Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Pettiness, Politics, Pluto, and Prague

The Great Planet Debate presented a wealth of information about issues of planet formation and migration, asteroids, extra-solar planets, objects that straddle the border between categories, and of course, the core dispute at the root of this issue, the dynamical versus geophysical perspectives of viewing our solar system.

But there also was another side, an uglier side of the planet debate and the fateful events in Prague two years ago that came to light during this conference.  It is not pretty, and it is not science.  It is a tale of pettiness and politics coming together and how they motivated the most crass, base motivations for the flawed planet definition adopted by the IAU.

On a personal level, I take no joy in reporting these events. I wish none of what I am about to relate were true.  But the facts are, these things did happen, and citizens of the world have the right to know the truth about the way in which an organization that claims to be the authority on astronomical matters came by a decision that has worldwide implications.

I will emphasize that none of these petty or political considerations were present at the Great Planet Debate, where even professionals holding opposing views treated each other congenially and with a sense of humor, even having drinks together at night after the official conference proceedings.

But back to Prague.  There are three specific incidents of pettiness and politics that clearly motivated the vote and therefore, in effect should be considered to render it illegitimate.

A. For unknown reasons, Dr. Brian Marsden, British astronomer and Director of the Minor Planet Center at Harvard University (the Minor Planet Center falls under the auspices of the IAU), has harbored a personal grudge against Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto, since at least 1980.  People with firsthand knowledge of the situation confirmed this at the conference.  Apparently, on numerous occasions, Marsden expressed to Tombaugh his determination to "torpedo your planet," vowing that he would make sure Pluto was given an asteroid number even though Tombaugh might not live to see it.
The Minor Planet Center assigns numbers to asteroids and, since 2006, to dwarf planets as well.  Marsden obviously pursued his goal rigorously and achieved it two years ago.  Yet the motivation for his hostility toward Tombaugh remains unknown.   What is known is that a personal vendetta rather than science motivated Marsden in his quest.

B. After the IAU's Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature recommended a schematic with 12 planets, including Ceres, Charon, and Eris, a few dynamicists began a revolt that ultimately shot down that proposal and replaced it with the one eventually adopted, going against the IAU's own rules by proposing a resolution in real time without it having first been vetted by the appropriate committee(s). One of the ringleaders in this effort is reported to have said that if the provision allowing dwarf planets to be classified as a subcategory of planets were adopted, his life's work would be ruined. This almost certainly was a melodramatic exaggeration, likely a guilt trip to bully other IAU members into going along with the replacement resolution that precluded dwarf planets from being considered planets. However, it is extremely noteworthy because here we have a scientist clearly motivated not by science but by concerns centered around his own ego.

C. European astronomers in general, French astronomers in particular, repeatedly bullied American astronomers at the General Assembly telling them that Pluto was going down because of their anger over US policy in the Middle East.  Many have suspected the IAU vote had been motivated by anti-American sentiment, as Pluto is the only planet discovered by an American.  But to hear that such blatant political statements were made, with no attempt to even be subtle or conceal these motives behind scientific jargon, is tremendously disturbing.  The IAU wants citizens of the world to view it as the authority on astronomical matters, yet its members openly and publicly proclaimed their plans to seek a pre-determined outcome based on politics, not science.   How can anyone view the IAU as a legitimate arbiter of celestial definitions after its members have so compromised their commitments to science and objectivity?

The above may sound like a rant; it may sound like a conspiracy theory, but the fact remains that all these incidents have been confirmed by people who experienced them firsthand. Before educators of the world rush to change textbooks and lessons, they need to hear this truth, however painful it is, about the personal and political manipulation that directly led to the pronouncement that "Pluto is not a planet."

Two years ago, in my first blog entry on this topic, I commented, "The IAU decision, made in a highly political context on the last day of its conference, with a very small minority of members even taking part in the vote, tells us more about old-fashioned human weaknesses than it does about the outer solar system. Even in our most educated circles, we still have ego issues, factional disputes, and individuals vying for personal recognition."   There is no "I told you so" here, just infinite sadness that this statement so captured the reality, that the events that took place in Prague two years ago are so much more a study in psychology than in astronomy.

Knowing these truths of what really happened only make the case for reversing the IAU's 2006 planet definition more compelling.  In fighting for such a reversal, the words of a song from the play "Rags," in which I performed in 1990, come to mind.  That play is a historical musical depicting the lives of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants in New York City in 1910.  One of the characters, Saul, a labor union organizer against sweatshop abuses, sings the following:

"If it's wrong, you can fix it.  If you can't, you can fight it.  If you don't like to fight, you can learn. You don't need to be blind here.  You can open your mind here.  Better than see the light--help it burn!"

In this case, our choices are attempting to get the IAU to "fix" its broken planet definition of 2006, or, if that fails,to fight in the public arena for a better one.  This is an effort that calls not just to scientists but to all citizens of the world to contribute our efforts, our input, our insights, to help the light of truth burn.

The reality of what happened two years ago is painful, but knowing it is the first step to undoing it, as recognition of any problem is the first step toward addressing that problem. As a Lebanese activist once said about injustices committed in his country, "It must be told.  The world must know."

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