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See Inside October 2005

Additions and Corrections

Making a case for a new planet and two dead stars
Steve Mirsky



FRANK VERONSKY
In news from the far reaches of the solar system, also known as California, astronomers at Caltech are pushing for a distant body to be recognized as the 10th planet orbiting the sun. The object, currently known by the catchy handle 2003UB313, is more than twice as far away as Pluto. Whether Pluto should even be considered a planet has been the subject of recent debate. According to Martin Amis in his 1995 novel The Information: "One must never mock the afflicted, of course, but Pluto really is an awful little piece of s**t."

Plutotudes aside, if 2003UB313 does pass planetary muster, it'll need a new name. Pluto's moon is dubbed Charon, for the ferryman who brings newcomers across the River Styx to the underworld, run by Pluto. The next-best name for a companion for Pluto is thus Goofy. Which would set the stage for NASA's first official Goofy mission.

Speaking of big government, on August 1 President George W. Bush endorsed the teaching of so-called intelligent design as an alternative to evolution. Intelligent design, as noted in this space in February, is "the full-blown intellectual surrender strategy" that proposes that a scientific explanation of life's complexity requires the intercession of a supernatural being. But examination of the available data leads only to the conclusion that the biggest beneficiary of the Bush presidency is Warren Harding.

And now for something completely deferent. Twice in this space (August 2003 and June 2005), I noted that British researchers hypothesized that Newton and Einstein might have had Asperger's syndrome, a form of autism. The more recent claim prompted a letter from David Green of the New School in New York City. Here are highlights from that letter, because the whole letter would fill this entire page, and management might wonder why they're paying me and not David Green.

Green began, "You run a fine column." (The phrase "into the ground" seemed to hang in the air.) He then pointed out my reference to the two great physicists possibly having Asperger's and wrote, "You should let this particular piece of foolishness lie. As someone who teaches a course on revolutions in science, I have read umpteen biographies of these men." (I looked up "umpteen," which was defined as the number of incorrect ball and strike calls made in a Major League Baseball game.) Green continued, "The sensible conclusion: Newton could (at least arguably) be afflicted with Asperger's syndrome. Einstein could not."

Green then compared the two physicists. "Newton was emotionally frigid, actively discouraged human contact, was known to laugh only once in his life (when a fellow student asked what use Euclid could be), and died bragging that he was a virgin and thus uncontaminated. Therefore, I'll give the good doctors Newton if they feel they need him, but even Newton is a debatable case. When Einstein died, Bohr eulogized him by saying that the loss to the world was a great physicist, but the loss to those who knew him was his unique warmth and kindness. He loved wine, women and song (perhaps too much of the middle one), had close and deep friendships all his life, and was funny and a fully social being."

In retrospect, diagnosing the mental condition of the dead based on decades- or centuries-old anecdotal evidence does seem somewhat questionable. It would be like a cardiologist practicing teleneurology by watching a few minutes of an old videotape and declaring that the patient shown is not in a persistent vegetative state. One might call such medical practice Mickey Mouse.

Back to geniuses. "The chances that Einstein was a case of even mild autism," Green concluded, "are about as great as the chances that you are or I am Queen Elizabeth."

We are amused.

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