Tuesday, August 6, 2013

The Asterisk

As the story is commonly told, when Roger Maris hit his record-breaking 61st season home run during the 1961 season, it was declared that an asterisk should go after its mention in the record books. Not because of any particular taint to the achievement, because Maris made his 61 homers honestly, in the days before steroids were as common as Wheaties. No, the asterisk would go there to explain that Maris hit his 61 home runs in a season that was 12 games longer than the one that Babe Ruth hit his 60 in. So the circumstances were a little different. Perhaps with 12 more games, the Bambino might have hit 63.

Funny thing is though…the asterisk thing is a myth. At the time there was no official Major League Baseball record book, and therefore, nowhere to put an asterisk. But the story, and the idea of the asterisk, persists.

And the idea of the asterisk persists not simply as a way of denoting special circumstances, as was the case with Maris and Ruth, but to point out a taint of some sort.

After the highly contested 2000 election where Gore won the popular vote but Bush won the Electoral College, cartoonist Garry Trudeau depicted the president in all strips for the next eight years as an asterisk. Because he won, but “not really.” (We’ll talk some other time about my feelings about the Electoral College.)

Recently I’ve been reading…or rather listening to the audiobook How I Killed Pluto, and Why It Had It Coming by CalTech professor and astronomer Mike Brown, and have just made it through a very exciting section where it appears that someone has “stolen” one of his planets. It seems that in the days after Brown and his team had published an abstract about a new object in the Kuiper Belt that they had been studying, and the days before the symposium at which they would officially announce their findings, a team from Spain scooped them, announcing the discovery of the same planetary object. And in the world of astronomy, the one who announces first gets the credit for it…even if the other team actually has more data because they’ve been studying it longer.

In the beginning, Brown just figured that he had one of those occasional instances of bad luck that comes when a team that wants to do a meticulous job of verifying their findings before making a grand announcement loses out to a person who wants to have the bragging rights of saying that they found something…anything…without knowing for sure what they’ve found. But then, along with the body in space, he discovered a rat on the earth. He discovered that the other team had gotten their hands on his team’s telescope logs after the abstracts were published, and used that information to find out what he was looking at, and announce it first. They were celestial claim-jumpers.

Arguments and counter-arguments were made over who really discovered this object, whether Brown was “hiding objects” and hurting science or whether the Spanish team was acting unethically and unprofessionally. If you want to know the details, I suggest you read the book. It’s really a fun read/listen…especially the parts where he gets all nerdy about his wife’s pregnancy.

The final result however, is an asterisk. No, there’s not an asterisk in the official book of the universe saying that the Spanish team cheated and stole Brown’s planet, but there might as well be. Because despite the Spanish team’s protestations of innocence, and their insistence that they were right and Brown was wrong, most people in the professional astronomical community will see the Spanish team’s claim as being severely tainted; and even though the official records may say otherwise, because that is the official protocol, they will regard Brown’s team as the true discoverers. Indeed, I’m willing to wager that over the centuries, when the name of the Spanish team is mentioned, it will be in the same breath as the words “cheating” and “unethical.”

All of this brings me to a friend of mine. This friend is a survivor. She is a survivor of a family in which there was monumentally horrible parenting. A family in which one sibling committed suicide and the others didn’t end up much better. She is a survivor who has done a wonderful job for herself, despite the family she grew up in, and has raised three great and successful children. And then, her parents have the gall to point to her as a shining example of how good they were as parents. She wonders how blind can they be!

To her I say that they may be totally blind, but those around them, those who have seen what’s been going on for years can see one thing very clearly.

An asterisk.

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