Thursday, August 31, 2006

Tiny Planets, Big Egos, and Unintended Consequences

Last week the International Astronomical Union (IAU) passed a resolution that stripped Pluto of its traditional (at least since its discovery in 1930) designation as one of the planets of the solar system.

This was a knee-jerk (and in my opinion, wrong-headed, mean-spirited, ill-conceived, and premature) reaction to an earlier and more elegant proposal that would not only have reaffirmed Pluto's status, but immediately added the largest of the asteroids orbiting between Mars and Jupiter, Pluto's "satellite" Charon (due to a minor technicality they would have been designated as a twin-planet) and the unofficially designated "Xena," a recently discovered Pluto-like body located in the distant suburbs of the solar system. Not nine planets. Twelve.

But apparently what really frosted the astronomers was the almost certainty that we'll be discovering many more bodies like Pluto and Xena in the coming years. Dozens, possibly hundreds wait to be discovered out in the dark fringes of our celestial neighborhood.

This, according to the arbitrary will of the astronomers, is just too darned many. And with this vote, the truth about planetary astronomers is finally revealed. They are the under-achievers of science.

Not only can't they remember more than nine planets, nine is apparently too many so they've cut back to eight. We're talking Science for Dummies here. (And I don't mean to paint stellar astronomers with the same brush, as, according to one well-known source, they keep track of "billions and billions" of stars. Impressive.)

Compare this to chemists, who seemed to have no trouble with a periodic table that had more than 90 elements, even before the physicists started making more. Given the current 116 confirmed elements, we can only assume that they are, on average, about 14.5 times as smart as a typical planetary astronomer (up from about 12.888 times just days earlier).

One can only imagine if planetary astronomers were in charge of the periodic table. Certainly they'd have eliminated all the radioactive elements ("...anything unstable enough to have a 'half-life' just shouldn't be considered an element...").

Probably there are other places they would have cut back. Noble gases? "Don't interact with anything enough to be worth mentioning." Hydrogen? "Too darned light." Actually, they could have gone for four, well within the established mental capacity of a planetary astronomer: earth, fire, water and air. "If it was good enough for the Greeks..."

Or compare that to that most garden-variety version of the scientific mind, the family physician. They seem to have little trouble dealing with the more than 200 bones in the adult, human, skeleton, or even the 270 or so bones in a newborn (many fuse together as the baby grows).

Certainly, planetary astronomers would have long-ago cut loose the bones of the inner ear (too small, too different, and not connected to anything), or the thyroid bone that anchors your tongue muscles (also not connected to the rest of the skeleton). Heck, ribs, vertebra, those little things inside your fingers and toes? All similar members of a large class of objects, not worth calling bones. Heck, with a couple voting meetings of it IAU, I think they could get it down to the skull and pelvis, and we're really not so sure about the pelvis.

For that matter, as I recall from when I was a child and my mother was studying for her cosmetology license, even they were required to learn basic anatomy, including the bones of the body. So when you get right down to it, planetary astronomers aren't even smart enough to be hair-dressers. (It also means that my mother is, statistically speaking, many times smarter than any planetary astronomer on -- well -- the planet. Hi mom!)

Okay, okay, I'm having some good-natured fun here at the expense of my astronomer friends. (Well, I'll admit, that most of my science friends are physicists, mathematicians, or chemists, but you shouldn't read too much into that.) But I'm also making a point. My astronomer friends seems to be suspiciously eager to keep the planetary club small and exclusive. In turn, their reasons and reasoning seem, at least, questionable.

The original proposal for a definition of planet seemed simple and elegant enough. A planet would have been any body that has achieved a spherical shape through the action of its own gravity, and which follows an independent path around the sun. The new proposal reads more like an excerpt from the tax code, and in requiring that a planet have cleared its orbit of other bodies, may mean that we'd end up with no planets! (Pluto's orbit crosses that of Neptune, for instance, and many asteroids cross the orbits of the inner planets, including Earth.) Advocates of the new system complain about possible ambiguities of the earlier proposal (define "spherical," for instance), but ignore the big glass of muddy water they've served up in its place.

And though they rationalize their objections to the first proposal, it all seems to come down to "too many planets." I don't seriously think that objection is because they can't keep track of them all, which leaves me to wonder what their concern is. Could it possibly be that discovering a new planet was once one of the greatest achievements in astronomy? Maybe the idea that dozens, perhaps hundreds of such discoveries could be made in a single generation, just plain sucks all the special out of it. Or maybe its that those few astronomers positioned to make those discoveries could get just a little too famous too fast for some people's tastes.

Okay, I don't know that much about astronomy, but as a writer, I do know a thing or two about the importance of words. Even under the new system, Pluto and its icy kin would still be known as "minor planets," so what's the big deal?

It's just this: Defining terms are important. None of the definitions proposed for a planet seems to have much scientific value. Mercury isn't much like Jupiter, and never will be. There are many satellites in the solar system that we'd probably be happy to call planets, if they weren't already orbiting something else. All that's really being proposed is an arbitrary line in the sand that satisfies somebody's inflated sense of order. Over here the important bodies of the solar system. Over here, the other stuff.

Defining something as a planet gives it importance that has real-world (no pun intended) consequences. The most obvious example is NASA's New Horizons probe currently on its way to explore Pluto. Sending probes to study the outer solar system is incredibly expensive and technically challenging, so much so that New Horizons almost didn't fly. Would it have even been considered if Pluto had not, at the time, still been commonly designated a planet? I think not.

Then consider the thousands of smaller consequences. Will new astronomers be as interested in devoting their careers to the study of "minor planets," as opposed to the possibility of actually discovering a planet (even if it is only one of many)? Will as much grant money be devoted to "minor planets?" Will papers be as readily published? Will telescope time be allocated? Awards given out? Will studying "minor planets" get you tenure as fast as study of "real" ones? Will school-children even find them worth learning about?

The unintended consequence here is that the IAU has slammed the door shut on the newest (to our eyes) and potentially most exciting part of the solar system. We're just learning that the solar system is a much bigger and more complex place than we'd ever imagined. This is something worth of our attention and study. It is not "minor," it is "major" by any reasonable definition.

It would be ironic if we turned our back on the distant reaches of our solar system simply to salve a few swollen egos back on Earth. Yet according to the IAU, the final frontier should be very final indeed.

Sunday, August 13, 2006

More dangerous things

The times we live in. I soon expect you'll only be able to make a transatlantic flight naked, handcuffed, and sedated. You just don't know if you should laugh or cry. But personally, I prefer laughter.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Universal Untruth (Yet another writing post)

They say that anyone who attempts to defend his or her self in court has a fool for a client. Well, let's translate that to writing perspective. The writer who tries to critique their own work has a fool for a judge.

Let me illustrate my point with a little slice from my writing life:

A few weeks ago, my wife heard that Denise Little, an anthology editor she's worked with, had come up short on an upcoming anthology. Several of the people on her invited list of writers had come in much shorter than usual, so she needed 10K words, and she needed them fast, so the book could be turned in. Chris immediately wrote her and said that one or both of us would come up with stories for her.

Mind you, "fast" in this case meant we heard about it on Friday, and she needed stories by the middle of the following week. Mind you, this was a theme anthology, the working title being "Front Lines," and so not just any story would do.

Sub-lesson #1 here for the aspiring and new writers in our midst: this is the sort of situation that separates the writers from the neos. The ability to produce work quickly, on time, to specification, and to market, is a highly valued skill in the marketplace. When these sorts of opportunities come along, and they will from time to time, the ability to follow-through will get you far.

So, kudos to Chris here. She very quickly came up with a fantasy idea, wrote it, mailed it over the weekend, and had a sale by Monday. That's professionalism for you.

I, on the other hand, was struggling. I had a seed of an idea, derived from my hobby of collecting GI Joes (and similar 12" action figures) and my childhood love of GI Joe, Major Matt Mason, and their kin. It also played on the sad fact that childhood is an endangered institution. These days, kids seem to go straight from diapers to video games, computers, cell-phones, and I-pods loaded with gangsta-rap. They're giving up traditional toys younger and younger, and simply never take to them with the enthusiasm that earlier generations did. It's my feeling that with the loss of that imaginative and unstructured play, we're losing something important from our culture, something that may come back to bite us in the ass later.

So, okay, I had a subject, and a theme, but I didn't have a story. I decided my protagonist would be "Backyard Joe," a tired old action figure who was still holding down the trenches in an overgrown back yard, long after the kids have gone on to other things. Valiantly, he guards his post against an unseen enemy that seems to lurk just beyond the high grass. His only companion is the "Limey" (a character in fact inspired by Action Man, GI Joe's counterpart in the UK) an action figure who seems even more broken down and dispirited than he is.

All this is good, but this gives us a character, in a situation, with a somewhat loosely defined problem. That's an opening, but it isn't a story, and that's where I struggled. I had a vague idea of where it might end, but I wasn't at all sure how to get there. The bridging events, the dark moment, the turning point of the story; these things were all missing. Even if I can make it work, there didn't seem to be enough meat there. The story needed to be at least 2000 words long, and I didn't see how I was going to make that with what I had.

So I write a little. I stare at the screen. I write a little more. I stare. I'm stuck. I hate most of what I've written. I hate the whole idea. Several times I'm tempted to throw it away and try to come up with a new idea, but I've got nothing, and I know that I'm probably just trading the devil I know for one I don't.

For me, the darkest moment was probably when Chris got word of her sale. I still was no closer to finishing, and I was starting to feel like a total fraud. (This is the kind of place where jealousy can rear its ugly head, and that's why I'm very wedded to the idea that other people's success is their own, and has nothing to do with you. You succeed or fail based on your own work. Other people's success can't hurt you professionally. It can bang your ego around, though, if you're busy having self-doubts.)

To put this in perspective, I've got a stack of novels under my belt, plus scripts, computer games, and other things. I've sold a fair number of short stories, including to major sf/f markets like Analog and The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, and to anthologies as well. But most of these sales were years ago, before I got distracted writing tie-in novels. More recently I've written stories under contract for tie-in anthologies, but not much original short fiction. Yeah, I can write a novel, but short-stories are a much different skill set.

So this is the part where the highly-trained writer brain starts making things up, starting with, "you're a fraud." Followed by "you can't do this," and "you never even knew how to do this, the other sales were flukes." That's what the writer brain does. It makes things up, and in that, it is often not your friend.

So this is also the part where many, maybe most, would-be writers give up. The difference with a pro is that (most days, anyway) they bull their way through. Maybe you justify it on the thought that, "maybe the editor will be so desperate for words they'll buy even this crap," if that's what it takes. But the professional thing to do is to keep going.

And I did. I figured out an approach, and by Tuesday evening I was over the considerable hump and headed for the ending. I'd managed to flesh out my story a bit, so that it easily went past 2000 words. I even got a good emotional hit while writing the ending, which I normally take as a very good sign.

In this case though, I was still a doubter. I was writing about something very personal to me. I got it, but would anyone else? Were my action-figure references too obscure, too "inside-joke" for the average reader? Had I written a "guy story" that my female editor just wouldn't get, or worse, just wouldn't like? Was it too sentimental? Was the ending too abstract?

The tragedy is, even at this point, some people still give up. The story goes in a drawer (literal or digital) never to emerge again, because the writer isn't sure that it will sell. Well, let me tell you, there's no certainty in this business, but if you don't submit it, you'll never know, and if you don't submit it, it can't sell.

By the time I'd gotten to my computer in the morning, there was a note from Denise saying that she was buying the story. I replied, thanking her, and saying "glad you liked the story."

To my surprise, I immediately got back a note starting, "Liked it, hah! I loved it!" It then went on to further praise the story's virtues. (Normally I wouldn't share the contents of such correspondence in public, and I hope Denise doesn't mind, as I do so only because it's necessary to the point I'm making.)

My first major point is, the writer is almost always the poorest judge of their own work. That doesn't mean that you can't look at your drafts and say, "this and this would make it better." You make this kinds of judgments with every word you choose to type.

What it means is that, when it comes to making critical judgments as to the over-all value or quality of the work, the writer's perspective is hopelessly skewed. This is a vital lesson for every aspiring writer to learn. You can have a first reader, of course, but any reader you know well enough to be worth trusting on other merits is probably too close to you to be entirely unbiased. Ultimately, the only test, imprecise though it is, of the merits of your work is to put it out in the marketplace, and see what happens.

Mind you, just because you think its crap, doesn't mean it isn't. In the beginning, especially, it quite possibly is. Don't worry about it. Mail it. Nobody is going to hold it against you for trying.

But as time goes on, and you've made some sales, it will be less and less likely that it's crap, no matter what the little critical-voice in your head says. Odds are it's at least competent. On good days, it may be far better than that. Maybe surprisingly better.

My second major point is that it isn't unusual to hit a point in the process where you're unhappy with what you're writing and lose confidence in yourself. Maybe some writers skip past that (and I envy them), but in my experience talking with many, many writers is that (for novels at least) it happens to a lot of writers at some point in every project. Knowing that it's usual, that others suffer from it, and that your critical-voice is entirely untrustworthy at this point; is a starting point in fighting your way over the barriers.

If you write, or want to write, and this hasn't happened to you, it probably will. How you respond to this challenge will be a major hurdle in your journey to professional success.

Keep writing.

I'm well behind in my posting here, and I've read a number of interesting things recently that I'd like to talk with you about, several of them writing related. Hopefully you'll be seeing some more major postings here from me in the next few days.

Meanwhile, remember that I post a new Minons at Work cartoon panel every Monday. Check it out, check back, and share it with your friends.