Sunday, August 24, 2008

Two Years Later: Not Gone, Not Forgotten

Two years have now passed since the debacle conducted by the IAU at its General Assembly in Prague, and amazingly, the debate over the status of Pluto simply refuses to die.  In spite of all the misguided efforts by those seeking "closure," planet Pluto has continued to stir passions, inspire discussion, and remain in the public eye as a not just a scientific issue but a cultural icon.

The latest IAU bungle by creation of the term "Plutoids," which no one, even supporters of the dynamical planet definition that leaves us with eight planets, likes, has only fueled the fire over the highly flawed planet definition crafted by 424 astronomers in an equally flawed process two years ago.

Just this month, the Great Planet Debate at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, brought this issue to the forefront of public attention once more.

I always cringe upon hearing or reading that a student was given a lower grade because he or she included Pluto in a school project on the solar system. It is inconveivable that teachers would unquestioningly rely on a so-called authority, whether a textbook or the IAU, to promulgate one side of an ongoing debate as fact.  Naturally, the teachers who attended the Great Planet Debate understand the importance of teaching the controversy in all its complexity; otherwise, they would not have taken the time to attend the conference.

However, all too often, teachers, especially here in the US, where they are constrained by federal and state mandates and the priority on standardized tests, teach the minimum students need to pass these tests in any subject.  Some have criticized the argument that Pluto's demotion would lead to children learning less about the solar system as not a valid argument for keeping Pluto in the planet category. Certainly, this is not the main argument; there are plenty of scientifically valid reasons discussed here and on many other web sites.  Yet it is a point we need to consider. Under time and curricular constraints, teachers all too often resort to teaching only the basics of any subject, which under the IAU definition, would likely include only the eight major planets.

Even a teacher who believes in the dynamical classification adopted by the IAU does a disservice to his or her students by reducing a grade for those whose projects include more than the minimum. A student who on his or her own chooses to include the dwarf planets in a discussion of our solar system should receive credit for going beyond the minimum rather than be punished for including additional information.

We lost a golden opportunity to excite children and adults about the discovery of Eris, a new planet in our solar system, by centering the discussion on taking Pluto away rather than on adding Eris and the entire new category of planets it has introduced to us.  The real world, practical result in education was a shrinkage of knowledge about the solar system when we could have had the exact opposite, a broadening of and increase in such knowledge.

Last year, I listed various songs, poems, and advocacy web sites inspired by Pluto. With the passage of time, even more have sprung up.  Here are some of the more recent ones:

The Great Planet Debate (transcripts of sessions and of the Tyson-Sykes debate forthcoming):"Keep Pluto Alive," an advocacy site by astronomy educator Steve Kates, aka Dr. Sky: and Telescope interview with Dr. Alan Stern: in The Telegraph, a British newspaper, "Pluto Should Get Back Planet Status, Astronomers Say":, "Demotion of Pluto Still Stirs Passionate Debate":"Pluto Still Attracting Attention," by New Mexico syndicated columnist Jay Miller: Geographic, "'Pluto Huggers' Fight to Renew Planet Status":"It's Still A Planet In My Heart," advocacy site by Adrian Speyer: of Facebook's largest groups, with over 1.3 million members, "When I Was Your Age, Pluto Was A Planet": Web Site Tribute to Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto:
"Pluto's A Planet," a song by Tom Knutson:
”Ode to Pluto,” a song by Mark Burrows:  

And of course, there is the official web site of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto, which predates the demotion (the spacecraft was launched in January 2006):

As a writer, I cannot help but view this phenomenon from a literary perspective.  In "Star Trek," Kirk and Spock make the interesting observation that every myth has some modicum of truth in it.  I have always had a personal fascination with mythology, and Pluto, named after the Greek/Roman lord of the underworld, has a wealth of mythological folklore associated with it.  The underworld, viewed as the abode of the dead, also represented to ancient peoples the physical underground where seeds lie buried in the winter--and sometimes for many years--only to germinate and be "reborn" when spring comes or when sunlight long blocked by a tree or other object finally reaches that seed.  In Babylonian mythology, the spirit of vegetation was represented by the god Tammuz, who descended to the underworld as summer ended, the harvest commenced, and the sun began to wane.

This connection with the seasonal cycle continued in the Greek/Roman myth of Pluto's abduction of Persephone, the maiden of spring.  In the wake of Persephone's having been abducted, her mother, the grain goddess Demeter, also known as Ceres, in her grief withheld her bounty and refused to allow anything to grow, thus leading to the desolation of winter.  Only when a compromise was reached, and Persephone was permitted to spend a portion of the year above ground with her mother, did Demeter allow vegetation to return and even teach agriculture to human civilization.

Ancient peoples resorted to stories to explain the cycle of the seasons because they knew these phenomena occurred but did not fully understand why. Yet these myths contain within them a greater truth, an understanding of life as a cycle of death and rebirth in which nothing is truly lost, only transformed.

At the Great Planet Debate, one participant asked whether any of us interpreted any symbolism in the banishment of the planet named after the lord of the dead.   That's the type of question literary types like me love to ponder. Pluto was named after the god of the underworld by 11-year-old Venetia Burney, a child fascinated by both mythology and astronomy, because it is a dark and cold place.  Though it is not scientific, in my literary mind, I think there is significance in our effectively banishing the planet that represents the unknown, the dark, the enigmatic, the mysterious, the intense representation of death and new life, to some sort of astronomical netherworld.  Both the mythology and the astronomy of Pluto challenge the limits of what we know and make us think about subjects that make us uncomfortable, subjects we often would rather stay buried.

Symbolically, Pluto's refusal to "die" as a planet fits beautifully with the entire mythology and folklore for which it is named.  In this era when education focuses on learning across the disciplines, namely examining the same subject in the areas of science, math, history, literature, art, music, etc., it will make a fascinating research paper topic for students.

Speaking of literature, I would like to share, with proper attribution, a poem I found online linking Pluto the planet with Pluto the god of the underworld and with Tammuz, the Babylonian vegetation deity. It is titled, "The Death of Pluto."

"The Death of Pluto"
Adapted by Robert Croog (by substituting Pluto for Tammuz) from the poem by Saul Tchernichowsky, "The Death of Tammuz," Hebrew, translated by L. V. Snowman, published in A Treasury of Jewish Poetry from Biblical Times to the Present, edited by Nathan and Marynn Ausubel."Pluto is dead," Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology, discoverer of Eris, told reporters in a teleconference, August 25, 2006.

"And behold, there sat the women, weeping." Ezekiel 8:14

"Go, daughters of Zion
And weep you for Pluto,
For Pluto, the beautiful Pluto is dead;
And days dark with cloud and eclipse of the soul,
Autumn days endless the days are ahead.

Let us rise with the sun
In the spring of the morning,
To the forest where lingers the

darkness of night,
To the forest where visions and secrets are hidden,
To the altar of Pluto-- high place of the light.

What dance shall we dance
Around the high altar?
What dance shall we dance for

Pluto this day?
To the left, to the right, and sevenfold seven,
We shall bow to him, calling 'return to our play.'

To the left, to the right,
And seven by seven,
But hand in hand straightly, and

footing it slow;
Pluto wherever he be we shall seek him,
The lads and the maidens apart they will go.

We have sought on the roads
And the highways for Pluto,
Where the crossroads lie bathed in the

light of the sun,
Sweet to the heart in their warmth and their peace,
The sparrows fly there and the larks carillon.

We have sought Pluto
In thickets where leaves fall,
In mazes of holly and forests of pine;
Peradventure he sleeps among incense

of spices,
In the circle of toadstools, the faery shrine.

We have sought Pluto
But vain 'twas to find him,
We clambered the hills and came down

through the dell,
We followed the traces of all mystic wonders--
The abode of the gods and wherever they dwell;

In the grove, in the hedges,
By trees that are altar fuel,
The woodland recesses-- all fodder for

But only the sparrows cried in their hunger
About the high place-- ruins trodden in mire. 

No trace of the fairies
Was found in the meadows,
With the whispering brook their

laughter ceased, too,
Calves graze in the meadows and there the lambs frolic
Round the springs and the wells with fall of the dew.

O, daughters of Zion,
Go mourn in beholding
How the world on its course dull and

troublous is sped,
The distress of a world whose spirit is darkened,
For Pluto, the beautiful Pluto, is dead."

The comment below is by Philip Brown, who quoted the above poem: 

"I am inspired by this poem and its themes which are symbolic of Pluto: death, youth, hidden and mysterious places, occult energy and return to the Earth, decay and regeneration in nature, and a playful sense of foreboding. It is apropos of Pluto's recent demotion from planetary status, and the comments of Mike Brown."

On a personal note, while I wish Pluto's demotion had never happened, I am immensely grateful for the many wonderful people I have met in the quest to get this decision reversed; for the knowledge it has brought and love for astronomy it has rekindled in my life; for the numerous experiences I have had that would otherwise never have come my way--everything from the wonderful club known as Amateur Astronomers, Inc., in Cranford, NJ; to new friends around the world; to the opportunity to see Jupiter, Saturn, the Ring Nebula, and so many other celestial objects through a telescope; even to reconnect with various members of my family. Pluto's plight has also inspired the artist in me; the result is I have written a play of more than 100 pages incorporating the mythology and symbolism of Pluto in a fantasy-drama tale of its demotion and reinstatement. Just this Friday, I received the official copyright certification for this play, which I hope to publish and someday bring to production. It is no understatement to say that Pluto has changed my life.

The poem above is powerful, but I am as convinced as ever that Pluto is not dead, that this is not the end.  It may not be a scientific assertion, but I believe Pluto the planet will follow the archetype of death and rebirth for which it is named, the death of winter giving way to the rebirth of spring.

Pluto is not gone or forgotten, and it never will be. It is not a TNO or planetoid or plutoid or asteroid or comet or minor object in any way.  It is a planet.  Ultimately, history will vindicate this.  So to Dr. Brian Marsden, who promised Clyde Tombaugh he would someday give Pluto an asteroid number even if Tombaugh did not live to see it, I have my own promise: Whether or not you live to see it, I and the many like-minded citizens of the world will see Pluto reinstated to full planet status.  You can take that to the bank.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Is Pluto Really A Kuiper Belt Object?

Since the discovery of the first Kuiper Belt Objects in 1992, some astronomers have argued that Pluto is just one of many objects in the Kuiper Belt, now referred to as Kuiper Belt Objects, or KBOs.  The Kuiper Belt is named for Gerard Kuiper, who in the 1950s postulated the existence of a second belt of asteroids beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Of course, most KBOs are small, shapeless asteroids too small to have attained hydrostatic equilibrium, the condition at which differentiation and geophysical processes begin to occur on such bodies.  The largest ones such as Eris, Pluto, and Makemake are different from the majority in that they are in hydrostatic equilibrium, which is why simply grouping them with the KBOs without distinguishing them for their roundness is not an accurate portrayal.

The argument made by supporters of the geophysical definition of planet, which states that the only criteria for planethood are that an object be non-self luminous, in hydrostatic equilibrium and orbiting a star, is that these round objects have a sort of dual citizenship as both KBOs and planets (of the dwarf planet subcategory), as does Ceres, which is unique as a round object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Now, the latest research into the area beyond Neptune's orbit suggests that the term Kuiper Belt may have been used too broadly to describe the large region beyond Neptune.  That region, it turns out, is actually a composite of several distinct sub-regions.  Its central area, the Kuiper Belt proper, where most KBOs are located, is at quite a distance beyond Pluto and the small objects that along with it orbit in a 3:2 resonance with Neptune, known as the plutinos (literally meaning little Plutos).

In a diagram presented on Saturday at the educators' workshop of the Great Planet Debate, the division of what is commonly described as the Kuiper Belt into three separate areas was obvious.  The first area, where Pluto and the plutinos are located, is at the very edge of this region.  Significantly further is the area most densely populated with objects while even further is an area of objects scattered at various orbital inclinations.  These objects in the third region, which include the round Sedna, are known as Scattered Disk Objects, or SDOs.

This means that while all objects in this area can be accurately termed Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), that broad term encompasses objects in three separate regions, which in each case have characteristics like other objects in their regions but not necessarily like TNOs in other regions. The question arises, should this entire huge area, which is also the source of short term comets, be classified as the Kuiper Belt, or should that term be reserved for the central region where most TNOs are clumped, a region of which Pluto and the plutinos are clearly not a part.

Our understanding of this far-removed region is constantly evolving as more discoveries are made.  These discoveries are now coming in at a very rapid pace.  Only this week, a new object called 2006 SQ372, made of rock and ice and estimated to be only 50-100 kilometers across, was detected by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.  The object is comet-like but has no tail as it never comes near the sun. Its orbit is extremely elliptical, taking it as far as 150 billion miles away (compare that with Pluto, which is 3.6 billion miles from the sun) at its furthest, and within the orbit of Neptune, where it is now, at its closest.  It takes a whopping 22,500 years to orbit the sun (compare that with Sedna, which takes 10,000 years, Eris, which takes 550 years, and Pluto, which takes 248 years).

What is this object?  We have no category in which to place it.  It has an orbit like that of a comet and a composition like that of an asteroid, yet it is different from both of these. Astronomers theorize that it originates in the inner Oort Cloud, a still theoretical region that is believed to be the source of long period comets. Yet even at the most distant point in its orbit, 2006 SQ372 is ten times closer to the sun than the main Oort Cloud area is estimated to be.  This object and Sedna are the only ones we know of that appear to have originated from the Oort Cloud.

Clearly, new discoveries will present the need for new categories and new classifications.  A great deal of the controversy over these objects stems from the fact that there is too much about them and their regions that we simply don't know.  What has been viewed as the Kuiper Belt may actually be several separate regions, and there may yet be more regions beyond that. In these cases, the best option for scientists, educators, textbooks, and web sites is to present what we do know while explaining that there is far more we don't know, which will likely inform future classifications.  That is a far better option than to leap to conclusions when major pieces of the puzzle are still unknown to us. Even children can understand that there is still a lot that even the best minds and experts in the world do not yet know.

As for Pluto, not only is its status as a KBO in question; its classification as a Plutoid is clearly problematic.  The suffix "oid," when added to a word, means a thing like the original word; hence, "humanoid" means a life form akin to humans in body shape, composition, etc.  By calling Pluto a Plutoid, the IAU is saying what--that Pluto is like itself??? Also, Plutoids are defined by the IAU as objects with a semi-major axis greater than the orbit of Neptune, meaning they orbit beyond Neptune.  But for 20 of its 248-year orbital period, Pluto's eccentric orbit actually takes it closer to the sun than Neptune.  Does that mean that Pluto is a Plutoid for 228 years but not a Plutoid for the other 20? Again, we have a definition that makes very little sense. 

Also discussed at the Great Planet Debate were the asteroids Vesta and Pallas. These objects are not round but a look at images of them illustrate they are far closer to being round than the other, many shapeless asteroids between Mars and Jupiter.  In fact, Vesta appears to have been round at one time only to have been hit by an asteroid that lopped off its south pole.  Does that mean it was a dwarf planet once but is so no longer?  Do Vesta and Pallas have geophysical properties like the planets, and if they do, doesn't classifying them as asteroids blur that distinction?  We will learn some answers when Dawn gets to Vesta in 2011.  In the meantime, we have yet another gray category, with objects that do not clearly fit into any of the classifications we have created.

What makes something a planet or a comet or a KBO; what makes an entire area part of a belt as opposed to a separate region with its own characteristics?  If there is one thing these questions bring to bear, it is that there is far more that we don't know than what we do know. In light of that, some definitions and classifications will have to remain in a state of flux until we learn more.  This is another important lesson the IAU needs to take into account.  Better than endorse the false perception of a dichotomy (planet vs. not planet), they should keep the subject open with the recognition that only with time and research will we have enough data to make these determinations. Between New Horizons, Dawn, and new discoveries from earth and space-based telescopes, there is no reason to rush to judgment.

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."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

It Shouldn't End

"It just won't end. Two years after the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto from a planet to a dwarf, the bickering goes on."  So begins an online article by on The Great Planet Debate.

There is a very strong case to be made that  it shouldn't end. We are continually discovering new data about Pluto, the Kuiper Belt, Ceres, Vesta, exoplanets, etc., all of which must go into informing our concept of what makes something a planet. I cannot understand this need to artificially end what is clearly an open discussion, largely because we just don't have sufficient data yet about some of these bodies to draw firm conclusions. What the IAU did was horrible--a linguistically nonsensical definition brought about through a highly flawed process that did not even adhere to the recommendations of its own committee. Should we just leave things in this mess because "the IAU has spoken" (well, four percent of them, anyway). What about the fact that most planetary scientists, those whose expertise and research specifically deal with planets, are not IAU members? Shouldn't these be the people making such a decision if it is made at all? There is a very real dichotomy between two strains of thought--dynamicists, who look at where objects are, and planetary scientists, who look at what they are. In an age where new knowledge is constantly pouring in, of course such definitions will be in flux.

What if we had decided to "cut off debate" and end discussion of what a planet is after the discoveries of Uranus and Neptune or after the 17th century revolution in which we realized the sun is the center of the solar system? How would we incorporate new information? What's wrong with the debate being ongoing???

Even more significantly, we have one spacecraft en route to Vesta and Ceres and another en route to Pluto.  Dawn will arrive at Vesta in 2011 and at Ceres in 2015, the latter being the same year as New Horizons' rendezvous with Pluto.   This means we know that within seven years, an entire new set of data will become available to us about these objects, data that is likely to surprise us and could very well change how we view and classify these objects. Knowing this data is coming makes the idea of shutting down the debate even more incomprehensible.

As for education, what is wrong with teaching that there are two schools of thought, and both are equally valid? What is wrong with discussing something that excites people about astronomy?  Like it or not, the subject of Pluto evokes passion.  Why not use that passion as a stepping stone to introduce astronomy to many people who have had little or no previous exposure to it?  NASA submitted sample lessons for teaching the controversy at the second through fifth grade level and again at the high school level.   The lesson plan for younger children calls for the teacher to introduce a new term, such as "dwarf planet," have the students explain the term in their own words, have them create a non-linguistic representation of the term, engage in activities that help them understand the term, discuss the term with one another, and engage in games that allow them to play with the term.

In another lesson, the students are asked to compare characteristics of Earth, Ceres, Vesta, and Pluto--location relative to other solar system bodies, size and shape, mass and gravity, density, presence or lack of water, internal structure, surface features, number of moons, presence or lack of magnetic field, length of day, length of year, and presence or lack of atmosphere--and are then presented with both the IAU definition and a contrasting definition based on an object's geophysical characteristics. This opens debate on the issue, followed by a written exercise in which students explain how their understanding of a planet has changed or not changed as a result of the lesson.

At the high school level, students are presented with the case of the discovery of a hypothetical planet and then given a list of that planet's characteristics as compared with those of the known planets, dwarf planets, various of the planets' moons and asteroids. They are then asked to classify the new object using these many characteristics.  The lesson then proceeds to a debate with some students representing the IAU viewpoint and others taking the opposing position.  Both sides are evaluated on clarity and coherence of their arguments and rebuttals, teamwork, and adherence to rules regarding each person's time to speak and their opening and closing statements.

Has our culture become so focused on needing and seeking "closure" to everything that we cannot comprehend the utility of discussion that goes on for decades, centuries, or even indefinitely?

One online comment in a forum discussing the Great Planet Debate is especially troubling.  The poster states that the IAU has spoken; they are the authority and the experts, and therefore, we should follow what they say. This sentiment was echoed by one of the dynamicists at the Great Planet Debate, who stated that while he would have preferred that the IAU come up with a better definition, one that includes dwarf planets as a subclass of planets, now that they have done something else, we need to recognize their definition and work with it to avoid chaos and a situation in which multiple planet definitions are used.

The same speaker said he believes some decisions by authoritative bodies are so wrong that they beg for revolution and/or resistance, but this one does not rise to that occasion.

We clearly have a cultural issue here, and it centers on how people respond to authority.  American education is supposed to prepare students to be active participants in democracy, which requires critical thinking skills.  Those skills can and do often involve the need to question authority, even to question the legitimacy of those who claim to be in authority. Development of these skills mandates that the goal of education be teaching students how to think rather than what to think.
Blind obedience to any authority is dangerous because it turns people into automatons, easily enabling the rise of dictatorships and the perpetration of all sorts of injustices. Opposition to such blind obedience is inherent in American culture and can be seen on both sides of the US political divide.  Whether the issue is the decision to have an abortion or the right to own guns, the American people largely do not like being told what to do.

However, resistance to blind obedience in general and to the IAU decision in particular are not, as some claim, occurring only in the US.  Astronomy educators in England and Australia have discussed their own opposition to the IAU's planet definition in online blogs and report just as much resistance to it from their own populations.

The writer of the article in argues that the Great Planet Debate is about maintaining status for New Horizons and even about making money through books, T-shirts, and bumper stickers.  These arguments are highly questionable and sound a lot like ways of dodging the very real issue at hand.  There are always people who will use controversy to sell objects and make money; if this controversy didn't exist, they would likely find something else.  And the fact that so many people continue to buy items supporting Pluto's planet status is a statement in and of itself.  People vote with their dollars; their purchase of these items is their expression, through the market, of displeasure with the IAU decision.

As for New Horizons, the mission hardly needs to manufacture publicity.  It is already fully funded, and its stunning Jupiter flyby images speak for themselves.  NASA has active Solar System Ambassadors and Educators, some of whom specifically focus on educating the public on the New Horizons mission. This debate was not done to promote New Horizons.  It was done because there is a need for open, participatory debate on the issue of what constitutes a planet, a process not provided by the IAU.  In effect, the Great Planet Debate did what the IAU should have done but failed to do.

These discussions can and should continue, and they should involve not just professional astronomers but amateurs and members of the public as well.  The goal is to get people thinking, questioning, evaluating, and re-evaluating their positions on this topic.  If that results in a planetary version of the Boston Tea Party and a throwing of the IAU definition into bodies of water, so be it.

In short, it's all good.

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.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Getting Ready for the Big Event

The excitement is a lot like that felt on the approach of a birthday, special personal occasion, or New Year's Eve. An event I've known about, anticipated, and planned for over a long period of time is fast approaching as reality.  The Great Planet Debate is scheduled to take place in less than three days in Laurel, Maryland.

Originally announced in the wake of the IAU vote demoting Pluto and scheduled for 2007, this conference for so long seemed just an abstract idea.  There were many times I wasn't even sure it would really happen though I kept on hoping. And now, it's real, not abstract, something brought home in the necessary last minute preparations for the long awaited trip to Maryland.

Unlike the IAU General Assembly, this conference is open to the public. In fact, not only is attendance open to the public, so is participation.  I am deeply honored at being given the opportunity to do a five-minute presentation on Friday morning as well as a poster presentation on both days. Not being a scientist, I do not have prior experience with such presentations and posters, and I am deeply grateful to Dr. Hal Weaver, who patiently answered my many questions and helped me through the process of preparing these.  The thought that I, a writer from New Jersey who feels passionately about Pluto, could have a say at a major event like this one speaks volumes about the openness of the organizers to a multiplicity of participants and perspectives.

One of the most exciting things about the Great Planet Debate is that it has once again ignited discussions all over the Internet about Pluto and the larger question of what is a planet.  IAU officials who stand by the untenable definition created by four percent of their organization in 2006 are right to be concerned.  That definition, flawed, sloppy, and rejected by scientists and lay people alike, has only a very shaky leg on which to stand. Its eventual overturning is all but inevitable.

Facts cannot be dictated by fiat or by the vote of a committee or even that of an organization such as the IAU. The concept that any object starts or stops being a planet at the stroke of a pen or count of a vote is ludicrous.  The only thing that pen stroke or vote accomplishes is the statement of a belief that the object in question has changed. We cannot vote Pluto out of being a planet any more than we can vote that the Earth rather than the sun is the center of the solar system.

It seems like the IAU has gone from being a scientific organization that centralizes naming and cataloguing in astronomy to a priesthood dictating by fiat what is and is not reality. How can any scientist expect people, whether other scientists or lay people, to blindly accept that an object is no longer what it used to be, not because something about that object changed, but because this small, closed group has decreed it so?

If the IAU has become this out of touch with the public and with members of its own field, then maybe it's time for another group, a more open, more professional, and less political group, to take its place.

Some IAU supporters are ridiculing the conference as "The Great American Planet Debate," as if this conference were open only to Americans.  That is not the case.  In fact, both the dynamical defintion of planet as well as the geophysical one will be presented and discussed.  The initial call for abstracts by those interested in presenting did not preclude anyone from making a presentation defending the IAU position.

It is true that a large percentage of American astronomers are planetary scientists while a large percentage of European astronomers are dynamicists.  But that has nothing to do with nationality.  Who would know better how to classify planets than those who study planets? (as opposed to those who study neutron stars, quasars, black holes, cosmology, etc.).  The nationality of these planetary scientists is completely irrelevant, just as is their religion, race, ethnicity, etc.  The attack on the conference because its organizers are Americans is based on completely flawed logic.  Additionally, there are many planetary scientists who are not members of the IAU, and they too deserve to be heard on this matter, as this is the field in which they specialize.

Getting back to my own involvement, and my presentations, whose topic will be "Planet Definition Is Important," I find the openness and receptivity of the organizers to be most refreshing and very welcoming. These are obviously people who want to engage the general public with astronomy as opposed to keeping the community of people involved with the field small and closed.

On a personal level, I want to thank some very, very special friends who have made this trip possible for me.  On July 24, my hard drive crashed, and as a result, a lot of my information was lost.  Thanks to the efforts of Mark Barry, Eileen Marville, Karl Hunting, Siobhan Elias, and Dr. Alan Stern, I was able to get back much of the Pluto-related information that had been on that hard drive.  For help with the Power Point presentations, I especially thank Amateur Astronomers, Inc. in Cranford, New Jersey, and the members who worked with me in the computer room on getting everything right in the presentation. There are many other ways these wonderful friends have made it possible for me to attend this event and do my best to take part in it, and for them, I will be forever grateful.

It is exhilarating to know that one can make a real difference, especially when one is not even a professional in the field.  Without the Internet, none of the worldwide discussions about Pluto by ordinary people would be possible. Without the Internet, no one but IAU members in a particular room on a particular day could have a say on this matter.   How amazing it is to live in an age where everyone can contribute to such discussions, provide input, and have their input valued and incorporated into such major decisions.

Throughout this week, I will be blogging on this site about the progress of the conference.  Stay tuned as the fight to reinstate Pluto goes into high gear.  The best is yet to come.