Good Morning, Pluto? Diane Sawyer’s Folly

Good Morning, Pluto? Diane Sawyer’s Folly

Astronomers agree: Pluto is not really a planet. It’s just an icy body belonging to the Kuiper Belt, at the outer edges of the solar system. Diane Sawyer, the co-host of ABC’s Good Morning America , read about Pluto’s change in status and decided to mount something of a campaign against science.

She began, on the morning of Jan. 20, when she looked into the camera and said how much she loved the “tiny stories” she reads in the newspaper. “Here’s the New York Daily News ,” she said. “And there is this little story that has tragic news. Pluto is going to be downgraded as a planet. It’s not going to be a planet anymore: It’s going to be an ice ball.”

“We go from planet to ice ball in one day,” said her sidekick Charles Gibson.

“It’s smaller than the moon,” she said. “They just decided to squeeze it.”

“As a loyal employee of Disney, I don’t want to see Pluto downgraded, ever,” said Mr. Gibson. “If they go after Pluto, they’re going to get Mickey and Goofy next.”

“It does feel personal somehow,” Ms. Sawyer said.

Soon, Ms. Sawyer was claiming there was a “universal mourning” over the Pluto news. And on Feb. 4, ABC science guy Michael Guillen showed up on Good Morning America . “Pluto is fine,” he said. “All you school kids out there, don’t worry. Pluto is and always will be a planet.”

“The people saved Pluto!” Ms. Sawyer said.

This kind of talk doesn’t sit well with astrophysicist Neil de Grasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium.

“That’s like saying the people voted to repeal gravity,” Mr. Tyson said. “Scientific truths are not decided by letter writing campaigns. So if you have a bunch of school kids that want to keep Pluto as a planet, that’s fine. But that’s tantamount to a bunch of school kids saying, ‘You know, we don’t like gravity anymore, so let’s write to have that repealed.’ Science doesn’t work that way. Those who want to keep it a planet are driven by sentimental reasons–and there’s nothing wrong with that, in principle–but if you look at the pure science of it, there’s no case. “

Mr. Tyson said that, yes, some astronomers have continued to call Pluto a planet, but not with good reason.

“They’re not offering scientific arguments. ‘You know, it’s been a planet for 70 years, we owe it to it, I knew Clyde Tombaugh the discoverer,’ and out comes all this long song and dance, you got the violins, and you hand out the tissues. One of the greatest hindrances to scientific progress is when a scientist lets the emotions get in the way of critical thinking.”

What’s Ms. Sawyer doing?

“I think she’s bucking for the underdog,” the scientist said. “It’s a very American thing to do and I even understand that, but that doesn’t make it science.”

How would one explain to Ms. Sawyer that acknowledging Pluto’s change in status is not really so bad?

“Well, I think it means we understand the solar system a little more deeply, and that’s a notch in our knowledge of the universe, and I think that’s good. We know that Pluto goes from being the pipsqueak of the planets to the king of what is a new class of objects called the Kuiper Belt. So I think Pluto, in fact, rather than claiming it got demoted, it’s actually elevated to a whole different kind of status, so I don’t view it so apocalyptically.”

What about the lament that now Pluto is “going to be an ice ball”?

“Well,” said Mr. Tyson, “it’s always been an ice ball. Ha-ha-ha. So it’s not like we just decided, ‘Tomorrow it will be an ice ball instead of a planet.’ No one’s ever been able to classify it with any other planet, because no other planet is an ice ball. It’s always been an ice-ball oddball.”

Is it exasperating that there’s still a debate?

“No, there are too many other things far more exasperating than this that I think we need to banish.”

Like what?


–George Gurley

The Iron Man

It’s not uncommon for patients like Ben Wachsman to come through the doors of New York Presbyterian Hospital. Wachsman, who sold knitting machines in Brooklyn for most of his life, developed a swollen brain cavity at age 87. He entered the hospital on Feb. 19, 1988–and he stayed there for the next 10 years.

Among the doctors, residents and nurses, Wachsman became a legend. He was the Man Who Would Not Die … until, after 3,904 days at the venerable teaching hospital, he finally passed away, at age 97, on Oct. 28, 1998.

When the treatment started, Wachsman already had a shunt in his head to relieve the swelling. An attempt was made to put in a second shunt, but something seems to have gone wrong. Then, an opportunistic infection entered, and he remained in a persistent vegetative state thereafter.

Wachsman’s son, Harvey Wachsman, is a jack-of-all-professions. Not only is he a neurosurgeon, but he’s a malpractice lawyer to boot. Two doctors with knowledge of the case said they had heard that the hospital agreed not to charge for Wachsman’s treatment in exchange for the son agreeing not to sue; of course, the hospital didn’t expect that the patient would stay for a decade.

Mr. Wachsman, the son, denied that, saying Medicare paid for much of the treatment and that he paid the attending physicians himself. A hospital spokesman would not comment on who paid what.

After slipping into the vegetative state, Wachsman sometimes stirred but never spoke or opened his eyes. Each year, his family threw him a bedside birthday party.

During his stay, Wachsman helped train an estimated 100 rookie doctors. He also forced them to think about medical ethics: Many who took turns in the later years were surprised to find that Wachsman would be resuscitated when he was at death’s door. In his last couple of years, he even received new complex treatments, such as dialysis. A peculiar point of pride among the doctors of New York Hospital was that none of them wanted the super-patient to die on their watch.

Wachsman’s will was amazing. He worked himself off a ventilator many times. Most patients wouldn’t have managed the feat once. Early in his stay, in 1988, he was diagnosed with kidney cancer; life expectancy for kidney cancer patients is only two years.

On the last night of one resident’s months-long tour of duty, Wachsman “went to code”–suffered a setback. The resident was determined to do all he could. Once again, Wachsman was saved; the bleary-eyed resident signed off that morning by telling the chief resident about the incredible patient’s close call.

“You were our best hope,” replied the chief.

A couple months after Wachsman’s death, there was the annual hospital party at the Marriott Marquis. Some of the younger doctors showed a videotape, with some black hospital humor, on an overhead screen in the ballroom. In one segment, physicians gather for a standard weekly meeting called the morbidity-and-mortality conference, known in the profession as the M&M. This is where doctors review the death and treatment of a given patient. In the scene, called “The Longest M&M,” a doctor begins reciting the course of treatment for a certain unnamed patient. Cut to a winding watch set to Pink Floyd’s “Time.” Cut back to the doctor speaking. When the segment ends, ostensibly five hours later, the doc is still reciting the patient’s history … as his colleagues sleep.

He had miracle nurses. Wachsman’s private nurses acted as substitute teachers, prodding residents to rethink their erroneous diagnoses. Most crucially, they kept Wachsman almost entirely free of bedsores. “Ben had absolutely the most superb nursing,” said attending physician Jonathan Jacobs. “I’ve never seen anything like it. They also bought pizza for the doctors on call.”

Harvey Wachsman, the son, never spoke to his father about his wishes. “I was doing what I thought was right,” he said. “I have eight children myself, so I believe in life.”

Dr. Jacobs said he had suggested letting Ben Wachsman quietly go his way, but the son said No.

The patient’s own father lived to 97; his uncle lived to 100; and his grandmother and grandfather were shot by the Germans at the ages of 112 and 113, said his son.

Harvey Wachsman was satisfied with his father’s 10 years at New York Hospital: “He got very good care there. At the beginning, he got into trouble, but God bless him, he stayed alive.”

–Matt Fleischer

Good Morning, Pluto? Diane Sawyer’s Folly