Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Genuine Learning Experience

I've just spent the last two days here in the city of my namesake in an intensive and exhilarating learning experience. The time has flown by.  Both days were so filled with seminars, discussions, and evening socializing that I've barely had time to open up my laptop except to save the audiotaped sessions from my digital tape recorder.  So while I promised to blog from the conference, the entries are a bit delayed, as this is the first time I've had any significant free moments to process everything I have experienced and share it with readers.

This will be the first of several entries on the conference, which still lasts one more day.  Tomorrow's portion is geared toward educators and focuses on how to teach the planet controversy along with updates on the Dawn and New Horizons missions. But like my early research and outreach efforts two years ago, what started as advocacy for a cause evolved into so much more, into a genuine, never-ending learning experience.

In a very open, friendly environment, those of us at this conference learned so much about the solar system--about planetary formation; solar system dynamics; asteroids such as Ceres, Pallas and Vesta; properties of jovian and terrestrial planets; diverse exoplanets; classification schemes; a first hand account of events at the fateful IAU General Assembly two years ago, and so much more. We learned not just from the professionals, but from one another.  Participants ranged from professional astronomers to teachers to writers to interested members of the public, to Clyde Tombaugh's daughter Annette--also a teacher--as well as her husband and grandson.

And we had the both educational and highly entertaining opportunity to witness a lively debate between Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson and Dr. Mark Sykes on planet definition and, of course, Pluto.  They may not have agreed with one another, but neither was especially enthusiastic about the IAU planet definition.  Tyson wants to toss the term planet entirely, claiming it no longer has any meaning.  Sykes, one of the conference organizers, advocates keeping the term but differentiating the many diverse types of planets by creating subcategories.

On a personal level, I learned so many new things about the solar system--how orbital resonance works, the fact that Vesta and Pallas are closer in composition to planets than to asteroids, the decaying orbit of Triton that will eventually crash it into Neptune, the existence of Earth's "second moon," a tiny object orbiting our planet, and much, much more.   Among family and friends, I like to play the "know it all" about the solar system, but here, like almost all participants, I found out how much I didn't know.

The social networking opportunities during the breaks were less formal, but equally enlightening learning experiences.  In addition to meeting my personal equivalent of celebrities--leaders of the movement to overturn the IAU's demotion of Pluto, who are leading experts in their fields--and the daughter of Pluto's discoverer, I and the other attendees got the chance to chat with these leading minds in a relaxed setting, to tell jokes and "hang out" while at the same time sharing insights into the planet definition issue and each of our individual perspectives.

My grandmother often says she would rather be the least intelligent person in a group full of very bright people than the most intelligent person in any group.  That kind of sums up our experience here at this conference.  We were all privileged to not just meet but spend time conversing with some of the greatest minds in planetary science and with a general group of highly intelligent people.  After all, how many people would choose to spend three days of their summer vacation in seminars discussing what is a planet?

In the education field, the buzzword today is lifelong learning, meaning learning does not stop once one graduates from high school, college, or graduate school.  Instead, learning is a lifetime activity, as important and meaningful for adults as for children.

I came here to fight for Pluto, and I did--in my oral and poster presentations, in question and answer sessions, in personal discussions, even in lobbying the professionals who are members of the IAU to go to next year's General Assembly in Rio and stage a revolt to get dwarf planets recategorized as planets.  But in the process of doing all this, I got the opportunity to take part in what amounts to a summer enrichment course in planetary science and have personal discussions with some of the key players in this drama, including some who hold views supporting the opposing side.  By enhancing my knowledge of the subject matter, I know I have better positioned myself to be not just an advocate, but a well-informed one.

A lot was said about culture, the fact that "planet" is a cultural term as well as a scientific one, and the need for professional astronomers to take this into account.  This is something the IAU failed to do in making its decision in spite of the fact its own committee charged with developing a planet definition recommended doing just that.  In upcoming entries, I  will discuss the issue of the term planet in culture and why this aspect is something astronomers ignore at their own peril.

In the meantime, I want to thank APL, Dr. Hal Weaver, and all the organizers of this conference for opening attendance and even participation to all interested parties, for providing us this opportunity to have input into this issue and play a role in this important dialogue about just what makes something a planet.  Hopefully, this conference will be the first of many that will succeed in this endeavor, which the IAU so utterly failed to do.

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