Thursday, August 24, 2017

Eclipsing the IAU

This year, the anniversary of the disastrous IAU planet definition vote that continues to cause confusion and misconceptions among the public has gone largely unnoticed—probably because three days ago, a total solar eclipse mesmerized thousands if not millions across the North American continent, and both pictures and accounts of that event are still being actively shared online.

The fact that so many people viewed the solar eclipse, whether in person or online, illustrates that the general public can, under the right circumstances, become excited about astronomy. Though not to the same extent, space missions such as Cassini at Saturn and Juno at Jupiter or the various rovers on Mars generate similar enthusiasm and attention if they are given appropriate media attention.

Two years ago, the New Horizons flyby generated the same kind of fascination with Pluto. People are naturally inspired by the solar system and exploration of its many worlds.

Astronomers, both amateur and professional, should be encouraging this kind of excitement, should want to share the wonders of the sky with the public.

In 2006, four percent of the IAU did the exact opposite. They decreed that they and only they can determine the identity of celestial objects, as if they somehow own these objects. Reaction to their decision was justifiably negative because that decision amounted to rejection of any cultural or popular conception of the solar system. Inherent in the message of the vote was the statement, the solar system is not yours. An object that looks and acts like a planet isn’t really a planet for some obscure reason no one really understands.

Keep things simple; keep the number of planets small. That was the real motivation behind the decision of August 24, 2006. And its message to the public was, when it comes to science, your views and understanding of the solar system mean nothing.

In his book Century’s End, author Hillel Schwartz discusses a controversy that has reared its head at the end of every century for 500-1,000 years. Does the new century start in the year 00 or 01?

There can actually be no correct answer to this question because the dating system we use is based on a mathematical error. It is a number line with numbers going from negative to positive but without the zero such a number line requires. The concept of the zero was unknown to the sixth-century monk who created the system.

Ordinarily, the first century would be the years 0-99, the second century the years 100-199, etc. But because the system has no zero, the first century, to have a total of 100 years, is actually the years 1-100, the second 101-200, etc. That is counterintuitive, as it tells us that the year 2000 is actually part of the old rather than the new century.

An interesting pattern developed over the last few hundred years. “Elites” such as scholars and intellectuals, advocated the counterintuitive method, the one viewed as requiring complex thinking rather than the popular conception. These people always insisted on centuries starting in the 01 year. In Boston, they refused to celebrate the beginning of the 20th century in 1900, then threw a grand public celebration in 1901.

In contrast, the general public went with the view that inherently sounded correct. They considered 1900 the beginning of the 20th century and 2000 the beginning of the 21st century.

The point here is a cultural one. The real issue at hand was the division between the “elites” and the common people. Anyone who wanted to sound educated or intellectual usually went with the counterintuitive 01 option, which supposedly showed they understood the complexity of the situation.

In reality, there can be no answer to this dilemma because the dating system is based on a mathematical error. Neither view is correct. This is why NASA, in its pages listing 5,000 years of solar and lunar eclipses, adds a zero to the count, assigning zero to the year 1 BCE, 1 to the year 2 BCE, etc. Predicting eclipses could not be done using an incorrect number line.

A similar phenomenon has happened regarding Pluto. Most members of the public grew up with Pluto being classed as a planet, and in the absence of a logical reason to change that, continue to consider it one. In contrast, those who want to seem intellectual or professional often adopt the other view, supposedly counterintuitive one. To them, “simple” people view Pluto as a planet while those who are more educated and intellectual understand the complexity of the issue and agree with the “experts” after understanding their line of thinking.

In other words, rejecting the “common” view supporting Pluto’s planethood has for some become a status symbol, a way of supposedly distinguishing themselves from the masses and showing they know more than the average person.

This is a psychological and cultural issue. It is not science, and it is bunk.

Eleven years after the vote on what the IAU has turned into a dogma they refuse to ever reconsider, the reality is many top planetary scientists in the world view Pluto as a planet. New Horizons sent back data showing Pluto to be a world that looks and acts like a planet. “Science” does not in any way support designating Pluto as anything else.

The August 21 solar eclipse showed the public enjoys engaging in astronomy and can be motivated to do so with appropriate outreach and education that brings people in rather than keeps them out.

In terms of media coverage and public attention, the eclipse also eclipsed the anniversary of the IAU vote.

One event involved embracing the public while the other centered on excluding them. We can only hope that renewed public engagement with astronomy continues to eclipse a bad decision by 424 non-experts 11 years ago.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Great American Eclipse, August 21, 2017

This blog is mostly but not exclusively devoted to the issues of Pluto, dwarf planets, and planet definition. However, no planet or celestial body exists in isolation, and on various occasions, I have chosen to discuss other issues relating to planetary science and astronomy.

By now, most people are probably aware of the fact that a total solar eclipse will traverse the continental US on Monday, August 21. Locations outside the 70-mile path of totality, which crosses the country from northwest to southeast, as well as Canada, Central America, and the top of South America, will be treated to a partial solar eclipse.

Monday’s spectacle is a momentous occasion, a rare opportunity that should not be missed. While those who get to see the Sun completely covered by the Moon will hit the jackpot, the many more who will get to see a partial eclipse should not pass up the chance to do so—safely, of course, with eclipse glasses or indirectly using the pinhole projection method.

For anyone either clouded out or in other parts of the world, there will be numerous live online broadcasts in real time showing the stunning spectacle accompanied by educational commentary.

Unfortunately, some schools, both in and beyond the path of totality, are choosing to either do nothing for the eclipse or worse, keep students in rooms with drawn shades or no windows at all to prevent them from seeing it. Some are not even showing their students the online broadcasts.

These decisions rob children of a rare opportunity to see an unusual spectacle that can be watched safely. They reflect the way educational systems too often get things wrong, focusing on teaching to standardized tests rather than giving students an authentic learning experience.

In New Jersey, where I live, most schools don’t start until September, so this is not an issue. But in any state where schools are open, and bureaucrats make this indefensible choice, parents should either urge a policy change or keep their children home and watch the eclipse with them—even if that means watching online.

That’s right—Plutogirl is telling parents, even those not in the path of totality, in districts choosing to ignore the eclipse, to keep their kids home on August 21 and give them a better, firsthand educational experience than they would have received that day in school.

Such opportunities do not come around frequently. The US mainland has not seen a total solar eclipse since 1979. I would have loved to see one as a child, but there just weren’t any good ones during that time.

For people of all ages, this is a chance to take a break from disturbing national and world events and instead focus on the beauty of nature and a firsthand display of the motions of the Sun, Moon, and Earth. Seeing the results of these motions firsthand transforms our understanding of the solar system from abstract to experiential.

While I have personally seen several lunar eclipses, both total and partial, the only solar eclipse I’ve ever viewed personally was a very partial one in which, through telescopes made specifically for solar observing, one could see the Sun appear to have a small bite taken out of it.

I’ve known about this year’s total solar eclipse for at least ten years and probably longer. This one did not require traveling halfway around the world or to extreme climates. A decade ago, the first websites about this eclipse first went live online, emphasizing the goal of getting all Americans into the path of totality. I knew I wanted to go, and now it is actually happening.

Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous vendors who are selling counterfeit eclipse glasses that cannot be used to safely view the Sun. The American Astronomical Society has a list of reputable vendors of glasses and filters, which is posted at

The website EarthSky has information on watching the eclipse safely, which everyone should read, at

Watch online through any of the live video streams listed at

The Toshiba Vision screen in New York's Times Square will broadcast the program live in its entirety to give the public a big-screen view of the eclipse. Viewers in Times Square can listen to NASA coverage while observing it on the big screen by downloading the NASA app or going to

SLOOH, a remote observatory with live feeds from telescopes around the world, will also broadcast the eclipse free online at

Catch NASA’s live coverage using any of the following:

· NASA App for iOS --
· NASA App for Android --
· NASA App for Amazon Fire and Fire TV --
· The NASA App also is available to Apple TV users.

A list of additional smartphone eclipse apps can be found at

Happy and Safe Viewing!

Monday, March 27, 2017

The IAU--and Brown--Get It Wrong, Again

The Pluto/planet definition debate just took a turn toward the tenor of the 2016 US presidential election, with the most outrageous remarks coming from scientists.

It seems IAU Secretary General Piero Benvenuti and the scientist who discovered a planet but wants people to believe he “killed” one—Mike Brown—are tired of the debate and just want it to go away—or so they say.

Incredibly, Benvenuti thinks the debate has lasted this long solely due to Alan Stern! In a Canadian CBC News article dated March 24, 2017, he makes the following statement when asked why the debate has gone on for a decade after the 2006 IAU vote:

"Because of Alan Stern. Because of the Horizons team … Why am I not getting French schoolboys or Italian schoolboys or Iranian schoolboys writing to me about Pluto?"

There are so many things wrong with this statement that it’s hard to know where to begin addressing them!

Let’s start with the fact that the IAU describes its mission as “safeguarding the science of astronomy.”

Alan Stern spent 25 years tenaciously advocating an unmanned mission to Pluto. Because of his persistent dedication and effort, 7.5 billion people on Earth now have close up, high-resolution photos of Pluto. Because of the mission he fought for and put both brains and heart into for two-and-a-half decades, humanity has in-depth knowledge of the Pluto system, including its geology, its weather, its history, etc.

If not for the efforts of Alan Stern—along with those of the New Horizons team members—we would have nothing more than blurry pixelated images of this fascinating world.

One would think the head of an organization that bills itself as “safeguarding the science of astronomy” would give its highest commendations to a scientist who revealed a whole world and its system of satellites to the people of this planet.

Yet all Benvenuti can do is scapegoat and condemn Alan Stern—proof yet again that the IAU is more interested in safeguarding its self-appointed “authority” than the science of astronomy.

Galileo experienced a very similar reaction from the institution that saw itself as the “authority” of his day regarding astronomy.

Unfortunately for the IAU, the organization has no power to put Alan Stern under house arrest. Science by authority went out as of 1610.

Benvenuti does not even get the name of the Pluto mission right, erroneously referring to it as “Horizons” rather than New Horizons.

He claims French, Italian, and Iranian school boys—notice he did not even mention girls—are not sending him letters about Pluto. How do we even know this is true other than the fact that he says so? It’s quite easy to delete emails one does not want to read or send them to the spam filter. Benvenuti’s claim has no more to back it up than does Donald Trump’s claim that millions of illegal immigrants voted against him.

Even if schoolchildren of both genders aren’t writing to him, the reason is probably that they do not know who he is. People concerned about Pluto typically write to NASA, Neil de Grasse Tyson, and the American Museum of Natural History—the institutions or people they associate with either Pluto or astronomy in general. They are more likely to contact planetariums and observatories, especially those in their areas, than they are to write to the Secretary General of the IAU.

Benvenuti’s statement is a barely veiled claim that it is only Americans who care about Pluto’s status, and this is blatantly false. Support for Pluto’s planethood is not about American nationalism. It is about people looking at Pluto and seeing a planet.

If he thinks Alan Stern is the only reason the debate continues, he is sadly mistaken.

More than 300 planetary scientists signed the 2006 petition rejecting the IAU resolution. Numerous scientists have spoken and written against it over and over again for more than 10 years. And they have been joined by a large cohort of amateur astronomers, educators, writers, and members of the public around the world who continue to express their active opposition to the definition that states a dwarf planet is not a planet.

Even scientists not as vocal, such as Dr. Barrie Jones, author of Pluto: Sentinel of the Outer Solar System state they have no problem with the term “dwarf planet” but add that they reject the notion that dwarf planets are not planets at all. Many deliberately use the terms interchangeably as a quiet means of support for dwarf planets being a subclass of planets.

Here are just a few of the planetary scientists and science writers other than Stern who publicly and actively reject the IAU planet definition:

Kirby Runyon
Mark Sykes
Stephen Maran
David Grinspoon
Cathy Olkin
David Weintraub
Alan Boyle
Gerard Van Belle
Ken Croswell
Philip Metzger
Hal Weaver
David Rabinowitz
William McKinnon
David Aguilar
Fran Bagenal
Al Witzgall
Mark Showalter
Mike Buckley
Jim Bell
Carolyn Collins Petersen
Kevin Schindler
Tod Lauer
Will Grundy
Michael Summers
Kelsi Singer
Rob Gerardi
David Eicher
George Musser, Jr.
Ken Kremer
Mike Luciuk
Jason Schilling Kendall
Steve Russo
Jesús Martínez-Frías
Dennis Chamberland
Orkan Umurhan

This is just a short list, and I’m sure I will be adding more scientists and science writers to it.

There is also a huge movement online, sometimes humorously referred to as the “Pluto Resistance,” composed of thousands of people who have joined groups on Facebook and other social media opposing the IAU decision. Most also advocate planet status for the other dwarf planets, Ceres, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. The largest such group is the Society of Unapologetic Pluto Huggers on Facebook.

Additionally, there are numerous websites such as,,, and many more, including this blog. These have stayed active for more than 10 years! Leading the “Pluto Resistance” for amateur astronomers and members of the public are Mike Wrathell, Raj Pillai, Bruce Reed, Carl Bergmanson, Michael and Nomi Burstein, P. Edward Murray, Janet Ivey-Duensing of Janet’s Planet, Steve Colyer, Andrew Brown, J. Richard Jacobs, Siobhan and Kevin Elias, Al Tombaugh, Annette Tombaugh-Sitze, Steven Raine, George Lewycky, Mark Andrew Holmes, Twila Gore Peck, Lawrence Klaes, Anthony Hallowell, Doug Turnbull, Scott Hedrick, Yael Dragwyla, Richard Hendricks, Gene Mikulka, John Bowman, Sr., and many more!

When Mike Brown says, “It's the same small group of people loudly complaining over and over the past decade” and claims the number of scientists who reject the IAU definition are “a vocal minority,” he is dead wrong.

His claim is the typical strategy of someone trying to discredit a movement by denying its popularity and attributing the position he opposes to only the outspoken people in the forefront. Like a typical politician, he simply repeats the same claim over and over again, with no proof whatsoever of its veracity.

Incredibly, Brown goes on to describe some of the pro-Pluto arguments as “insane!”

Of course, he does not say which arguments he deems insane. That would require him to give voice to those arguments and actually refute them. Ironically, he accuses the pro-Pluto side of being motivated by nostalgia and emotion when his tone makes it clear that his comments are driven by the emotion of frustration—frustration that he cannot get the world to accept his view of the solar system, even after more than a decade.

He, too, demonstrates ignorance regarding the New Horizons mission, stating, "If they can't make the case that the object that they sent their billion-dollar spacecraft to is interesting without having to co-opt the word planet, then they should have their spacecraft taken away from them. I mean, that's insane."

New Horizons’ total cost was $700 million, not billions of dollars.

Notably, JPL, where Brown is based, competed with APL in Maryland for a Pluto mission proposal in 2001. APL ultimately won the contest, which may be the source for the statement about taking the spacecraft away from the New Horizons team.

One thing supporters of the IAU definition have jumped on is the geophysical proposal’s inclusion of spherical moons as planets. The media has not helped, depicting the idea as far-fetched when that is hardly the case. Some of the top contenders for hosting microbial life in our solar system are spherical moons. These could someday be destinations for solar system colonization.

Even the evasive “Earth 2.0” could end up being the large moon of an even bigger exoplanet.

Spherical moons have been referred to as secondary or satellite planets for centuries. Their scientific classification as planets does not mean people cannot continue to refer to them as “moons.” It simply distinguishes those moons large enough to be rounded by their own gravity from the smaller, irregularly-shaped ones.

Brown exploits the issue of moons when, presuming to speak for everyone, he audaciously claims, “Nobody wants the Moon to be a planet” and laughs about it.

Since Brown personally and financially benefits from the Pluto debate by selling books and giving paid talks, one could question whether he really wants it to “go away.”

But contrary to his claim, Pluto is not just “one of many thousands of objects in the outer solar system.” It is one of a class of planets most numerous in our solar system and very different from those thousands of tiny KBOs.

Ironically, the world will get to know small planets, KBOs, and the outer solar system thanks to New Horizons’ extended mission.

If Benvenuti really wants the debate to “go away,” he should ask the IAU to rescind or suspend the 2006 resolution based on new data about Ceres and Pluto as well as the ever increasing number of strange exoplanets being discovered. Such a statement could simply acknowledge that it is far too early in our exploration of planets to come up with any specific definition, especially one so polarizing and exclusionary.

The IAU seems to want people to blindly follow its edicts. Maybe they need a reminder of Albert Einstein’s admonition, “Unthinking respect for authority is the greatest enemy of truth.”

We are not going away. The Pluto Resistance continues…