Monday, December 14, 2015

Gifts of Christmas Past--Crossbows and Catapults!

Hail Fellow, and well-met! It's time to smash thy house!

I was thinking about Christmas gifts from the past. They seemed to be largely toy-based for me. Yet these days it seems like children have fewer toy choices to choose from. Yes, there is a slate of new Star Wars toys for them to enjoy. However, the majority of toys out there are for adult collectors. This is something I'll discuss later on, but suffice to say, Christmas isn't what it used to be. 

Then again, I'm not a kid during this time period. I was a child of the 80's, the best time to be a kid! Sure, we had no internet, but we had imagination. And because we had no internet, we had the time to use our imaginations. 

Case in point...

Crossbows and Catapults! 

The commercial that started the siege! Be forewarned, ye warriors of courage, for this commercial is really quiet. You may have to hike up the volume. 

This medieval bash'em up was originally created by Lakeside Games. It's undergone many a revision, and was re-released in 2007 by Moose Toys. It was rechristened Battlegrounds, and has since brought sword and shield carnage to a new generation. 

The game depicted opposing sides locked in castle siege warfare. The noble Vikings faced off against the brutish Barbarians. You even tell by their faces who the good guys were. The Barbarians had pig-like visages, while the Vikings were toned and ABBA-esque. They were of Norse origin, so I'd imagine Dancing Queen was their battle theme. 

The game was simple. 

Either side would build their respective castles out of plastic bricks. They weren't tight-fitting like Lego. Instead, they were just tight enough to stand upright, but loose enough to be toppled when struck. 

Both sides would adorn the castles with insignia flags. They would then populate their castles with these mighty warriors. 

Finally, and this was the important bit, each side had a crossbow and a catapult. Well, obviously. These siege machines fired plastic discs (caroms) with the associated colors and images. 

The Viking discs were red, with a Viking logo. The Barbarian discs were blue, with a snarling Barbarian face on them. Each side fired at each other until one of two things happened. 

1. A castle tor was knocked down.  
2. The tor was knocked down, and then a disc landed on the treasure underneath. The Vikings had a sword (which I assumed was Excalibur) The Barbarians had a goblet (which I assumed was the holy grail). 

My half-brother and I played for annihilation. Whoever level the other's castle won. 

This was a rivalry that would continued into the next century. 

It was given to my brother as a Christmas gift in the mid-80's. We played it extensively. Sometimes I'd win. Sometimes, he'd win. And other times we'd set up a massive castle for both of us to storm. And yes, we had fun storming the castle. 

As we grew older, the personal rivalry faded. However, the Crossbows and Catapults rivalry did not. Before my half-brother handed the game over to my nephew, we had one final decisive battle. As per usual, I played the Vikings. My brother played the Barbarians. And on that cold day on Baden Hill (my sister's living room carpet. If I recall the month was July, and with a heatwave) We engaged in a battle to rival the gods. 

Sir Robin would have wet himself. 

Many a Viking went to Valhalla that day (and I don't mean a trendy nightclub in the West Village). However, the stench of Barbarian dead was a perfume to their departed souls. Odin would have been proud. And whatever gods the Barbarians prayed to would have been annoyed. 

The game wasn't specific on what the Barbarians were like, since their name is a generic term. Maybe they prayed to Stretch Armstrong, Lord of Plastic? Or, perhaps it was Crom, and they had a common ancestor in Conan? Conan could have propagated the whole race for all we know. He is very virile.

In the end, both or castles lay in ruins, save for their respective towers. 

Amid the rubble of my baronial estate (with nice shrubberies out front) I picked up a red carom, and fired it with a crossbow. It bounced off a dark gray brick, and was airborne. It spun in the air, and then bounced again off another brick. My brother launched a blue carom with his catapult, but it fell short. My red carom bounced again. On the third bounce it leaped upwards, and then smacked into my brother's castle tor. It knocked the hollow facade onto its backside. 

"Yes!" I proclaimed! 

My brother replied with, "Uh, he beat me." 

He was crestfallen. And indeed, his crest did fall to the mighty Norsemen from...The land of the ice and snow, where the midnight sun and hot springs glow! 

Yes, the hammer of the gods was with me that day. And so the final battle concluded with victory for the young (20-something) upstart.

In the words of Leif Erickson, "I done schooled him, yo."

It was a good day, indeed. 

I have since discovered that sets of the original sell for big caroms! They've sold for as high as $300 bucks, or more! Sets of Battlegrounds are more readily available, but even the older sets are selling at a premium. While I'd enjoy playing this again, it'll be a long time before I can afford an original set. Still though, it's nice to know that such sets exist. 

While my affinities lie with outer space, and the promise it brings, deep inside my psyche lurks a berserker. It is waiting to be unleashed on a living room carpet! And it will sing the songs of Valhalla, all shiny and chrome! 

Uh, plastic and shiny, that is.

Text copyright Mr. Joyce 2015

Images from
video from
With some research from Wikipedia. 


Friday, December 4, 2015

Christmas Music Video Countdown!

Alright, Alright! 

After a long absence I am back from Outer Space! 

Coming to you live from Kuiper Belt is this list of Holiday videos! 

First up, we have...

Hall and Oates, Jingle Bell Rock! 

This was a seasonal favorite on MTV back in the 80's. The granny playing guitar is none other than G.E. Smith, of the SNL band fame. He also played guitar on several Hall and Oates albums. In recent years Mr. Smith has toured with Roger Waters. All in all, you're just jingle bells on my wall! 

Next up...

It isn't Christmas without DMC in the house! Santa was Straight Outta the North Pole, homes. 

We also take a Step Into Christmas with Sir Elton John! 

Why Sir Elton hasn't released an entire Christmas album is beyond me. He is Christmas! 

What Christmas would be complete without The Ramones? 

You know, last Christmas I gave you my heart. You threw it away? I needed that thing! The robotic one from the hospital is low on batteries. Never mind. I'll just kickstart my heart! 

George Micheal, and the other guy from Wham! Uh, Andrew Ridgley? Wow, I didn't have to Google that! 

I hope none see this as being in poor taste. Though Scott Weiland has passed, his music will live on. As part of Stone Temple Pilots, he helped to forge the sound of the 90's. But there's a side of Mr. Weiland that few may have seen. This next video comes from his 2011 Christmas album, The Most Wonderful Time of the Year. Here he is channeling Bing Crosby with Winter Wonderland

While technically not a music video, Monty Python's Christmas in Heaven is the climax of their classic The Meaning of Life. Here it is in all it's glory! One of the dancers in this sequence is Jane Leeves (of Frasier and Hot in Cleveland fame) She was also one of Benny Hill's Hill's Angels backup dancers at the time. Oh, and as a side note, no real nudity was present in this scene. Sorry to disappoint you all. 

My maternal grandmother's favorite Christmas song was Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer. No, she was never run over by a reindeer, but was beset by badgers once. We still don't talk of this incident, even around the holidays. Over the years I've owned various copies of this song. One of my favorites is the reindeer behind the wheel ornament that plays this tune. If memory serves Elmo went on to become a dentist. He still hasn't lived down the legacy of this song, but why would he? It's not a bad legacy to have. 

If there's anyone that should make a Christmas album, it's Lindsey Stirling. My adoration of her is well-known, and knows no bounds. Here she is performing O' Come Emmanuel with piano prodigy Kuha'o Case.

This next video is a rarity. A co-worker had this tune playing in his head for ages, but couldn't figure out what it was. Thanks to modern tech (Shazam!) he was able to find out what it is.
Captain Sensible of legendary Brit punk band The Damned brings us One Christmas Catalog

Merry Christmas! Happy New Year! Happy Yak Shaving Day as well! 

Text copyright Mr. Joyce 2015 

Monday, June 1, 2015

What a Lovely Day!

It was 36 years ago that audiences first met Max Rockatansky. As one of cinema's toughest cops, he became a one man army against outlaws in The Outback. 

Now, Max is back. And he's madder than ever! 

Without spoiling too much about Mad Max: Fury Road, I'll give some thoughts on it here. 

First off, Fury Road is consistent with the other Mad Max films. It isn't a remake (thank God, and George Miller), it's a sequel. While it does reference previous films in the series, it isn't slavishly chained to chronology. Because of this it can act as a gateway to those who aren't familiar with the previous films. My hairdresser hadn't seen, or even knew of the originals. This allowed her to approach Max and savage universe with fresh eyes. That seems to be the order of the day. But I mean that in a good way. Max wasn't remade for a new generation. Instead, he was introduced to a new generation because of this film. Audiences, both veteran and rookie, have embraced him. There's no greater complement to a creator of fantastic cinema then to have your characters live on for generations to come. Well done, Mr. Miller! 

Second, the ecological message of the original trilogy is still intact. It's a message that is just as pertinent, perhaps even more so, today than it was in 1979. While '79 had the "brown outs," we now have legit concerns over global warming. To be honest, those were concerns for a long time. It's just that nobody got the memo until now. The film asks the tough question, "Who killed the world?" The answer is obvious enough: warlords like Immortan Joe (Hugh Keays-Byrne, Toecutter in the original Max), and the big wigs who controlled the flow of oil, water, and knowledge. The world broke down because of warring, disregard for the environment; and above all, disregard for the human race. 

That brings me to my third point. The brides of Immortan Joe boldly state, "We are not your property!" No one exemplifies this more than Imperator Furiosa (Charlize Theron). Her open defiance of the objectification of women is key to this film. She doesn't need Max to save her. Instead, Max needs Furiosa to save him. In the end, the two save each other. They both learn that trust is needed to survive. It gives one a sense of hope for humanity in the Mad Max Universe. 

Theron has always played strong characters in films. And with Furiosa, she can stand along-side Lt. Ellen Ripley as "toughest woman on film." I'm a huge fan of Charlize Theron. She's one of the best actresses on the screen. She's also one of the most down-to-earth. She's not afraid to get her hands dirty, or transform herself for a role. She always proves that actresses can do more than romantic comedies and damsel-in-distress roles. Frankly, I think she'd rescue any man that was in distress. She certainly needs no saving. As Furiosa she is determined, capable, and cunning. Her mission is one of mercy. But above all, her goal is to see that women are treated with dignity. That's a message that Hollywood is sadly lacking. You wouldn't get such a bold statement in a film made by an American filmmaker. But in Australia, they play by their own rules. 

That brings me to my next point.

This film is WILD! You can't predict a single frame of Mad Max: Fury Road. I won't spoil it here, but there is a death scene that I did not see coming. It's also that same scene that drives home the point of women NOT being objects. While Immortan Joe refers to the brides as his "treasures," and sees them as breeding machines, Furiosa and her crew are worth far more. It's as if the film is suggesting what we've known all along; the value of a human being isn't monetary. That's a message we need to be reminded of often. 

I also want to give kudos to Tom Hardy. When I heard he was cast as Max, I thought, "Perfect!" I was right. He the perfect actor to wear Max's leathers; so much in fact that he wore the actual jacket worn by Mel Gibson in the original movies. As Kat, my hairdresser pointed out, "I get the feeling Tom Hardy is a man of few words." She's right. Hardy's actions speak louder than any words. I've been consistently impressed by every performance I've seen from him. The man could play anyone, or anything. My first taste of his acting chops was in Bronson. Since then I've not been able to get enough of his work. I'm eager to see him in the upcoming film about the notorious Kray twins. 

The breakout role for this film is Nicholas Hoult as Nux. The amped-up warboy is determined to reach Valhalla, or die trying (you have to one to reach the knew what I meant). He delivers the now iconic tagline for the film as well. His character arc is one of redemption. While he's full of manic human, Hoult gives Nux a very human face. He's good at injecting a sense of humanity in all his roles (X-Men, Warm Bodies). I look forward to seeing more from him in the future. 

Also of interest to note is Riley Keough as Capable. She's the stunning redheaded bride that befriends Nux. Her performance was good, and I'm curious to see her in other flicks. I also point her out because she's the granddaughter of The King himself, Elvis Presley, and his queen, Priscillia. I thought she looked familiar, but couldn't place where I'd seen her before. I think she stands on her own here. 

Speaking of rockstar royalty: Zoe Kravity, daughter of Lenny is also riding shotgun (literally). Her character is charmingly named, Toast The Knowing! Again, a good performance. Come to think of it, her dad was good in the Hunger Games movies. 

The return of Hugh Keays-Byrne is an added surprise. I saw him name in the credits, and thought, "Wait a that?" Yep, it's Toecutter! The Mad Max universe has come full-circle. 

I could go on and on about this movie. There's so much to talk about; not the least of which is the guitar-playing-flame-wielding Doof warrior! The rockin' soundtrack he provided played in my head for hours after. This is one of those movies that you'll think about for days after you've seen it. My hairdresser had the same reaction, I think you will too.

I give Mad Max: Fury Road...

Five out of five dingoes! 

What a lovely day! 

Blogger's Note: I did see Mad Max earlier in May, just days after it was released. However, I was so busy with work that blogging had to take a backseat. I'll be back with regular updates moving forward. 

Long live Furiosa! 

Text: Copyright Mr. Joyce 2015
All images are copyright their respective holders. 


Monday, May 11, 2015

Enduro! (Atari Digital Memories)

Racing, often called "the sport of kings." That may refer to horse racing, but I like to think that auto racing is really regal as well. 

Case in point: ENDURO

Made by Activition in 1983 Enduro is the ultimate in four-bit endurance racing. I'm not just whistling Dixie. It really does test you, as the race takes place twenty-four hours a day. Like it's real-life counterpart 24 Hours of Le Mans, Enduro begins at sunrise, and ends at sunset. The odometer then resets, and one must continue the race for the next day. 

Accordingly, the race conditions change throughout the day. The position of the sun changes overhead from morning, afternoon, dusk, nightfall, and then dawn. Also, one has to compete with not only A.I. racers, but also adverse conditions. Snowy mountains, fog, and night-time driving add to the challenges of this classic. 

Enduro was programmed by physicist Larry Miller (programmer of another Activision hit, Spider Fighter). It's of interest to note that the beautifully illustrated manual also contains a photo of Miller, as well as gaming tips from him. These days few gamers can tell you how programmed what, let alone what the programmer looks like. It's not the gamer's fault. It's more so the fault of the companies these days for wanting a faceless product. The game gets the fame, but not the programmers. Then again, programmers these days probably make a better living than the programmers of yore. That's another discussion, for another post.

Speaking of the manual, I LOVE the artwork in this booklet! I'm a big fan of that style of 80's pop-art. The box art is something to behold, but the manual blows me away with it's gorgeous map and trivia section. I highly recommend going to Atari Age and checking it out. It's the sort of artwork that reminds of summers as a kid. Summer in the 80's meant video games, pop music, summer movies, new G.I. Joes, ice cream, and trips to Kennywood. The artwork in this instruction manual says it all. 

How does Enduro stack up against other classic racers? Well, from my personal experience, I've never been good at racing games. Enduro seems to be one of the few that I'm actually decent at. I'll improve with more work on it, as I would other racing games. To me this game gives Atari's better known classic Pole Position a literal run for its money. While I have fond memories of the Pole Position cartoon series, I think Enduro takes the lead in term of game play. 

I also enjoy the way Enduro looks. The colors are vibrant, and do justice to the pop-art box illustration. The night time levels are especially challenging, as you can only see the purple tail lights of the other cars! And when the sun rises, and it will rise, you have to race like a bat out of hell to the finish line.

I give Enduro five joysticks out of five! It gets better with more game play. It's a classic where you can plug in, switch on, and drop out for a few hours. That's what good video gaming is about; an escape from reality. 

Go to Atari Age to see a full profile of the game, as well as the beautiful manual artwork. CLICK HERE!

Text copyright Riley Joyce 2015

Enduro is copyright Activision 1983. 


Wednesday, May 6, 2015

Avengers 2: Electric Boogaloo! Age of Ultron, Too!

Hello, true believers! 

I feel it's safe now to write about Avengers: Age of Ultron. A word of caution, as I will be discussing a few spoilers. Also, I should point out that the movie has little connection to the comic book miniseries, Age of Ultron. That was a very contentious series that was issued by Marvel about a year-and-a-half ago. Few readers were entertained by it. However, the film Age of Ultron fared much better. 

Once again The Avengers have shattered box office records, and lots of robots. This is a true comic book movie, with lots of action. It also has heart, grit, and the prerequisite Stan Lee cameo! 

While I won't do a scene-by-scene review, I will instead highlight some moments that stood out.

1. Stan Lee's cameo. I won't say much about it here, as it needs to be seen. Let's just say that when Thor pours the booze, don't call him "blondie." 

2. The party game with Thor's hammer. Cap was able to budge Mojiner slightly. If anyone there would be virtuous enough to lift it, it would be Cap. Thor's eye bulge said it all. The audience said more with a gasp and a laugh. 

3. The biggest gasp came when The Vision lifted Thor's hammer. Yes, he truly is worthy. He's righteous, pure, and in his own words, "I was born yesterday." The audience collectively gasped. Well don't Paul Bettany! And well-done Marvel! The only other time that someone other than Thor lifted his hammer was when Amalgam did the Marvel D.C. crossover. Who was the D.C. character that could wield Thor's might hammer? None other than Superman! 

4. Scarlet Witch. Elizabeth Olsen always impresses me. I've been a fan of her work for some time. I was really eager to see her in this flick. While her character plays a supporting, but pivotal role in the film, her ability to bring heart to Scarlet Witch sells the character. Also, she is stunning as always! (Notice I avoided any Full House jokes.) 

5. Clint and his family. The great Linda Cardellini plays Laura, Mrs. Barton. This gives greater depth to a fan favorite that had less screen-time during the first outing. Give this guy his own movie. You want to talk about pathos? Renner and Cardellini have it in spades! 

6. Hulk and Black Widow. This is a romance that I could see happening the film universe. It adds depth to both characters. 

7. The HULK BUSTER! "Go to sleep, go to sleep, go to sleep!" 

8. The "death" of a major character. I didn't see that one coming. I'll leave it at that. 

9. Nick Fury! He should have quipped, "I'm tired of all these mother'effin' Ultron on my mother'effin' helicarrier!" 

10. Cap and Peggy Carter's dance/hallucination sequence. Please tell me that Marvel has plans to put Hayley Atwell in more movies. Please, please, please! Give Peggy a movie! Give her a trilogy! Give her another season of Agent Carter. That woman lights up the screen! 

Finally, my own personal view...

The Avengers did what it says on the tin. It delivered action. It's the first fun popcorn flick of the summer. It's a nice ramp-up to Ant-Man, and Mad Max: Fury Road (which I'm personally super excited about). If you can't energized by this movie, then you need a set of jumper cables! 

I give it...

Five Black Widows out of Five! 


Text copyright: Mr. Joyce 

Marvel and associated characters are copyright of Marvel Entertainment group. 

Blogger's Note: How old is Ultron, anyway? Maybe I can win a "no-prize" for figuring it out. 

Monday, May 4, 2015

See Endor Play!

May the Fourth be with you! 

I've always been a fan of sci-fi. One could say that I was born to it. The first film I ever say, in utero, was Ridley Scott's horror/sci-fi mash-up ALIEN. Since then I've pondered distant worlds and strange civilizations. I sought out new life and...wait...that's the intro to Trek. I love Star Trek dearly, but this is Star Wars day after all. 

So, onto the festivities of May the 4th! 

I was overjoyed to see the new trailer for the new Star Wars film; Episode Seven: The Force Awakens. I will admit that I was misty-eyed during the whole experience. It felt like time had hurled us back to 1983. Everything that was once old was made young again. I felt the same way when I saw the re-release of Ghostbusters this past summer. That by itself is another tale for another time. 

As for the above image.

I used to spend hours looking through the toy section of the J.C. Penney catalog. I don't recall if this treehouse and swing set was among their wares, but it must have been. I remember this ad vividly. I imagined myself standing watch in the Walker Command Tower, after my rebel crew took out some bucket-headed stormtroopers. That speederbike swing must have been the smoothest ride this side of the Ewok village. I would be most happy if I could find an adult-sized version of this. 

One wonders what parents would allow their kids to play at night, while the Death Star looms over-head, but The Falcon is there to safe-guard them. The sound effects must have been stellar as well. All that guard tower needed was a working intercom or P.A. system. Using Nerf guns to defend it would have made for a boss battle scene! 

It also appears that Gym-Dandy is still around. Listings for them online show they now sell their products through the likes of Wal-Mart and Target. 

That was a time when children had imaginations. Yes, we were helped with gracious mentors such as George Lucas, Gene Roddenberry, and Stan Lee (to name only a few). They were the ones that ignited the spark of creativity that we'd kindle well into adulthood. Back then, one could dream all day long. There were adult concerns to scare us all into submission. We weren't hampered by "the box," because, as Lucas once put it, "We didn't know the box existed." 

Who will be the Lucas, Roddenberry, and Lee of the next generation? Well, Lee and Lucas are alive and well, so they will hold onto their thrones as active dreammakers for quite a while. But even after one has passed; such as Roddenberry, Bradbury, Clarke their work continues to inspire both current and future generations. 

Yes, looking at that photo in the catalog provided inspiration as well. While I never did get my Star Wars treehouse, I did get to imagine life on Endor. And there was no white picket fence to rein in my imagination...and there never will be! 

May the Fourth be with you! 

Text copyright Riley Joyce 2015 

Star Wars Copyright Lucasfilm/Disney 

Sunday, May 3, 2015

The Vincent Price is Right!

The great Vincent Price endorsed so many products over the years that it's difficult to list them all. I'm sure there are some that I've missed. If so, let me know in the comments below. 

Here is a selection of some of my favorite Vincent ads with commentary. 

1. Time-Life Books: Enchanted World (circa 1985) 
These were the sort of books that gave me the chills as a child. Now, I can't get enough of this sort of supernatural shocker. Vincent Price offers us a guided tour of the realms of knights, witches, wizards, and night creatures. 

This commercial, along with Time-Life's Mysteries of the Unknown, used to run late at night. Both would scare the snot out of me as a child. As a teen I acquired a taste for the paranormal, via The X-Files. Now I'm in the process of putting together complete sets of these books. Fun, spooky stuff. 

There were multiple commercials for both series of books. Mysteries of the Unknown deserves a separate commentary. As for now, I've included a second Enchanted World commercial. One that features the voice of Vincent. More commentary on these books will follow. 

My family had this board game from the legendary game-makers Milton Bradley. It was more enjoyable by the presence of the Master of Menace himself on the box! Not only did this game feature a photo of Vincent in refined cowboy get-up, he also starred in the commercials! 

Ignore the Double Mint twins, there Hangman ad is posted above. 

3. Peter Paul Chocolate: Peanut Butter...NO JELLY!
I don't recall this candy bar at all. But I'm willing to bet you it was the most delicious candy bar ever!

4. Tilex! 
I remember these commercials vividly. So much in fact that still use Tilex to this day. If it was good enough for Mr. Price, it's good enough for me. Well, that, and my bathroom is like a laboratory/surgery...whenever I shave. 

Only one man could pull off the ascot. Well, two men; Fred from Scooby-Doo, and Vincent Price! And Vincent Price was in...The Thirteen Ghosts of Scooby-Doo! It comes full circle through the knot of the ascot! 

5. The Vincent Price Collection 
Sears once hired Vincent Price to curate a collection of curious art. The idea was to have the well-known art connoisseur bring art to the masses. Price himself selected, cataloged, and evaluated the various works of art that would bare his name. He also taught Sears employees how to sell these paintings. Yes, Vincent starred in the sales training film! No actor alive today would do that. Mr. Price loved art in all its forms. Making sure that everyone could afford art to enrich the their daily lives was his mission statement. 

I especially like the parts in the film were Price points to a bawdy painting, and then says, "Trust me, it's okay." Sensibilities have changed so much since then. I can't think of a department store today that would offer a Picasso print at bargain prices. 

7. Polaroid video tape 
I remember VHS. Ah, those days of messing with the tracking wheel to get the best picture. The scent of fresh magnetic tape. And the sound of said tape sliding into the VCR. While DVDs and Blu-Ray offer better picture and sound quality, VHS offered us grit. But, to reduce the grit one would have to use head-cleaner tapes. 

Here, Vincent demonstrates the need for a clean VCR. Never be haunted by dirty heads...ever! Even ones you lopped off this morning in the pit...and the pendulum! 

I would love to watch movies in a setting like this! Well, maybe just during October, during the time of...well, you know.

8. Stay Alive! 
Vincent shows us how to play this most unique game. Once again, he endorsed another awesome product from Milton Bradley. I'm curious about how this game was played. I've not seen it before. Ah, see! The advert still works! 

There's more to come. After can't keep a good ghoul down! 

Text copyright Riley Joyce 2015 

The products featured are copyright their respective owners. 

Thursday, April 30, 2015

Deep-Sixing Pluto!

The following is my NSET (Natural Sciences) 111 paper. Or, as I called that class, NSET 2: Astronomical Boogaloo. The class covered more than astronomy. Biology, vulcanology, evolutionary biology, and environmental sciences. Astronomy is the one I'm more familiar with, so I chose a topic based in that field.

I decided to write about why Pluto was declassified as a planet. As you'll see, it really isn't a planet. It's more of a "dirty snowball," a comet that wasn't given proper fuel. I won't spoil the ending. Instead, I'll allow the research to speak for itself. 

Deep-Sixing Pluto—How the Little Guy Lost His Planetary Status
In 2006 The International Astronomical Union made a decision that has impacted both astronomy, and our view of the universe. They gave Pluto the sailor's elbow, and declassified our former ninth planet to mere “Dwarf Planet” status. This was a controversial decision, one that has lead many to say, “How dare they?” But it has also lead astronomers to ask the question, “What constitutes a planet?” Originally, the word planet was simply the Greek word for “wanderer.” But now, a new debate has been created as to the exact definition of planethood. How this is defined will shape our view of the universe.

Tombaugh in 1930. Among his accomplishments Tombaugh was awarded the Rittenhouse medal in 1990. 
Pluto was discovered by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh in 1930. Initially, Tombaugh was on the hunt for a presumed gas giant, that was believed to affect Neptune's orbit. Since then Astronomers have learned that such a spare gas giant does not exist. However, Tombaugh did find something else in the process. He found a spec that was moving across the sky at night. It tread step by step, while the stars appeared static. Tombaugh recognized it as another one of these classically-named “wanderers” in the night sky. The result was that soon a new planet was added to our solar system; the first to be discovered by an American. It was dubbed “Pluto,” after the Greek lord of the Underworld. And its distance from Sol, our sun, was such that it was thought to be an icy and barren world.

As it turns out Pluto is indeed icy and barren. Its surface contains frozen methane (natural gas), nitrogen, and even carbon monoxide. Its average temperature is 25K (Kelvin, the coldest temperature scale on record). It also has polar ice caps, much like our own Earth, and our closest neighbor, Mars. However, The temperatures on Pluto fluctuate greatly, yet they are still incredibly frigid. It has often been depicted as a tiny blue dot, with the distant rays of the Sun barely reaching it. It is a lone wanderer, an orphan in a sky full of giants.

When I was a child, I was taught that our solar system had nine planets. But as time went on astronomers began to doubt this. Pluto sits in a region of space known as The Kuiper Belt—a dense band of asteroids and similar objects. It extends from outside of Neptune's orbit at 30 AU (Astronomical units. Codified by the distance from The Sun to planets) to about 1000 AU. The Kuiper Belt functions as both an umbilical, and a nursery. It the birthplace of comets, but also the afterbirth of the Solar System. It is where the ice, dust, and rock that made planets such as our own can be found. It is the leftover material of worlds set adrift. It is a reminder of our past, long before Earth had finished accretion. As early as 1992 objects far larger than Pluto were sighted in this region. Yet, they were also not classified as planets. Why is this so? As it turns out, when it comes to planets, size does matter.

Pluto was originally thought to be nearly the size of Earth. It was also believe to be the possible cause of a perceived eccentricity in Uranus' orbit. But with further observation it was discovered to only be 2300 kilometers in diameter. It could easily fit inside Earth several times over. It would boggled the mind to think how many times it could fit inside of a gas giant such as Jupiter. Further more, its mass far lower than Earth's own moon. It also turned out that the so-called anomalies in Uranus solar orbit were just computational errors. Indeed, size does matter when it comes to planets. To put it bluntly, Pluto just doesn't measure up. It's not tall enough to ride the planetary roller coaster.

Another reason for the mislabeling of Pluto as a planet was lack of knowledge. Little was known about the Kuiper Belt in 1930. Even less was known about the objects beyond Neptune. These so-called trans-Neptunian objects, such as Eris and Makemake are better understood now. But in Tombaugh's time telescopes just weren't sensitive enough to find them. This was an era before anyone had literally set foot in space—let alone sent a space-based telescope such as Hubble. The tools available to Tombaugh at the time were not too dissimilar from those used by Galileo and Sir Edmund Halley. Telescopes, a keen eye, mathematical equations, and a lot of patience were the astronomer's equipment until the space age.

Image from NASA's Hubble Space Telescope in 2012. Pluto and its moons. 

Planetary politics also plays a role in why some astronomers won't let Pluto stay in the underworld. NASA has undertaken some very necessary, and expensive, missions in recent years. They range anywhere from Mars colonization projects, to the exploration of Europa (one of Saturn's moons). Most recently NASA sent Rosetta, a robotic hitchhiker that thumbed a ride on a comet, the first mission of its kind. Despite being a success with that mission, and others, NASA has to continue to justify its funding. Congressional purse-strings for a mission like New Horizons (the probe that will observe Pluto) would be firmly drawn shut if Pluto were just a mere hunk of ice. The mission will cost NASA $700 million, and take over a decade. With a bill like that it's no wonder that self-interest will play a factor in future fiscal decisions. The sad truth of scientific funding, and the perpetual lack there-of, comes to the fore. It's not only a matter of prestige for NASA. It is also a matter of job security for a multitude of engineers, physicists, and launch crews.

The final nail in Pluto's coffin (yes, pun intended, as Pluto was lord of the underworld) was its own orbit. The International Astronomical Union used this as their criteria to define a planet. It wasn't Pluto's distance from our Sun, as such. It was more a case of Pluto chugging along with little fuel in its engine. As codified by the IAU a planet must “Clear its orbital neighborhood.” To explain further I must first give the IAU's full definition of a planet. Three criteria were chosen for this now technical definition. Ancient Greek philosophers like Aristotle would have loved to argue this definition, just as astronomers and the public do today.

First, a planet must orbit a star (not another planet). This is why large moons like Titan and Europa are not considered planets. They orbit Saturn, not the sun.

Second, it must attain hydrostatic equilibrium. This means that it has a mass large enough to sustain gravity, and accreted into a spherical shape (planets just aren't square or rectangular).
Third, and this is the key point, it must be “gravitationally dominant.” In doing so it must clear it's own neighborhood. That means that there are no objects larger than itself nearby. There are several trans-Neptunian objects that dwarf Pluto several times over. Also Pluto takes a ridiculously long time to orbit Sol (our local star, the Sun). It takes 248.6 Terran years for Pluto to orbit the sun. This means that it wasn't even one Earth year old when it was declassified as a planet. In cosmic terms it was barely out of its adolescence. Though Pluto does have natural satellites (Charon, Nix, Hydra, P4, and P5) the mere presence of them is not enough to elevate Pluto to planetary status. The presence of these natural satellites doesn't count for much. Mercury and Venus have no satellites, and yet they are full-fledged planets. What Pluto does qualify as is a “dwarf planet.”

The IAU defines a dwarf planet in similar, but slightly altered terms.

First, it must orbit a star. Okay, that's pretty straightforward there.
Second, it must have a spherical shape due to hydrostatic equilibrium. Pluto is good on that criterion as well.

Third, it must clear it's orbit.

Fourth, it must not be a satellite.

In other words; Pluto is defined as dwarf planet by what it is not, not what it is. The main differences between the two classes of planets are not necessarily size-based (per the IAU's definition) rather it is based on orbital path. The size issue is more one that astronomers use are part of their anti-Pluto arguments. One that does make sense, as Pluto is basically a small comet without a tail. If it were ignited, it would have been Comet Pluto, and been a more rare visitor than Hally's eponymous comet. It may be a dwarf planet to some, but to call it that would be refer to it as a planet at all.

In conclusion I agree that Pluto is not a planet, or even a dwarf planet. It should properly be referred to as a trans-Neptunian object. That tells us immediately what it is, and what it is not. It is an object that is beyond the orbit of Neptune. It does not clear it's own orbit. And it is part of the Kuiper Belt. It's greater claim to fame should not be that it was once thought of as a planet, but that it is residue from the creation of the solar system. Pluto is a bit of left-over building material that was not used to make a rocky, Earth-like planet, or serve as the core of a Jovian gas giant. Instead, it is there as a reminder of what could have been...and what once was. In that instance further study of this trans-Neptunian object is required. By understanding Pluto we will understand the nature of the our solar system. We will have a sort of baby picture of where we came from...and a preview of where we might be going.  

 Works Cited
Comins, Neil F. Discovering The Essential Universe (Second edition). pp. 138-140. New York.
W.H. Freeman and Company. 2004. Print.
“IAU 2006 General Assembly.” International Astronomical Union Website. IAU. N.D. Web.

“Pluto, Perception & Planetary Politics.” Jewitt, David and Luu, Jane X.
Daedalus, Vol. 136, No. 1, On Nonviolence & Violence (Winter, 2007), pp. 132-136. MIT Press American Academy of Arts & Sciences.

“The Problem with Pluto: Conflicting Cosmologies and the Classification of Planets.” Messeri, Lisa R. Social Studies of Science, Vol. 40, No. 2 (April 2010), pp. 187-214. Sage Publications, Ltd. Stable

Piantadosi, Claude A. Mankind Beyond Earth: The History, Science, and Future of Human Space Exploration. Columbia University Press, January 2013. Digital.

Yeomans, Donald K. Near-Earth Objects: Finding Them Before They Find Us. New Jersey. Princeton University Press, November 2012. Digital. .  

Blogger's Note: The images in this post did not accompany my original paper. They were added by me for some extra flair. My final grade: 10 out of 10! 
  Text Copyright R.J.X. Joyce 2015
All images are taken from NASA. 

Saturday, March 7, 2015

Resuming Flights

We here at Plastic Spacemen are proud to announce that we will be resuming flights into cyberspace, interstellar space, and beyond. The order of the day will variety of topics ranging from science fiction, science fact, and of course poseable people made of plastic...and various other materials.

Flights will be taking off in T-Minus one week and counting.