Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Pluto and The Slog

From this morning's Reddit "Ask Me Anything" session with the New Horizons team:
Question: My question has to do with how we classify these objects. Since Pluto and Charon orbit a shared point/barycenter in space, is it finally time to stop calling the latter a moon? Thanks to all of you, it seems to me that we have our first up-close, composite photograph of a binary dwarf planet! ...and if we continue with that line of thought, aren't Styx, Nix, Kerberos, and Hydra really scattered Kuiper Belt debris that fell into orbit around Pluto's system, as opposed to traditional moons?

Reply: Many of us on the team refer to it as the "Pluto-Charon system," rather than a visit to "Pluto and its moon Charon," or words to that effect. For me, personally (Stuart Robbins), it doesn't matter what we classify these bodies as or call them: They're still really neat and we're learning about objects we've never visited! --SJR

Comment: Thank you for reminding me of something Richard Feynman once said: “You can know the name of that bird in all the languages of the world, but when you’re finished, you’ll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird. You’ll only know about humans in different places, and what they call the bird. So let’s look at the bird and see what it’s doing—that’s what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something."
It's not just the naming. It's the whole abstract ball of wax of how we classify and weigh and color and conceptualize and dramatize things, including ourselves and each other. Just as it couldn't matter less how we categorize Pluto and Charon, Meryl Streep didn't become a more important actress when she won her first Oscar. Things are what they are, and the rest is insubstantial mental annotation...something we humans indulge in for fun yet inevitably take way, way, way too seriously (the downside of the marvelous human faculty of pretending is the inevitable burn-in as we quickly forget not to take it seriously). We mistake it for reality, and need to be reminded via insightful quotes from lauded geniuses that the real is the real, and the rest is annotation. Is that really such a leap?

This is what I meant in the previous posting when I said "Nothing - absolutely nothing - goes on your permanent record." The record is an abstraction. There's no record. There's just you, now, period. Infinitely free. You're only a crusted agglomeration of past horrors and missteps if you live in an abstract story. But we live in reality, not storyland. We are not our own annotations!

Yet we spend our lives pretending to live more in abstraction than in reality (that's why time speeds up as we age). And we make ourselves miserable with the stories we tell ourselves about what's happening (consider my favorite book title: "What's Wrong with Right Now...Unless You Think About It?").

At some point, we each have chosen a certain happiness level, and thereafter habitually tilt our perspective of our daily lives to constrain happiness to that threshold. That's just one way in which we imprison ourselves within our own abstractions. Eventually, the self-imposed restraints grow so tight that only feats of heroic resilience can wrench us free of our abstract notions of how badly things are going at any particular point. But it's only quasi-struggle, taking place entirely in abstract Storyland - the realm where it truly matters what you call a dwarf planet (or a tall actress)! - rather than in reality.

Our "problems" are almost entirely in the abstract, they're almost never actual problems. And the habit of indulging the compulsion to tell ourselves dark stories about our abstract quasi-problems is the root of much depression. I made myself needlessly miserable one Christmas eve, bouncing between the actuality of a perfectly nice evening and the abstracted notion of how Christmas Eve really ought to go. My reality was cozy and happy, but happy reality couldn't measure up to a hypnotized obsession with abstract constructs.

There is, however, a benefit to pretending to live in a jumble of stories about the world rather than in the world itself. Since the stories are completely and ditzily arbitrary, it's surprisingly easy to change one's experience by flipping the story.

If you hunt down the links, above, you'll see me approaching this same issue from myriad angles over the course of many years. Whether you're an engineer trying to learn about Pluto or a seeker trying to learn about yourself, the very first step is to shake loose the unreal - that which is mere mental overlay.

Also: there's nothing wrong with pretending we're in a story. Stories are fun! That's why we enjoy movies! But when we lose ourselves in the story, we can fool ourselves into thinking we're miserable (taking our pretending too seriously is humanity's signature flaw). The trick is to enjoy the movie with some amused detachment - especially if we find ourselves screaming at the scary parts.

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