Sunday, May 4, 2008

Many Are Still Passionate About Pluto

Talk about being out of touch. It seems there is a growing disconnect between astronomers who support the IAU's flawed planet definition that demoted Pluto and large segments of the public who are passionate about astronomy.

In an article published by the Canwest News Service, which can be found at http://www.canada.com/topics/news/story.html?id=61d118c4-9eed-4896-8c7b-b75ee20b8a16 , astronomer Ethan Tecumseh Vishniac, an instructor at McMaster University and editor of the Astrophysical Journal, states "Most astronomers, myself included, are a little flabbergasted at the level of intensity that people have brought to this question."

The writer of the article continues, "Astronomers are flabbergasted that people care so deeply about Pluto.Yet the 'Pluto-huggers' remain active, from experts writing in fancy science journals to the ultimate cultural status - its own Facebook groups."

Astronomers are "flabbergasted" that people care so much about Pluto? Maybe they're not spending enough time paying attention to the concerns of the people whom they seek to educate. The IAU and other groups have designated 2009 the International Year of Astronomy to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Galileo's first telescopic observations. From all the literature on this event, whose theme is "The Universe: Yours to Discover," it seems quite clear the year's central focus will be an outreach effort to excite people of all ages about astronomy, something definitely worth doing.

But if professional astronomers are going to make the effort to reach out to the public, they need to connect with the public and both hear and value their concerns. Most people's first introduction to astronomy is through learning about our solar system and its planets. The planets are arguably the most accessible area of astronomy, with many visible to the naked eye and observable in detail with telescopes. These exotic worlds are in many ways more concrete and real to the average person than other, more abstract areas of astronomy such as black holes, variable stars, cosmology and topics requiring more extensive technical background knowledge.

With so many planetary missions having been launched in the last few decades, we have more knowledge about our solar system's planets than about almost any other area of astronomy.

How many amateur astronomers, astronomy enthusiasts, and young people became hooked on astronomy when they first saw Saturn and its rings through a telescope? Professionals seeking to create a new wave of excitement about the field next year need to understand the mindset of the people they are trying to reach and connect with that mindset rather than denigrate it or express bewilderment without trying to see just where these people are coming from.

People enjoy hearing and reading about the discovery of new planets, about new "family members" joining our solar system. They are alienated when, for vague seemingly obscure reasons, astronomers "take planets away," especially when nothing has happened "out there" to change those planets. It isn't surprising that many people feel passionate about Pluto, the smallest and furthest planet, the only one discovered by an American and one replete with symbolism and many layers of meaning. Astronomers should not be surprised that so many people have reacted to the "removal" of Pluto from the planetary family by seeing it as an attack on the underdog, perpetrated by an out of touch elite in a backroom deal with little science behind it.

Astronomer and blogger Paul Smith reacted to one of my comments on Fraser Cain's Universe Today blog by stating, "why anybody would be passionate about how we catalogue solar system objects - I have no idea." Here again, we see the disconnect between the professionals who seem to want to keep astronomy as "their" domain and public sentiment, which tends to run two to one in favor of Pluto's planetary status.

Obviously, members of the public as well as artists and writers, as I have discussed in earlier posts, are in fact passionate about Pluto's planetary status. Why they are doesn't really matter as much as the fact that they are. Professional astronomers need to remember that they need public support for funding from both government and private sources such as The Planetary Society. And they need public support if they are to be successful in turning on a whole new group of people to astronomy. That won't happen if they continue to fail so completely to understand, accept and respect where public sentiment lies.

Of course, there is nothing wrong if in outreach, the astronomy community continues to portray this issue as an open debate. Why the IAU felt a need to come to a decision quickly in 2006 is hard to understand. We are making new discoveries all the time and finding out that the universe is far more diverse than almost anyone could have imagined. Is it that difficult to conceive of a spectrum of planets ranging from tiny ice dwarfs to huge brown dwarfs rather than an either/or situation where an object either is a planet or is not?

What is so terrible about teaching children and adults that the debate is still open, that we do not yet have sufficient information to definitively resolve the issue of Pluto's status one way or another? What is wrong with explaining that it is not the facts but how we interpret the facts that lead to one or the other conclusions? Why not raise public excitement by informing people that in 2015, we will have the Dawn spacecraft reach Ceres and New Horizons reach Pluto, at which time we will learn more about both those objects than we have ever known, perhaps enough to better inform how we classify them?

Meanwhile, the music and works of art honoring Pluto keep on coming, with the latest being "Ode to Pluto," which can be found at http://www.lorenz.com/Results.aspx?srch=quick&cid=pluto&c=pluto&pg=1&rpp=30

Whether the professionals like it or not, the public does care about Pluto and its planetary status. If the IAU and other like-minded groups want 2009 to be the year in which people feel the universe is "theirs to discover," they will take these sentiments into account and, rather than express incredulity, will embrace them as an opening to engage the public in this fascinating field.

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