Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Holiday Parody: "Here We Come A-Laureling"

Happy Holidays, everyone! A while back, Danny from the blog "Northward Ho" quoted a commenter on a forum who made me into a verb. As his blog here http://northwardho.blogspot.com/2009/10/laureling-new-word-to-honor-laurel.html quotes,  
"I propose that we coin a new word for that -- the word "Laureling" -- in honor of Laurel Kornfeld, who quickly shows up in every forum on the web that mentions "Pluto" and "planet..."
Since I love writing parodies, this was just begging for one. So here it is, sung to the tune of "Here We Come A Wassailing."

Here we come a-Laureling
In person or online;
Here we come defending
Our planet number nine!

Love and joy come to you,
And to all the planets too,
And God bless you
And save us all from the IAU!
And God save us all from the IAU!

We are not daily beggars
Who beg from door to door,
But we come with petitions
For Pluto to restore!

Love and joy come to you,
And to all the planets too,
And God bless you
And save us all from the IAU!
And God save us all from the IAU!


God bless all of the teachers
With the courage to resist
And teach their students to keep Pluto
On the planet list!

Love and joy come to you,
And to all the planets too,
And God bless you
And save us all from the IAU!
And God save us all from the IAU!

Clyde Tombaugh and Venetia Burney,
New Horizons too,
We’ll keep fighting for Pluto,
And we’ll win it thanks to you!

Love and joy come to you,
And to all the planets too,
And God bless you
And save us all from the IAU!
And God save us all from the IAU!

Friday, December 18, 2009

Book Review: The Case for Pluto

If readers of this blog have any friends with an interest in astronomy and can get them only one book as a holiday gift, Alan Boyle's The Case for Pluto: How A Little Planet Made A Big Difference is the one to get. As his aptly chosen title says, Boyle makes the case for Pluto and does it so thoroughly and so understandably that even people not familiar with astronomy can easily follow his fascinating narrative.

That is what Pluto's story is--a narrative, a captivating tale complete with history, politics, culture, and humor, very far from the type of dry reading many associate with science books.

Like Dr. David Weintraub in Is Pluto A Planet, Boyle provides a historical background that takes readers from the cornfields of Iowa to 18th and 19th century Europe and controversies over the discoveries of Uranus, Ceres, the first asteroids, and Neptune. Noting that William Herschel, discoverer of Uranus, was the one who initially coined the term asteroid, Boyle illustrates how politics and astronomy in the 18th century startlingly resemble both in the 21st. Critics of the new term argued Herschel coined it partly because he wanted to be the only person alive who discovered a planet, which would be true if Ceres and the asteroids were deemed not planets.

The demotion of Ceres from planet to asteroid is often cited by those who support the demotion of Pluto. But Boyle quotes Dr. Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute, who notes that had Herschel been able to see the disk of Ceres with telescopes of his day, he might not have objected to it being called a planet.

He also chronicles the long effort by astronomer Brian Marsden, former head of the IAU's Minor Planet Center, to have Pluto placed under the MPC's jurisdiction, which was not the case as long as it was considered a major planet. Interestingly, Marsden first suggested classifying Pluto as a major planet at a 1980 celebration commemorating the 50th anniversary of Pluto's discovery, in the presence of discoverer Clyde Tombaugh and his family.

Boyle tells the gripping story of how personalities became intertwined with science, not just in the case of Marsden, but in the effort to fund a robotic mission to Pluto and in the quest to discover Kuiper Belt Objects starting in the early 1990s. From Uranus to Eris, the story of astronomical discoveries is the story of people, their feuds, their insecurities, their personal passions toward a particular goal. 

He recalls the painful admission by astronomer Dr. Owen Gingerich, chair of the original committee assembled by the IAU to address planet definition, about the way things fell apart in Prague partly because Gingerich left before the final debate and vote."Had I been there, I would have worked out a compromise," Gingerich said, both in the book and at the Great Planet Debate. For want of one astronomer, Pluto was lost. Who can say "Greek tragedy?"

Supporters of Pluto's demotion claim people want to cling to Pluto as a planet out of emotion and sentimentality. What Boyle drives home is the fact that the entire history of astronomical discovery, from controversy over what to name newly-discovered Uranus to the brouhaha on the last day of the 2006 IAU General Assembly, all involved emotion, passion, and sentiment. There were and are no Vulcans.

Refreshingly, Boyle devotes a chapter to the Great Planet Debate, ripping away the veneer of finality the IAU has attempted to impose regarding its 2006 decision. "The IAU has no special claim," he quotes Dr. Alan Stern, who added the significant point that many planetary scientists do not even belong to the IAU while most IAU members work in other areas of astronomy such as the study of galaxies. "The people who actually understand the physics, the chemistry, the work on planets, aren't in the IAU," Stern accurately noted.

Two specific points are made very clear throughout the course of the book. One is the existence of two competing views about how to understand the solar system. Boyle accurately notes that the issue is not about being pro or against Pluto but about two competing paradigms--that of the dynamicists, who focus on the way solar system objects move and affect one another, and that of the planetary scientists, who study the individual objects themselves, looking for activity such as geology and weather. This is the crux of the argument, and this is why there is no right or wrong answer, only differing interpretations.

The other critical point Boyle articulates addresses public perception, culture, why people care about Pluto. He accurately dismisses Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson's claim that people's affinity for Pluto is all about the Disney dog. "When it comes to Pluto's appeal, it's not all about the dog. It's all about the underdog." In one concise sentence, he answers the question that has mystified so many, the reason that so many people reacted to the IAU decision with such outrage.

Notably, Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto, was himself an underdog, having grown up in a farm family and taken the job at Lowell Observatory with only the one-way ticket to Flagstaff he could afford. Tombaugh eventually obtained a Masters in astronomy but never a PhD, a fact that caused him to be snubbed by some astronomers. "I always thought I was a nobody," the planet discoverer shockingly reveals in David Levy's biography of him, expressing surprise at both his and Pluto's popularity.

In a relatively small book, Boyle provides a plethora of information about the five bodies currently designated as dwarf planets, a list of next generation projects searching for exoplanets, a copy of the 2006 IAU resolutions, and, most importantly, a section in the back about how to talk to kids about planets. In clear, non-technical language, he discusses the fact that scientists do not all think the same way about planets, emphasizing that debate is at the heart of the way science works.

As for the question of how many planets revolve around our Sun, "four plus four plus more," referring to four terrestrials, four jovians, and an indeterminate number of "more" planets of a third category, is the most concise, most sensible way I have yet heard this question answered.

The Case for Pluto speaks to all ages, to lay people and scientists alike, demystifying what to many was a convoluted, senseless decision by a remote group of academics that has generated much confusion. "How wrong they were," Boyle says twice of the IAU's confidence that it had resolved the issue in 2006. He makes an amusing but apt inference to Galileo's so-called retraction of his Sun-centered theory before the Inquisition by citing Mike Brown's infamous line "Pluto is dead" and following it with the parenthetical statement (and yet it moves), the words quietly muttered by Galileo in defiance of his forced retraction.

Is there a solution to the debate? Boyle proposes using a model similar to the Herzsprung-Russell Diagram, which has been used to classify stars for almost 100 years, envisioning a similar spectrum for planets. But such a spectrum must also address the amazing diversity of objects being found orbiting other stars. And that most likely means adding more subcategories.

I do admit to a personal reason for favoring this book. In the reference section for Chapter 9, "The Battle of Prague," Boyle's first reference is to the article I originally wrote for my local newspaper, The Somerset Spectator,  later picked up by the UK Space Conference of 2008, "Pluto, the Planet that Was," which can be found here: http://www.space.co.uk/Features/Articles/Plutotheplanetthatwas/tabid/634/Default.aspx For more on this wonderful book, visit its web site at http://family.boyle.net/pluto/

How can anyone put the issue better than this? "Never again can Pluto be the ninth planet. Or the littlest planet. Or the most distant planet. But does that make Pluto a nonplanet? No way."

Monday, December 7, 2009

Book Review: Unscientific America

This review of Unscientific America by science journalist Chris Mooney and marine scientist and research associate Sheril Kirshenbaum is late in coming, for which I apologize to both the authors and readers of this blog. At least I can cite as a mitigating factor that I have spent the last few months studying science, specifically astronomy, with class assignments taking up most of my time.

I first heard about this book several months ago; when I heard that the first chapter addressed the subject of "Why Pluto Matters," I contacted the writers expressing my interest in reading and reviewing it. As a writer who recently developed a strong interest in science, I was fascinated by the idea of a book that ties education, journalism, politics, and science together in an effort to explain a general decline of interest in and knowledge of science in the US.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum are honest about their political positions. Both favor the Democratic Party, support Barack Obama, and take issue with what they view as an anti-science stand by the previous administration. The debates over global warming, vaccination, and evolution loom large in their writing. This book is actually Mooney's second; his first is The Republican War on Science. While some readers may disagree with the writers' political positions, as the book is intended for the general public in a politically divided country, it is commendable that from the beginning, Mooney and Kirshenbaum let us know where they are coming from instead of pretending a stance of being "apolitical."

The concerns the authors raise go far beyond any form of partisanship, however, which is why those of all political persuasions should take the time to read it.

Many professional scientists seek to maintain an apolitical stance, preferring not to engage in lobbying or any political activity. On the other side of the equation, most politicians are poorly informed about science, which is highly problematic when they are the ones making policy on issues such as dealing with climate change and the future of the space program. This lack of communication is very disturbing; what the authors bring to light is two separate worlds, one the scientific, with a long-term outlook, and the other, the political, with a very short-term outlook (mostly toward the next election) and the growing gulf separating them.

Last year, Mooney and Kirshenbaum attempted to bridge this gap by founding Science Debate 2008, an effort to engage the presidential candidates in discussing science policy. This bi-partisan effort, which gained widespread support from scientists and members of the public, included pointing out the irony that the candidates were eager to engage in a debate on "faith issues" but would not do so on science issues. In spite of this, the writers are confident the initiative will achieve greater success in 2012.

The Pluto issue is an ideal example to begin this discussion because it so strongly highlights the disconnect between the scientific community on one hand and the general public on the other. Significantly, the 2006 IAU vote on Pluto was not a scientific act but a political one, complete with competing factions (dynamicists versus geophysicists), controversy over who got to vote, a group rushing through a resolution with little of the necessary discussion, and an immediate reaction by astronomers opposed to the resolution adopted. What writer Alan Boyle refers to as "The Battle of Prague" had and continues to have all the features of a bitterly fought election.

And yet, the IAU leadership and those who support their decision expect the public to overlook these obvious problems and simply obey their decree. When members of the public protested the decision with web sites, protests, pro-Pluto T-shirt sales, comedic references, and outright insistence that "Pluto will always be a planet to me," IAU partisans dismissed them as motivated by emotions and resistant to change solely due to sentiment.

If there were less of a disconnect between scientists and the general public, we might very well have seen the opposite reaction. For once, people were expressing an interest in science, connecting a scientific issue with memories of what they learned in grade school. Here was a genuine opportunity to engage people with astronomy, to connect with the public in just the way the International Year of Astronomy project intended. Unfortunately, that opportunity was missed.

And that is why the Pluto issue is emblematic of the larger problem accurately described by the authors as "the rift between science and culture."

By the mid-1970s, the space program had lost much of its momentum, with budget cuts leading to the cancellation of three more planned Apollo missions (18, 19, and 20). Then came a key turning point that facilitated this growing rift, the election of Ronald Reagan, who was supported by an unlikely alliance of religious fundamentalists and "supply siders" who favored deregulation and unrestrained capitalism.

In catering to these two constituencies that elected him, Reagan heavily facilitated this rift. His Secretary of the Interior made an offhand comment that environmental issues were not a concern because the end of the world was coming soon. Reagan himself displayed shocking scientific gaffes, with remarks attributing pollution to trees and referring to ketchup as a vegetable (these examples are not in the book but are personal memories). The religious right, a political movement aimed at remaking the US into a Christian country, flourished under his leadership.

Additionally, as the authors note, Reagan catered to Big Business by initiating a trend of media deregulation that has decimated science coverage--and newspapers in general--in this country. Deregulation led to greater and greater consolidation of media ownership, with many TV stations, radio stations, and newspapers being bought out by big corporations that valued only the bottom line. This trend became worse with the passage of the 1996 Telecommunications Act under President Clinton, an act that further facilitated the "Wal-Mart-ization" of all news media, a phenomenon in which small, locally-owned media outlets were gobbled up by big corporations.

Furthermore, conservative, supply-side economics resulted in budget cuts to universities, to the point that college is no longer affordable to many young people. Funding cuts to universities led to fewer and fewer full-time professorial positions in all fields, including science, as the schools began following the business model of "downsizing" and hiring adjuncts paid low wages with no benefits to replace full-time professors.

When academia becomes a career path characterized by uncertainty, and the mainstream media drop science coverage in favor of non-stop fluff stories such as "celebrity gossip," it is not surprising that more children want to be pro sports players or Hollywood types than scientists.

Mooney and Kirshenbaum cite a chilling 2008 study by the Project for Excellence in Journalism which determined that for every five hours of cable news, viewers are likely to get one minute of science and technology in contrast to 10 minutes of entertainment, 12 minutes of accidents and disasters, and 26+ minutes of crime.

"Deregulation and decades of mergers have brought us to this point, and a fundamental theme of these mergers has been to please investors," they note. "That means squeezing each individual station or newsroom in order to obtain the most profitable product. It often means cutting back on staff, and cutting down on substance and quality as well."

On another note, the authors also point out a phenonmenon that probably resulted as a backlash against religious fundamentalism--specifically, a hard core, "New Atheist" movement that eschews any acceptance of religious faith. They accurately describe the stance of this movement as counterproductive to fostering public interest in science. Force people to choose between their most deeply-held beliefs, which, true or not, provide them with emotional and psychological sustenance, and science, and they will inevitably choose that which gives their life meaning. In a strange way, this movement, whose spokespeople describe anyone who prays as having "an imaginary friend," fosters the exact same either/or mentality as religious fundamentalism itself.

Instead of either/or, we can have both/and. Mooney and Kirshenbaum note that the Catholic Church has accepted evolution, and many mainstream denominations of various religions believe science and religion can co-exist. How many people are aware that the Vatican has its own astronomical observatory? Brother Guy Consolmagno, a Vatican astronomer who is also a Jesuit monk, is frequently asked if church authorities direct his research, and he always provides the same answer. The only thing Vatican astronomers are told is "do good science."

Many psychological studies show that people who believe in something larger than themselves gain strength in facing adversity. While no rational person would seek to substitute prayer for medical treatment, there has been sufficient documentation of cases in which patients with a serious illness receiving medical treatment recovered faster and more completely when they knew loved ones and friends were praying for them.

My own favorite author is the late Madeleine L'Engle, whose novels frequently contain a fascinating conjoining of science and religion. Often, these novels feature both a clergy person and a scientist working together to provide healing, speculating on the unknown, on how both can offer valuable perspectives of a world that consists of "more than meets the eye."

The solutions Mooney and Kirshenbaum offer are sound. Interdisciplinary education and teaching communication skills to PhD students in science are crucial if we want to make science accessible and appealing to the public. In astronomy, this is often done by amateur astronomy clubs, run by enthusiastic volunteers. One of the authors' best recommendations is the creation of a new, non-profit sector, funded by tax deductible donations, which could focus solely on science communication while "circumventing market forces altogether." As a writer, I would add that such non-profits should also encourage journalists to study science and recruit them to work alongside scientists in communicating science with the public.

Provocative and a fascinating read delving into the interconnection of politics, journalism, entertainment, and science, Unscientific America makes an excellent holiday gift for all ages. We can count on it to inspire much-needed discussion of new ways to make science accessible and exciting to all sectors of the public.

Sunday, November 29, 2009

I've Got the New LiveJournal Messenger

I've now got the new LiveJournal messenger. My Windows Live ID is laurele@livejournal.com . Sign up here http://www.livejournal.com/manage/settings/?cat=extensions now, and we can chat!

Thursday, November 5, 2009

Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History: Please Present Both Sides of the Planet Debate

Dear Members of the Executive Committee, Astronomy Programs Manager and Assistant, and Staff Members,

I am an astronomy graduate student, amateur astronomer and writer, and I am writing to you to express my dismay over your booking Mike Brown to speak in a November 14 lecture titled "How I Killed Pluto, and Why I Had It Coming." Specifically, my concern is that Brown represents only one side of a very much ongoing debate over the status of Pluto and definition of planet, yet he misrepresents his point of view as the only legimitate one in the astronomy community.

In his blog "Mike Brown's Planets," Brown has repeatedly denied that a debate even exists, claiming over and over again that everyone has accepted the "new" eight-planet solar system when this is completely untrue. Several hundred professional astronomers signed a formal petition rejecting the IAU decision; their petition can be found here: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/planetprotest
.
Many of these astronomers including New Horizons Principal  Investigator Dr. Alan Stern, Dr. Mark Sykes, Dr. David Morrison, Dr. David Grinspoon, and Dr. Hal Weaver decided to boycott this year's IAU General Assembly because in spite of their multiple requests, the IAU leadership adamantly refused to reopen discussion on the continuing controversy over planet definition.

Because Brown represents only one side of this debate yet misleadingly repeats over and over that there is no debate, it is a tremendous disservice to the public for the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History to host him without booking another astronomer representing the other side of this debate, namely support for the geophysical definition of planet (which defines a planet as any non-self-luminous spheroidal body orbiting a star). Members of the public deserve to know that the 2006 IAU decision is not a done deal, and that Pluto has never been "killed" as a planet. If you do not sponsor a speaker representing this view, many will be misled into believing Brown is portraying the facts as opposed to one interpretation of the facts.

The fact that this debate remains ongoing can be seen from the popularity of Alan Boyle's new book The Case for Pluto and Pluto Confidential, a book by two astronomers, Laurence A. Marshall and Stephen P. Maran, who represent both sides of this controversy.

The persistence of the debate is also very evident in the audio transcripts of the Great Planet Debate, held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD in August 2008, specifically in response to the problematic 2006 IAU General Assembly. Many of the astronomers mentioned above were key speakers at that event, whose proceedings can be found at http://gpd.jhuapl.edu/ . I urge you all to take the time to listen to this very engaging discussion, which was conducted on a professional level and addressed all points of view regarding the question of "What Is A Planet."

I would be happy to provide you with contact information for any of these astronomers, who I am sure would be happy to give a talk for you. I ask you to also consider having me present the other side. I have run "Laurel's Pluto Blog" for three years advocating the overturning of the demotion of Pluto, went back to graduate school to study astronomy so I can have a voice in this debate, have published many articles on this subject, and have been quoted by many professional astronomers in their blogs on this issue. My blog can be found at http://laurele.livejournal.com/ . It has been accepted as part of the International Year of Astronomy's Portal to the Universe program and is rated tenth in Facebook's Top 50 Astronomy Blogs. Articles I wrote on this subject can be found here: http://www.space.co.uk/Features/Articles/Plutotheplanetthatwas/tabid/634/Default.aspx and here: http://www.asterism.org/newsletter/2008-10.pdf
At the following sites, journalists and astronomers have noted my persistent efforts to have Pluto's planet status (and the planet status of all dwarf planets) reinstated:

http://tierneylab.blogs.nytimes.com/2009/01/10/how-many-planets-do-you-want-in-the-solar-s ystem/
http://philosophyofscienceportal.blogspot.com
http://astroprofspage.com/archives/1898
http://physics.about.com/b/2009/01/31/the-other-side-of-pluto.htm

Please take my concerns under the most serious consideration and do the right thing by providing your loyal supporters and the general public with a speaker who presents the point of view that Pluto is not only alive, but is very much a planet, as are Ceres, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris.

Thank you for taking the time to hear my concerns.

Sincerely,

Laurel E. Kornfeld
Highland Park, NJ,
Graduate Student, Swinburne University Astronomy Online Program

Note to Blog Readers: Contact information for the executive committee and staff of the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History can be found here: http://sbnature.org/about/72.html . The more people they hear from asking for fairness in presenting both sides, the better!

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Between Asteroids and Planets: A New Category?

Our current classification schemes for celestial objects are becoming more and more inadequate as new discoveries are being made. An article published in the October 9, 2009 issue of Science presents compelling evidence that Pallas, located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter and considered an asteroid since its mid-19th-century demotion from planethood, is not an asteroid at all, but an object of an intermediate category between asteroid and planet, described by some as a "protoplanet," a "planetary embryo," and/or a "baby planet."

Protoplanets are usually thought of as the precursors to full planets during the early formation of solar systems. They are objects in the process of accreting in a protoplanetary disk around a protostar (a star that has not yet ignited through hydrogen fusion). Our early solar system was much more active and violent than today's, as objects in the protoplanetary disk regularly impacted one another and some began the runaway growth that would eventually transform them into full blown planets.

The asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is composed of objects that never accreted into a single large planet, mostly because Jupiter, with its strong gravitational field, gobbled up most of the material in that region for itself.

Researchers including Britney Schmidt, who did a very thorough presentation on Vesta and Pallas at the Great Planet Debate, used the Hubble Space Telescope to study Pallas in depth and found that unlike most asteroids, this body is not simply a loosely-held together rubble pile. Measuring 165 miles in diameter, Pallas has surface features and color variations that indicate it experienced thermal evolution and had the potential of growing into a full blown planet.  Pallas may even have some degree of geological differentiation. The researchers theorize Pallas formed from water-rich material and began to experience the same geological differentiation seen on planets, with heavy elements sinking to the core and lighter ones rising toward the surface.

In fact, Pallas, like Vesta, may once have been spherical. An impact crater examined by the researchers indicates Pallas was impacted by a large object some time in its past.

In the words of the "Discovery Space" web site, which can be found at http://dsc.discovery.com/space/big-pic/hubble-pallas-asteroid-protoplanet.html , "The Hubble Space telescope has taken a look at the large asteroid 2 Pallas and realized that this isn't just another large rock with a crater in it. Pallas is a protoplanet."
Opponents of using the criterion of hydrostatic equilibrium as an identifying feature for objects to be designated as planets often raise the question of "borderline" objects about which it is difficult or impossible to tell whether hydrostatic equilibrium has been attained. What is interesting here is that Pallas is almost but not quite spherical, just short of being in hydrostatic equilibrium. That makes it, like Vesta, one of those "borderline" objects skeptics often raise in their arguments.

While Pallas had the geology that put it on the path of becoming a planet, including liquid water and geological processes, the process was stopped and frozen in place early in the lifetime of the solar system due to Jupiter's gravitational influence. Yet Pallas, which researchers say "is closer to a planet than to a typical asteroid," remained largely intact in spite of early impacts, making it--and Vesta--unique solar system objects, essentially "fossils" representing a state all planets went through on their journey to becoming planets.

In his October 8, 2009 column, Alan Boyle states: "The bottom line is that Pallas is, well, right on the line when it comes to the important features dividing the solar system's big planets and dwarfs (and, for that matter, roundish natural satellites such as our moon) from irregular objects such as small asteroids and comets." See http://cosmiclog.msnbc.msn.com/archive/2009/10/08/2092402.aspx

What this means, is that any classification system for this and other solar systems, if purporting to be accurate, essentially requires a new, intermediate category between asteroid and dwarf planet (I'm using dwarf planet as a subclass of planet for objects that orbit stars and are in hydrostatic equilibrium but do not gravitationally dominate their orbits--Stern's "unter planets"). Assigning Vesta and Pallas to the asteroid category does not do them justice because it tells us nothing about their advancement beyond the state of most asteroids, erroneously placing them in the same grouping as large rubble piles that never came close to being shaped by their own gravity. We can call this intermediate category "protoplanets," "planetary embryos," "baby planets," or something else, but for the sake of accuracy and thoroughness, astronomers must designate a new and separate category for them.

We may discover some borderline Kuiper Belt Objects that also fall into this protoplanet category. This would provide an answer to the skeptics who ask about those objects on the "borderline."  Incidentally, Pluto, Eris, Haumea, and Makemake do not fit into this category, as their being in hydrostatic equilibrium is not in doubt.

Should protoplanets be considered a subclass of planets? Maybe the answer is to establish a spectrum that reflects what is really out there instead of neatly putting things into categories, resulting in unlike bodies thrown together in classifications such as the IAU's "small solar system bodies." We have such a spectrum for stars, the Herszprung-Russell Diagram, and it has been modified with the addition of extra categories to account for brown dwarfs, a class of objects on the bottom of the stellar category, massive enough to fuse deuterium (an isotope of hydrogen) for a short time but not massive enough to ignite as full-fledged stars. Protostars, "baby stars" in the process of formation, stars that have not yet "turned on" and begun hydrogen fusion, still have a place on the Herszprung-Russell Diagram. Why not set up a similar diagram for planets with "protoplanets" at the bottom, just above asteroids. This seems far better and more comprehensive than throwing a very diverse group of objects together under a broad wastebasket category called "small solar system bodies."

Creating such a system should not be the big deal it has turned out to be. And it does not have to be done by the IAU. Instead, how about planetary scientists getting together and working on a useful classification system? It's about time.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

What Not to Teach or Display in A Classroom

Here is the poster child for what not to display in classrooms and what should not be taught to children: http://davidwboswell.wordpress.com/2009/09/20/pluto-correctness/ . Blogger David Boswell displays this image under an entry titled “Pluto Correctness,” illustrating an actual poster in his daughter’s preschool classroom.

If a picture is worth a thousand words, this is clearly the picture for the worst possible education children can be given about the solar system. Pluto crossed out—what is the message here? Circling and crossing out exercises are often used with preschoolers. The general idea is circle the right answer and cross out the wrong one. For example, a worksheet will show several objects and ask children to cross out the one that doesn’t belong. A typical assignment might show a truck, a motorcycle, a car, and a television. Crossing out the television, the correct choice, indicates that the television does not belong since the other three objects are vehicles, and the television is not.

In her fantasy novel A Wind in the Door, Madeleine L’Engle invokes the image of “Xing” or crossing things out as a way of negating their very existence. The antagonists in the story seek to “X” whoever they view as a threat to their frightening plans for the universe’s future. Those who are “Xed” are as though they never were.

That is why, as a L’Engle fan, I have never been comfortable with the labeling of my generation as “Generation X.” It sounds too much like a baby boomers’ decision that the generation succeeding them doesn’t exist, has no identity of its own.

So what are the lessons of a solar system display with Pluto crossed out? Some of the likely resulting beliefs by preschoolers who see this are that Pluto no longer exists, that it has been destroyed, that it was imaginary and never existed, that it is really an asteroid, that it was hit and destroyed by an asteroid or by aliens, etc. Every one of these reactions has been reported by parents, teachers, and siblings from young children’s discussions of Pluto.

Boswell erroneously states, “It’s been long enough that younger kids have grown up only knowing that Pluto used to be a planet. It’s a paradigm shift in action with the new generation simply accepting the new status as normal while any disagreements among older generations start to fade away.”

Wow, is he wrong, and on many levels. His views are very much in conjunction with the IAU’s repeated attempt to suppress any continuing debate on planet definition. The problem is, if one has to suppress debate to force an opinion on others, that usually means that opinion is not fully accepted and deep down, those suppressing opposition know that.

Thanks to conscientious teachers, parents, writers, and amateur astronomers, kids are not growing up with simple blind acceptance of a position that is still part of an ongoing debate. Instead, they are growing up learning that some issues can be looked at from multiple viewpoints, that some questions still do not have a single answer, even among the world’s top scientists. The disagreements among the so-called “older generation” are not “fading away.” They are as active as ever, and to say otherwise is a tremendous disservice to children.

In fact, the real paradigm shift is not going from nine to eight planets; it’s going from nine to numerous planets, and that is just in our solar system. This is the paradigm shift so many have trouble accepting, as can be seen from remarks like, “If we count Pluto, then we have to count hundreds of objects in our solar system as planets.” Well, yes, we very well may have to count hundreds of objects in the solar system as planets. Why is that a problem? Who originated the idea that kids cannot understand that our solar system contains four terrestrial planets, two gas giants, two ice giants, and numerous dwarf planets, all of which fall under the umbrella of planets? Whoever did is seriously underestimating the learning capacity of children.

Interestingly, a CNN poll conducted on August 24, 2009, the third anniversary of the IAU’s disastrous decision, resulted in 83 percent of respondents supporting Pluto’s formal reinstatement as a planet. Such a profound public endorsement shows that Dr. Stern is correct in his assessment that people know a planet when they see one. They see a spherical object orbiting the sun, and in spite of convoluted logic about what it means for an object to clear its orbit, they recognize that object as a planet. Don’t expect any “fading away” of Pluto’s planet status, or that of dwarf planets, any time soon.

At the same time, a science quiz by the Pew Research Center takes the wrong approach with a badly-worded question, “According to most astronomers, which of the following is no longer considered a planet,” then listing Neptune, Pluto, Saturn, and Mercury. According to most astronomers? Has Pew taken a poll? How do they come by this information when 96 percent of IAU members never took part in the vote, hundreds of professional astronomers opposed the decision, and many astronomers do not even belong to the IAU. Pew should do the right thing, and re-word this question with only one change. It should read, “According to some astronomers, which of the following is no longer considered a planet?” What they have now is a disservice and not a valid scientific knowledge survey.

Since one focus of this blog is to keep track of opposition to the IAU definition, it is appropriate here to congratulate McDonalds for distributing Happy Meal boxes reading “There are nine planets in total” in our solar system (http://deadlinescotland.wordpress.com/2009/10/04/10185-1916/ ). Some have gone so far as to accuse Ronald McDonald of “conning” kids into believing Pluto is still a planet. The real con, however, is by the IAU, which is attempting to force its one controversial view on the world as fact.

The IAU cannot even agree on what its role in astronomy is. Several IAU members have commented that their planet definition was never meant to be imposed on the entire world, that it is for internal use by IAU members only. Yet at the same time, the same people scream bloody hell when their definition isn’t followed. Scientist Paul Murdin calls McDonald’s inclusion of Pluto on these boxes as “a shame,” while the editor in Chief of the Encyclopedia of Astronomy and Astrophysics has stated, “McDonald’s have got this wrong. It’s a shame they didn’t check their facts.”

No, it’s the IAU that has it wrong. In fact, McDonald’s spokespeople have noted they are quite aware of the Pluto debate and rather than having gotten the facts “wrong,” they simply have chosen to join the many who reject the IAU’s controversial demotion of Pluto.

I would encourage McDonald’s to go further and add Ceres, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris to the Happy Meal boxes.

And while fast food is admittedly not the best choice healthwise, I encourage those who plan to purchase it anyway to vote with their dollars and support McDonald’s Happy Meal nine-planet boxes.

There are other ways to vote with one’s dollars as well. Jewelry designer Adriana Soto sells Planet Pluto Earrings and Planet Pluto Bracelets at this site: http://urbanheirlooms.blogspot.com/2009/09/planet-pluto-earring-284.html http://urbanheirlooms.blogspot.com/2009/09/290-planet-pluto-bracelet.html

Now, once more about that old, tired claim that it is only Americans who oppose the demotion of Pluto: the fact is, a very large number of the world’s planetary scientists are American, and planetary scientists make up the bulk of those who oppose the IAU planet definition. It is not surprising that the US is home to the largest number of planetary scientists, considering that the US led the space race and planetary missions for several decades. The issue is not whether Pluto is an “American” planet but the fact that those who study planets are heavily concentrated in the US, which has led the world in planetary research that has transformed the objects in our solar system from little more than names and tiny dots in a telescope’s field of view to real, up close, active worlds. Likewise, it makes the most sense that those who study planets would want a definition based on the traits of the objects they study rather than one based solely on where those objects are.

Finally, in terms of suppressing debate, that offense is being done solely by the pro-IAU camp. Opponents of the IAU definition have no problem admitting there is an ongoing debate, unlike supporters, who insist the debate is over. It seems the latter group is quite perturbed that what they thought was resolved their way has not been resolved at all!

Maybe that’s why Mike Brown has now formally banned me from his blog. That’s right. His reasoning is that I made “uncivil” comments there, but the reality is that went both ways. I did not insult Brown until he referred to me on Twitter as a “nutter,” prompting a British astronomer to write an entire blog entry called “Engaging the Loonies.” To that astronomer’s credit, he removed the offending entry when confronted about just how below the belt it was.

As for the statement that got me banned from Brown’s blog, it was a private email in which I vowed to undo his “killing” of Pluto and noted that even if he banned me, there are many other Pluto supporters active online, and he can’t ban them all.

Over at Alan Boyle’s “Cosmic Log” blog, one commenter, using the name “Harold Nations,” was right on about the suppression of debate by Brown and other supporters of Pluto’s demotion. With no prompting or input from me whatsoever, he wrote the following:

“A thing I find interesting in this debate is that Mike Brown clearly, originally, wanted Eris to be called the tenth planet and for obvious reasons.  He even posted the most telling thing I've ever read in the debate, that the word "planet" is clearly a cultural, not a scientific definition, much like the word "continent".  THEN, for reasons known only to himself, he decided to become oh so politically correct on the entire issue.  Had he stuck to his guns, there would NOT be a debate today, perhaps.  He's been debated time after time by Laurel Kornfeld on  his blog over planet nomenclature, and he's lost so many times he's now banned her from his blog.”

To get back to kids, these kids at the Music Tapes who made “For the Planet Pluto 3” make a definitive statement in their video by ultimately rejecting Pluto’s demotion and welcoming it back to planet status. “Out of the mouths of babes…” Visit http://opticalatlas.com/2009/08/video-the-music-tapes-for-the-planet-pluto-3/ to see this humorous, heartwarming video and song, as this debate continues.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Planet Pluto Lives

This is a day I long hoped would not come, a sad anniversary for astronomy, and one that could have been avoided if even one IAU member had had the courage to stand up at this month’s General Assembly in Rio de Janeiro and ask fellow members to admit the mistake made three years ago in the infamous vote on planet definition and take action to set it right.

But out of 2,100 attendees, not a single person exhibited that courage. At a General Assembly that started with a lower attendance than the notorious one three years ago in Prague (that one began with 2,500 attendees out of nearly 10,000 IAU members and ended with 424), the major denial of this ongoing issue amounted to the huge elephant in the room that everyone pretended not to see.

And so it is August 24, 2009, the third anniversary of the bizarre drama that resulted in a planet definition so poorly cobbled together that even dynamicists, who favor planet status for only the largest eight bodies in the solar system, admit is so flawed as to be practically useless.

Instead of recognizing its mistake and making an effort to set things right, the IAU has continued its disappointing refusal to re-open this issue, ultimately digging itself into a larger and larger hole.

The only one bright hint of progress was expressed in the August 13 issue of the General Assembly’s daily newspaper “Estrela D’Alva,” where the new IAU president Robert Williams notes that the Executive Committee is “debating the possibility of allowing Union-wide electronic voting on some issues.”

That’s right, they’re debating whether to allow electronic voting, something that should have been discussed and enacted at the General Assembly where, once again, only those in the room on the last day of the conference were permitted to vote.

For those who want to view the General Assembly proceedings, they can be found online at http://www.video.rnp.br/overmedia/videos.jsp?_contexto=grupo&_idContexto=57

And in spite of my disappointment with the non-action in Rio, I do thank the IAU and the editorial board of its General Assembly newspaper “Estrela D’Alva” for publishing a very non-partisan, information-only article I wrote about Pluto in its final issue on August 14, 2009. That can be found here: http://www.astronomy2009.com.br/10.pdf . It’s quite a feat for a group like the IAU to publish an article by someone known as a vocal opponent of their position, a feat that my political opponents here in Highland Park, NJ have yet to accomplish in more than ten years.

The good news is that the IAU is not the only venue to look to for renewed discussion and decisions on planet definition. Anyone can claim to be an authority, as the IAU does regarding astronomical matters. But action—or in this case, inaction—speaks louder than words. By refusing to fix its mistake and clean up its mess, the IAU can be considered to have effectively abdicated its responsibility on this matter.

The Rio conference does mark a turning point, a transition from astronomy having one central authority to becoming a decentralized field of study with multiple sources of expertise, interpretation, and even authority. Some have half-jokingly compared this evolution of events to the Protestant Reformation, arguing that a planetary scientist asking the IAU to reconsider its stand on planet definition is akin to Martin Luther petitioning the Catholic Church’s College of Cardinals to vote on his 95 theses (no offense intended to Catholicism here).

It is an appropriate analogy. Where before there was one central, hierarchical organization, now, there are multiple groups, and the erstwhile “one true church” is now just one of many.

Continuing to petition and write to the IAU is still a worthy endeavor, as such action compels the organization to face a strong, consistent public voice rejecting the 2006 decision. But this alone will not suffice toward the goal of bringing about a better, more inclusive planet definition.

What we need to emphasize now are the continuing statements, writings, and discussions on planet definition where scientists opposed to the IAU decision speak out and offer an alternative. The issue is certain to remain a central topic of discussion at scientific conferences. Books on the subject continue to be published and generate interest, with the latest being Alan Boyle’s The Case for Pluto coming in October. Also in October, NOVA plans to film a discussion of planet definition at Harvard University, with Brian Marsden and Neil deGrasse Tyson speaking on behalf of demotion and Mark Sykes and Owen Gingerich presenting the opposing view. No airdate has yet been set, but I will announce it here as soon as the information becomes available.

The long and short of it is, advocacy for Pluto and all dwarf planets being recognized as planets will now have to occur in a more diffuse environment and over a longer period of time. Those of us who want to see a change will need to look to multiple sources, to the many scientists who actively dissent from the IAU view. We will need to cite these scientists and work with them in generating educational materials for classrooms, textbooks, and schools ranging from preschool to graduate school. We will have to generate websites and publications backed by recognized astronomers that credibly maintain a more inclusive schematic for defining planets. And most importantly, we will have to teach both children and adults that no one authority has “the answer,” that they will have to sift through multiple sources with competing views and arrive at their own conclusions.

Real data, of course, always takes precedence over rhetoric. That real data will become available over the next few years, as Dawn flies by Vesta in 2011 and then explores Ceres in 2015, the latter just at the same time New Horizons will be sending home images of Pluto and Charon. All of these missions will clearly show worlds that are not only in hydrostatic equilibrium, but geologically differentiated and far more like Earth and Mars than like shapeless asteroids. Interestingly, the IAU will hold a General Assembly in Honolulu one month after the New Horizons Pluto-Charon flyby; one can only imagine the impact this data will have on discussions at that time.

Personally, I don’t want to wait six more years for vindication. But it might just take that long. Sometimes, it’s better to let time and usage, which evolves over time, especially in the presence of new data, win the day in establishing a new perspective, rather than rushing a process, as the IAU did in 2006. In the meantime, it’s perfectly fine to note in as many venues as possible that there is more than one legitimate perspective on this issue.

I always like to note the cultural and artistic side of this issue, the continuing songs, poems, etc. inspired by Pluto’s plight and the planet debate. Just this month, I found an online video made by children titled “For the Planet Pluto,” at http://www.mergerecords.com/blog/2009/08/the-music-tapes-present-for-the-planet-pluto/ . The fourth graders of Athens, Georgia, who created this video, show more sense and understanding than do many professional astronomers.

A full three years after the decision that was supposed to end the controversy once and for all, the debate is more alive and well than ever, even if it isn’t happening at the IAU. And in a phenomenon that practically defies understanding, Pluto remains one of if not the most popular, most loved, most inspiring of the planets in the hearts and minds of millions. A tiny planet that continues to be talked about, sung about, written about by people of all ages all over the world is most certainly not “dead.” Maybe that is what bothers people like Mike Brown so much. Pluto has resisted all efforts to “kill” it. The more Brown and like-minded astronomers insist the debate is over, the more it sounds like the people they are most trying to convince are themselves.

Once again, in the words of the song by Tim Ophus and Chuck Crouse, who respectively wrote the music and lyrics to “Dwarf Planet Nothing (The Pluto Song),” at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jlkYe6i3Dns ,

“Pluto’s Going to Rise Once Again!”

Thursday, August 6, 2009

An Open Letter to the 27th IAU General Assembly

August 6, 2009

Dear Dr. Cesarsky, Members of the IAU Executive Committee, Members of the 
         Secretariat, Members of the Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature,
         and Delegates to the 27th IAU General Assembly,

I am writing to urge this General Assembly to officially reopen the planet definition issue, in light of the tumultuous, controversial, and abrupt manner in which it was addressed at the 26th General Assembly in 2006. Specifically, I ask that you reconsider and add Resolution 5b from 2006, which would establish “planets” as a broad, umbrella category under which both classical and dwarf planets would be included.

Doing this amounts to reconsidering a simple amendment that, if adopted, would supersede the 2006 vote on this resolution and thereby establish dwarf planets as a subcategory of planets.

Additionally, I urge you to place a resolution on the table to allow electronic voting on all resolutions by all members of the IAU, for the purpose of including the voices of astronomers who for various reasons, including financial difficulties and family responsibilities, are unable to attend the two-week General Assemblies in person. This will make IAU processes more inclusive of its membership and bring them in line with the digital reality of the 21st century.

Undoubtedly, you are all aware that a significant number of planetary scientists and professional astronomers, as well as amateur astronomers and interested members of the public, have been dissatisfied with the IAU planet definition adopted in 2006. That is why I and many others are asking that a better planet definition be adopted, specifically one that includes exoplanets in its classification system and also reassigns dwarf planets as a subcategory of planets, as had been proposed by 2006 resolution 5b.

This is not about Pluto; it is about the need for a more useful, clear definition that encompasses both dynamics and planetary geophysics. The 2006 definition fails to do that on two counts. First it states that dwarf planets are not planets at all, which is inconsistent with the use of the term “dwarf” in astronomy, where dwarf stars are still stars, and dwarf galaxies are still galaxies. This results in blurring the crucial distinction between those objects located in belts but in hydrostatic equilibrium, with shapeless asteroids. Second, it defines objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. If Earth were in Pluto’s orbit, according to this definition, it would not be considered a planet either. A definition that takes the same object and makes it a planet in one location and not a planet in another is essentially unusable.

Additionally, the process through which the 2006 definition was adopted was flawed, as it violated the IAU’s own bylaws requiring such a resolution to be first vetted by the appropriate committee before being put on the General Assembly floor, a practice not done in this case.

With planetary science still in its infancy, it is understandable that first attempts at defining terms such as planets will be difficult and may need reconsideration. In that light, the 2006 resolutions represented a good, valiant first attempt in this direction. There is no shame, however, in admitting that this first step is flawed to the point of requiring amending. Specifically, the requirement that an object “clear the neighborhood of its orbit” to be considered a planet is vague; if taken literally, it most certainly excludes Neptune, which does not clear its orbit of Pluto and could also be construed to exclude Earth, Mars, and Jupiter, which share their orbits with large numbers of asteroids.

Significantly, only 424 out of 10,000 IAU members took part in the 2006 vote, and of those, only 237 approved the 2006 planet definition resolution. In no way can this be considered a majority consensus. It is noteworthy that immediately, hundreds of professional astronomers around the world, led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, signed a formal petition rejecting the IAU decision entirely, adding that they will not use it.

A conference titled “The Great Planet Debate,” held in August 2008 at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab, focused solely on planet definition, with open discussion of the fine details representing both the views of dynamicists and planetary geologists on this issue. Even among dynamicists, there was consensus that the 2006 decision needs to be amended. This same view was unanimously upheld at the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, “From Planets to Plutoids,” held in March 2009 at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, where six panelists (three dynamicists and three planetary scientists) and moderator Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson all agreed that a better planet definition is needed.

In her opening statements to the 27th General Assembly, Dr. Cesarsky noted that while 142 nations are participating in the International Year of Astronomy, only 63 countries are national members of the IAU. I ask that you consider the possibility that this notable difference results from a dichotomy in public perception: much of the general public is fascinated with astronomy, but many have lost respect for the IAU, not because of Pluto, but because the IAU’s decision-making processes appear to be driven more by politics than by science.

In the GA newsletter “Estrela D’Alva,” on August 4, 2009, discussion of a decadal plan to stimulate astronomy education around the world opens with the statement, “the IAU regards stimulating astronomy education and development throughout the world to be one of its most important tasks.” This is in line with the IAU goal of “safeguarding the science of astronomy” and communicating astronomy with the public.

Communicating with the public means listening to members of the public. It is a two-way street. Members of the public around the world, not just in the US, feel disenfranchised and ignored by the IAU planet definition resolution, both in its process and outcome. As an amateur astronomer, writer, and astronomy student, I have personally experienced, both in person and online, this dissatisfaction and disconnect that ultimately turns people away from science, thereby defeating the goals above. Among those most dedicated to astronomy, large numbers worldwide are dissatisfied with the 2006 decision, and many refuse to use it. How will the IAU successfully raise funds needed for its planned Global Development Office and general decadal plan if its processes are alienating so many potential donors?

That is why, to further respectful two-way communication with the public, I urge the IAU to also actively seek input on important issues such as this one from a broader population, including professional astronomers who are not IAU members, amateur astronomers and groups representing them, and astronomy students at all levels.

If the IAU continues to deny that a controversy remains over planet definition and the 2006 resolution in spite of clear data to the contrary, the organization risks becoming less and less relevant and less and less influential on astronomical matters. In the US, a guiding principle is that government operates by consent of the governed, and that the people can withdraw that consent at any time should an existing government begin conducting itself in an unsatisfactory and tyrannical manner. The IAU claims to be the governing body on all celestial objects and phenomena. In this light, the IAU should very strongly consider that public and scientific consent to its dictates are not absolute and may be withdrawn at any time if enough people view the organization as irrelevant or as failing to do its job in “safeguarding the science of astronomy.”

Should the IAU fail to appropriately deal with this issue and the broader question of its closed decision-making process, it is inevitable that other groups and individuals will emerge to fill that void, further eroding the IAU’s credibility and respect in the field of astronomy.

Therefore, regardless of the fact that no action on this issue has been planned for this General Assembly, I implore the IAU’s leadership, delegates to the GA, and members to do what needs to be done, to show courage and sensitivity to both scientists and lay people in admitting the planet definition issue remains unresolved and place a resolution on the General Assembly floor for a vote on August 13, 2009, which will officially adopt resolution 5b of 2006 and establish dwarf planets as a subclass of planets. I further ask a resolution allowing for electronic voting be adopted before any other resolutions are considered to allow the IAU’s full membership to vote on all relevant issues.

Sincerely,
Laurel E. Kornfeld
Highland Park, NJ, USA
Writer, amateur astronomer, astronomy student and blogger

Saturday, August 1, 2009

July 2009: A Great Month for Astronomy

The month that ended yesterday was simply terrific for astronomy and anyone with an interest in the subject. Specifically, the third week of July featured three major astronomical events--the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the discovery that a comet had impacted Jupiter, and the longest total solar eclipse of the century.

I was four at the time of the first moon landing but have no memory of it whatsoever. In fact, my first memory of an Apollo launch is likely Apollo 17, judging from my memory of where my family lived at the time and still live. Luckily, the History Channel actually showed the initial 1969 broadcast by CBS with Walter Cronkite, so I got to see it this time. With all the commemorations and the good fortune of all three Apollo 11 astronauts still living, the media and the Internet were filled with personal recollections of the special moment, what it meant then, and what it means now.

That translated into discussion of the question, should we go back to the moon or should we aim straight for Mars. It tied into the disappointment of so many who 40 years ago, believed space travel would be common in 2009. It turns out that the lack of money for NASA now stems from the same reason as the lack of funding to continue the Apollo program--too much money is being spent on war, then in Vietnam, now in Iraq and Afghanistan. The conflict is not between funding the space program and funding human needs but about the funding the space program versus funding questionable wars abroad, both for the US and for other nations.

Unlike Shoemaker-Levy 9, the comet that hit Jupiter was never seen in advance this time. Significantly, the discovery of its impact spot was made by an amateur astronomer in Australia, illustrating again the important role amateurs play in observation, discovery, and as ambassadors of astronomy to the public.

Unable to afford the expense of being an eclipse chaser, I had to settle for watching it online, where many broadcasts suddenly disconnected due to servers and web sites being overloaded. Viewing a montage of images from different locations was quite an experience, but it would have been nice to have watched one area continually as the eclipse progressed. I've been warned that solar eclipses are highly addictive, that the minute totality ends, those who traversed half the world to see it immediately plan the next trip. I'm hoping to make it to the one that will cross North America in 2017 in spite of the risk of addiction.

Again, for a brief time, international news focused on astronomy, and people around the world experienced the thrill, wonder, and beauty so many too often ignore. If only every week could be like that one in terms of media coverage!

Now, with August here, comes what I once referred to as "the moment of truth." The IAU will again hold its General Assembly, this year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Although I was given approval to attend and cover this event as a journalist, something I never thought would happen, neither the newspaper for which I write nor I can financially afford the trip. It was genuinely heartbreaking to have to send an email to the IAU saying I would not be coming after all.

Much more significantly, many of the high profile advocates of Pluto's planet status are staying away, convinced that there are other, better arenas than the IAU to promote the view that dwarf planets are planets too. I understand the choice, but I still wish they had decided differently, that they went to the General Assembly and demanded the reopening of this issue. It is still possible one or more of the delegates will do this, and even if he/she/they do get the issue on the floor, it is unclear whether electronic voting would be allowed so that all members could vote even if they couldn't attend. The IAU does not pay fees or expenses for its members, and quite a few astronomers are in the same boat as I am, being financially unable to afford traveling to Rio.

One who is attending is Mike Brown, and it's just an instinct, but I have a bad feeling that his purpose in attending is specifically to squelch any effort to resurrect the planet debate. He has already stated publicly that he would vote against any reinstatement of Pluto or dwarf planets as planets.

Yet so many Plutophiles, children and adults alike, still cling to the hope that in 2009, the IAU will face up to the mistake made in 2006 and this time, do it right when it comes to planet definition. Doing this will not make the IAU look foolish or stupid or harm its reputation in any way. It is far better to admit to a mistake and do everything possible to set it right than to keep the mistake going. Only two weeks into his term, President Barack Obama showed the courage to admit that he messed up in his choice of nomination for one of the Cabinet positions. If President Obama can admit to a mistake, why can't the IAU?

I plan to send several pages of signatures from a hard copy petition I and others have been circulating for three years, which quotes the 300+ professional astronomers who signed Alan Stern's petition rejecting the IAU demotion, stating simply, "I believe Pluto is a planet, and a better definition is needed," to the conference in Rio. Never have I had such an easy time getting any petitions signed. So many are/were eager to put their names on paper in support of Pluto's planet status.

A "better definition" is needed, not just because of Pluto, but also for other spherical bodies like Ceres, Vesta, Haumea, Makemake, Eris, and Sedna.

One article on the upcoming General Assembly quoted a professor named Nick Lomb, of the Sidney Observatory in Australia, saying that we cannot have too many planets because memorizing their names is a crucial part of astronomy education, and children will be unable to memorize the names of up to 100 planets. He actually claims having too many planets will do harm to science! What a poor argument for a PhD to make! No one would suggest limiting the number of Jupiter's moons because 63 names are harder to memorize than four! No one suggests artificially restricting the number of stars and galaxies to a "memorizable" amount or cutting down the Periodic Table of the Elements to eight. As I and others have said many times, memorization is not that important. For stars, we learn the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which delineates categories of stars by size, color, and stage in their lives. Why can't we do the same with planets, establishing multiple subcategories and learning the important features that define each individual category?

Even more ridiculous is Lomb's citing of the importance of everyone learning the name of the "classical planets." If he really means this, he should not expect anyone to learn the names of any objects beyond Saturn, as Uranus and Neptune were discovered relatively recently (1781 and 1846 respectively), and even the Galilean moons of Jupiter were only found around 1610.

2009 is not the only chance for Pluto to regain its planet status. Dr. Mark Sykes believes it will be the new discoveries, in this solar system and in others, that will compel astronomers to re-examine just what makes an object a planet. Then of course, there is New Horizons, which will give us a tremendous influx of data on Pluto at the same time Dawn gives us similar data on Ceres. Both encounters will take place in 2015. An up close view of these bodies will clearly show them to be geologically differentiated, tell us about their composition, and illustrate their difference from shapeless asteroids.

It may not be now or never, but I'm still holding out hope for 2009 even though there are venues other than the IAU and many opportunities for more knowledgable debate about this in the near future. To that end, I urge all who want to see dwarf planets made a subclass of planets, now more than ever, to email the IAU and its officials, especially the Executive Committee and the Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature.

The IAU web site can be found at http://www.iau.org/ . The chair of the Division III Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature is Rita M. Schulz, who can be reached at Rita.Schulz@esa.int . For Americans, the US representative to this Working Group is Edward Bowell of the Lowell Observatory, who can be reached at ebowell@lowell.edu . The web page of this working group is http://www.iau.org/science/scientific_bodies/working_groups/98/members/ . You can click on any member's name to get his/her web page and email address. The president of the IAU Executive Committee, Catherine Cesarsky, can be reached at catherine.cesarsky@cea.fr  while the president-elect, who will take office at the General Assembly, is Robert Williams, who can be reached at wms@stsci.edu . The Secretary General, Karel van der Hucht, can be reached at K.A.van.der.Hucht@sron.nl , and the Deputy Secretary General, Ian Corbett, can be reached at icorbett@eso.org .

The web site of the 2009 General Assembly can be found and the Assembly's program book can be found here: http://www.astronomy2009.com.br/

I believe the people of the world have spoken, and a majority want Pluto and the dwarf planets to be considered planets too. That is why I implore all who feel the same way to email the people above and as many IAU members as possible, and, using logical, informative, and civil arguments, implore them to reopen the issue of planet definition.

On a lighter note, I am reposting a limerick I wrote in November 2007 in response to one written for me by Stuart Lowe of Jodrell Bank, the author of Astronomy Blog at http://www.strudel.org.uk/blog/astro/000734.shtml

There was a group called IAU
Who were mad no one knew what they do
Members said, we need press
Make a solar system mess
That should get us an article or two

On and on for two weeks they debated
'Til the brilliant plan was created
Pluto isn't a planet
From the other eight, ban it
And TV coverage will show that we've "made it!"

On the last day the scientists voted
And Pluto was formally demoted
But most people's reaction
Was not to the IAU's satisfaction
"It's sloppy," other scientists were quoted

It turned out most did not like the change
Found that "clearing its orbit" thing strange
So musicians and writers
Became Pluto's fighters
A backlash they began to arrange

The IAU learned its lesson in time
Don't mess with a system that's fine
And at last came admission
"We made a bad decision,
Reverse it in 2009!"

As Captain Picard would say, "Make it so!!!"

Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pluto Speaks Out: Scorned Planet Defiant about Status

As a writer and actress, I blatantly reject the so-called “celebrity culture,” which was especially over the top by the media during this past week. As a rebel and stickler for fairness, I believe that talent is talent, and should be valued on its own merit, not because it is attached to a “name.” An actor the industry refuses to recognize can be just as talented as a "name actor," and worship of people almost as gods is just plain unhealthy. In that context, I was inspired to write about the similar phenomenon taking place in our solar system.

Pluto Speaks Out: Scorned Planet Defiant about Status

Recently demoted by Earth’s International Astronomical Union, Pluto has endured three tough years, not just among Earth’s humans but in the solar system as a whole, facing ridicule and discrimination from other solar system bodies for defiantly clinging to its planet status. In an exclusive interview for this web site, Pluto speaks out about planetary discrimination, and solar system hierarchies, revealing the inner workings of a system riddled with patronage, favoritism, and jockeying for position.

Interviewer: Pluto, I’m going to start out being blunt. After all, facts are facts. The solar system has seven moons larger than you. Another Kuiper Belt Object, Eris, is bigger than you are, and at least two others are pretty much your size. How then can you justify putting yourself in the same category as the eight Big Guys?

Pluto: The problem here is that you’re arbitrarily choosing size as somehow being of more value than a whole host of other criteria. Size isn’t everything. I say, look at shape. I’ve achieved hydrostatic equilibrium. I’m shaped by my own gravity. That’s what puts me in the same category as your so-called “Big Guys.”

Interviewer: Honestly, Pluto, how many moons of other solar system planets are also in hydrostatic equilibrium? They don’t insist on being called planets. They accept that they’re not in the inner circle. They understand that they’re just not in the big leagues.

Pluto: We’ve got a couple of misconceptions here. First of all, I never denied them the status of planet. In fact, in my view, if they’re in hydrostatic equilibrium, they’re planets too. For some reason, maybe their own low self-esteem, they feel the need to center their lives around other planets instead of maintaining their own orbits.

Interviewer: So you have no problem with calling these moons planets.

Pluto: Of course not. I just feel bad that they don’t think enough of themselves to recognize that they can orbit the Sun directly. They don’t have to attach themselves to the so-called giants to be important. Unfortunately, they’re buying into the propaganda that they’re somehow inferior and will get nowhere unless they faun all over the giants.

Interviewer: And Eris and those other round Kuiper Belt Objects? They’re planets too?

Pluto: Of course. And they’ll tell you that themselves. It’s only these so-called Big Guys who are spreading the lie that if you’re not one of their “Big Eight,” you’re not a planet, and that the best you can do is hang onto their coattails. Here in the Kuiper Belt, we laugh at their self-importance.

Interviewer: But realistically, you can’t say you have the same degree of influence as the giants. Jupiter regularly intercepts comets, stopping them from impacting other planets, including Earth. What do you do that is comparable?

Pluto: First of all, you’re assuming Earth is somehow more deserving of protection than any of the rest of us. Not to mention, what’s wrong with comets? They hang out with me here in the ‘hood all the time. If they want to take a trip into the inner solar system and see what it’s like near the Sun, why should they be prohibited from doing that? We don’t tell Mercury, Venus, Earth, or Mars not to get near the Sun. This is just the same old size discrimination again. That or special favoritism to Earth because it’s directly related to humans.

And you know what? Most comets who take that trip, once they get close to the Sun, they realize it’s hot as hell over there, and they come racing back into the outer solar system very happy to get home. Some of them come back broken and damaged from all that heat, and once they’re back, they choose to live here in the ‘hood, what those Big Guys ridicule as the boondocks.

Interviewer: So comets should be allowed to roam freely all over the solar system.

Pluto: Of course. Why should there be one set of rules for the Big Guys and another set of rules for the little guys? That’s a blatant double standard.

Interviewer: Yet every day comets leave your ‘hood trying to get closer to the Sun. Thousands of asteroids compete just get closest to Jupiter or Saturn. For every one that makes it, thousands don’t. You don’t have asteroids clamoring to orbit you. The overwhelming majority want to be part of the Big Guys’ kingdoms, even if it means just being a speck in their ring systems.

Pluto: You see; that’s where their value systems are all screwed up. Why make your whole life revolve around another planet when you can be one yourself, when you can have your own orbit? Okay, I’m small, but I orbit the Sun directly. They only live vicariously through attaching themselves to the giant planets. Why would I want to orbit another planet when I can have an orbit of my own? Yes, it’s kind of different, but you know, I like it, and I have complete freedom to do what I want.

And you know, having moons isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And I say this as someone who has three moons myself. The whole planet-moon thing is part of the hierarchical mentality that is the root of most problems here in the solar system. Why can’t we all be planets? In fact, Charon and I are unique in that we co-orbit one another. Ours is an orbit of equals. I love Charon, and I don’t feel the need to make myself superior.

Interviewer: You do have Nix and Hydra orbiting you though.

Pluto: Because they choose to. They happen to like our different way of doing things. And Charon and I are fine with that. If they ever want to go off on their own and be their own planets, we’ll wish them well. We won’t try to keep them in our shadows.

And, you’ve actually made another good point. Charon and I have a system of four. Mercury and Venus have no moons at all. Mars has two little asteroid moons who were rejected by Jupiter. Why should they be planets and Charon and I be some sort of second-class citizens?

Interviewer: You don’t clear your orbit of other Kuiper Belt Objects, and those planets do have clear orbits.

Pluto: Only because they were born in an advantaged location. Put them out here in the Kuiper Belt, and they wouldn’t clear anything.

Interviewer: Many astronomers consider you most like Triton, a moon of Neptune. Why should you be given the coveted title of planet, yet the larger Triton just be a moon?

Pluto: Again with this size issue. We keep coming back to that. Look, I know Triton, and once upon a time, he was a planet just like me, with his own orbit—until Neptune lured him in with all this rhetoric about how popular he’d be if he were associated with a giant planet. Unfortunately, Triton bought into this propaganda, against my advice by the way. And you know what? It’s all going to end in tragedy. His orbit around Neptune is unstable. One day, he’s going to crash into his big blue idol and completely self-destruct. Of course, Neptune never told him that in advance. All because Triton chose to give up his individuality and worship one of the so-called Big Guys. I, on the other hand, will still be here when he’s long gone.

Interviewer: So you really believe you’re as important to the solar system as giants like Jupiter and Saturn?

Pluto: Yes I do. And I’ll tell you something else they don’t want you to know. Those two, especially Jupiter, really wanted to be suns, but they just couldn’t do it. Hell, Jupiter tried and tried but couldn’t even fuse deuterium, much less hydrogen. These guys are wanna bes. That’s why they’ve got their own little solar systems going. And Uranus and Neptune just copied them. They’ve collected all those moons because they want to act like suns, but deep down, they know they’re not. And so they’re compensating. It’s the same thing with the rings. Saturn started the whole thing as one big show of ostentation. Then the other three gas giants copied him. Oh, they love to brag about how objects all over the solar system would kill just to be a tiny moonlet in their rings. So egotistic, so self-important. And they don’t even have surfaces. You can’t stand on them or land a rover on them, but you can do both of those with me.

Interviewer: Then what about Ceres and Vesta? They’re round, but they don’t mind being considered asteroids.

Pluto: Really? Did you ever ask them what they think? Or did you just take Jupiter’s word for it? Nobody even bothered to consult Ceres, Vesta, and a couple of others in that area who happen to be round. No, it’s just, you’re in the asteroid belt, so you’re automatically no better than any little rock floating around out there. Don’t you humans have words for that kind of discrimination on your planet?

Interviewer: I think we’ve pretty much covered everything. It’s clear you’re sticking to your guns on this one.

Pluto: You bet I am. We’re talking about my identity, who I am. And not just my identity, but the identity of every small object in the solar system, especially those of us who have worked hard to attain hydrostatic equilibrium. If it’s good enough for Jupiter, it’s good enough for all of us. I’m not just going to sit here in the Kuiper Belt and let these Big Guys call their reality the only reality. No, I’ve already started mobilizing the little guys here in the Kuiper Belt who are in the same spherical shape as Jupiter. And the asteroid belt is next. Then the Oort Cloud. Some of those over-inflated gas giant egos may start to see their moons suddenly floating away and establishing their own orbits as planets. There is a revolution underway in the solar system, and it starts here.

You know, if they hadn’t messed with me, I might have just left things the way they are and been content to do my own thing. But the humans and these big planets that follow their every dictate made a huge mistake. They picked a fight with me, so now they’re getting what they deserve. The new rallying cry among the solar system’s underdogs is, “let a thousand planets bloom!” And mark my words, they will.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Laurel Kornfeld's Planets: Adventures in Studying Astronomy

Okay, I admit it. I ripped off the title of this entry, or at least its style, from Mike Brown’s blog.

One of the most frequent questions I am asked when I advocate Pluto’s reinstatement as a planet is, what difference does this make in my life or in anyone else’s life? In many entries, I have discussed the disservice being done to children and to those of all ages studying astronomy who are being taught about only eight planets in our solar system or are, as Dr. Mark Sykes reported, wrongly being told that Pluto is an asteroid.

Most people upset by the 2006 IAU decision expressed their displeasure and moved on to other concerns. I may be wrong, but my guess is very few felt motivated to make major changes in their lives, such as going back to school and studying astronomy with the goal of learning as much as possible about the subject in order to best advocate the decision be overturned.

But that is exactly what I did. I have always had many interests and activities, all of which I love, and all of which compete for my attention. Astronomy was not at the top of the list in August 2006. All of that changed when the IAU issued its infamous ruling. I knew, felt as strongly as possible, that this decision was wrong. And I set about doing whatever I could to counter it, which started with educating myself on the details of planetary science.

I knew then that arguments such as “Pluto should stay a planet because it has always been one” or “because that is how I was raised,” or because “the mnemonic won’t work without Pluto” were not scientifically valid. If a case were to be made for Pluto retaining its planet status, that case must be built on logical arguments stemming from a solid foundation of scientific knowledge.

After reading more web sites about the solar system than I can count, I joined an astronomy club and took a class for volunteers who become qualified observers on open public nights. I spent a lot of time at weekly meetings listening to lectures on every aspect of astronomy. Then I took an un-graded online course offered by Swinburne University, based in Melbourne, Australia, titled “From Planets to the Universe.” That six-week course offered interaction with students worldwide discussing a lot of material in a very short time.

The benefits of online education are that students from very different backgrounds have the opportunity to learn from one another, to exchange differing perspectives, to throw around ideas and bounce them off one another. I enjoyed this to the point that I applied to Swinburne Astronomy Online’s Graduate Certificate program and was accepted.

Unlike the other courses, the courses in this program are graded. And here I was, with no real math or science background, in a course with high school teachers of chemistry and physics and people who had actually worked professionally in planetariums and observatories. The course title was “Exploring the Solar System.” And the instructor as well as the program director are members of the IAU! Thankfully, they were always fair and never used my online criticism of the IAU against me academically.

There is no way to summarize everything learned in a 12-week semester, but suffice it to say that our exploration of the solar system was comprehensive and detailed. This is not the solar system many of us learned in grade school, which was mainly a list of nine objects revolving around the Sun. This was an in-depth look at a solar system far more diverse, hosting a multitude of different objects, no two of which are exactly alike.

Some supporters of Pluto’s demotion argue that Pluto unfairly gets more attention than the larger moons of the gas giant planets because it is deemed a planet, and they are not. That certainly was not the case in this class. At one time, we knew little about the planets themselves and even less about their moons. Today, 40 plus years of robotic explorations have given us so much data about these moons, which really should be classified as secondary planets, that classes like the one I took spend an entire two-week period just on the moons and rings of the jovian planets. We do not have to choose between Pluto and these other, fascinating worlds. We can teach and study both.

One important lesson from studying the planets is that the robotic missions have given us much of our current knowledge of the solar system, knowledge that dispelled many previously held notions. Only 50 years ago, many believed Venus hosted lush vegetation and that Mars may host intelligent life. Now we know that although it is sometimes called Earth’s “sister planet,” Venus’ heavy atmosphere of sulfur dioxide and its high temperature and pressure make it impossible for any life to exist on that planet. We have explored Mars from orbit and on the ground and now know that its tenuous atmosphere and lack of a magnetic field preclude anything other than microbial life.

We have learned that while the four jovian planets used to be lumped into one group, “gas giants,” Uranus and Neptune are actually different enough from Jupiter and Saturn to merit being placed in a separate category, the ice giants. While Jupiter and Saturn are composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, the two outermost jovians, Uranus and Neptune, are made up of hydrogen compounds such as methane, ammonia, and water plus small amounts of hydrogen, helium, and rock. Uranus and Neptune are believed to have liquid cores just as Jupiter and Saturn do, but their densities are akin to those of ices, likely a mixture of water, methane, and ammonia.

Mercury is now recognized as having a tenuous magnetic field and a very thin atmosphere, facts that contradict long-held views among astronomers that it had neither. The moons of the jovian planets are believed to have formed with those planets from the solar nebula, unlike Earth’s moon, which most scientists view as having been formed from a giant impact by a Mars-like body. Interestingly, Pluto’s moon Charon is believed to have been formed by a similar impact.

The point of all these facts is that in exploring the solar system through ground-based telescopes and robotic missions, we have come to learn that much of what was previously believed and even viewed as fact is wrong. Even though the largest planets are divided into the two categories of “terrestrials” and “jovians,” we have learned that no two planets in either category are exactly alike; in fact, each one is far more unique than its categorization would lead one to believe.

In astronomy, the more we learn, the more we find out we didn’t know and still don’t know. That is where the question of Pluto comes into the discussion. Pluto is estimated to be 70 percent rock and 30 percent ice. Uranus and Neptune are very icy, yet no one cites that fact to disqualify them from being considered planets. Earth in many ways is more similar to Pluto than to Jupiter, whose composition is similar to that of the Sun. Like Earth and the terrestrial planets, Pluto is differentiated geologically into core, mantle, and crust. The jovians are differentiated too, but they have inner cores of liquid molecular hydrogen, outer layers of hydrogen and helium (and several other gases in the case of Uranus and Neptune), and none has a solid surface.

With such a variety of characteristics and so much diversity, how can we possibly choose one factor and use that as the measuring stick for planethood? The answer is that we cannot because any characteristic chosen would be arbitrary. In the presence of so many factors and features, we need a planet definition that is broad enough to encompass all these objects. That leads us back to what it is they all have in common. And that answer is that they are all large enough to be shaped by their own gravity, which pulls them into a round shape, a condition known as hydrostatic equilibrium.

Among objects in hydrostatic equilibrium, we are likely to discover bodies with characteristics we cannot even imagine, both in this solar system and in others. Some may revolve around other planets. These differences do not mean the new objects are not planets, just that we may need to add new subcategories of planets as more is learned. As even Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson admits, planetary science is still very much in its infancy. And that is not a time to be establishing narrow definitions, especially when we know an infusion of data about Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is coming within the next decade.

One of the best things about studying astronomy is the opportunity to “meet” and converse with people all over the world. These conversations have continued beyond the online classroom. Having been in the political world and dealt with very negative people who loved to put me down, publicly demonize me, and repeat ad nauseam how I was not good enough, I appreciate all the more the very positive, supportive classmates I’ve had. When I was afraid of failing the class—and the subsequent online ridicule if “Pluto haters” ever found out that “Plutogirl” failed astronomy—fellow students offered much valued encouragement and moral support. Their message was always, “you can do this.” Outside the classroom, that has largely been my experience with friends and acquaintances in the astronomy community, people who, ironically, I would never have met had Pluto not been demoted.

In the end, I passed the course with an 83 and discovered that one does not have to receive a perfect grade to have learned a tremendous amount. I look forward to doing a lot of writing about astronomy, including, as previously announced, writing a book about Pluto. Yet the fact remains that while most people go back to school to further their careers, I plan to continue this program because I want to do all I can to get Pluto reinstated as a planet. And in that process, I have re-discovered a fascinating field and many wonderful people, all of which make this a most worthwhile, meaningful effort.