolicited songwriting help from a linguistic analysis program this week. University of Hertfordshire professor of health psychology Nick Troop applied the software to the singer’s songs, looking for patterns in his subject matter and position on the pop charts. The program churned out the lyrics for a new composition, which Troop turned into a song titled “Team, Meet Girls; Girls, Meet Team”

The song draws from the vocabulary of Bowie’s more positive songs, which Troop found did better than his ones about death and the apocalypse. Troop calls it the “ideal David Bowie song for health and success,” meaning that, in a purely statistical sense, it would give the legendary musician the best shot at another hit, as well as the most mental well-being to play. 

A video of Troop performing the song, applying a 12-string and a decent Bowie impression to its barely-sensical lyrics is garnering mixed reviews. All I can say is that, while it’s no Dance Magic Dance, it sounds a fair bit better than some of my fellow Seed editors’ karaoke rendition of this ode to our home planet.

Originally published August 28, 2009

Tags decision making music pandemics space

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