Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Pluto, Pluto Everywhere

Once again, Pluto is showing up everywhere--in books, DVDs, at conferences, even in a new wine created to honor the little planet.

Tonight, the debate over Pluto and what defines a planet will be discussed at a conference of the American Astronomical Society in Pasadena, California. Once again, Alan Stern and Neil de Grasse Tyson will be on stage together.  Even though I've heard all the arguments--and made most of them myself on the pro-Pluto side--I can't help but feel a twinge of regret at not being able to attend this conference personally. However, if Alan Stern is batting for Pluto, then at least I know the pro-Pluto side is in good hands.

David Grinspoon will be speaking for Pluto as well. You can read some of his views on this issue at http://flyingsinger.blogspot.com/2009/02/giving-pluto-another-chance.html

Just the fact that this discussion is taking place as we approach the three year mark of the IAU's horrendous decision is noteworthy in and of itself. The IAU wanted to "finish this," to "settle" it once and for all at the 2006 General Assembly. Whether in conferences, in print, or in culture, over and over again, the evidence is overwhelming that they failed miserably in that goal.

The number of Pluto-related items coming up could make a collector's dream. The DVD "Naming Pluto," which tells the story of how 11-year-old British schoolgirl Venetia Burney named Pluto in 1930 and subsequently shows her viewing Pluto through a telescope for the first time on the eve of her 89th birthday, can be purchased here: http://www.fatherfilms.com/shop . I already have my copy and will be posting a review of the DVD shortly. Father Films is also selling a "Naming Pluto" poster along with the DVD. Given Venetia's passing away only this April 30, it is fortuitous that the film was made while she was still around to be part of it.

Astronomy Now, a British astronomy magazine, is holding a contest for a free copy of "Naming Pluto." For details, visit http://www.astronomynow.com/AstronomyNowNamingPlutoCompetition.html . Anyone who wants to participate should act quickly because the deadline is this Friday, June 12. The winner will be chosen randomly from the entries who submit the correct answer to a specific question regarding Pluto and does so following the instructions on the web site above. Only one person can win, but everyone interested in the solar system and in public contributions to astronomy is encouraged to buy a copy of this DVD.

A group of California high school students didn't want to wait until their 80s to view Pluto through a telescope. They spent Memorial Day weekend conducting the first Salinas Valley Pluto Expedition over two nights. Read more about it here: http://www.thecalifornian.com/article/20090530/OPINION03/305300002/1014/RSS03 . Pluto reaches opposition, the best time of the year for viewing it, when it is opposite the Sun and out all night, on June 23, so now is an excellent time to try and see it. This is one of my personal life goals, but the weather here in central NJ on the weekends when observatories are open has not been cooperating so far. In this state, we need a dark sky site, as even the most powerful telescopes cannot resolve such a tiny, far away object with the light and air pollution in our many heavily populated areas.

In March and April, NASA ran an online contest called "Mission Madness" in which people could vote for their favorite NASA missions, past and present. Out of several rounds, New Horizons finished in the Final Four, showing once again the widespread interest in exploring Pluto.

And not one but two new books will soon be published on the subject of Pluto. As I said in an earlier post, I plan to write a book about Pluto as well, but in this case, these are not "competition." It's a matter of "the more, the merrier," about putting out as much information from as many viewpoints as possible so the ultimate decision can be made by the people, not by a tiny percent of a closed group.

The first book, by award-winning science writer Alan Boyle, is called The Case for Pluto, which makes the case that Pluto should be reinstated as a planet and counters arguments made in previous publications against this viewpoint. Current plans are for it to come out in October of this year. You can learn more about this book and order a copy from http://www.wiley.com/WileyCDA/WileyTitle/productCd-0470505443.html. If you're one of those people who wants to present strong, credible arguments for Pluto beyond simple statements such as "it was always considered a planet," this book should be a great resource. I will write a review of it in a future blog entry. The timing of that entry will depend on when I receive and read the book.

Another book, one I just found out about last night, is co-written by two authors representing opposing sides in this debate. Pluto Confidential: An Insider Account of the Ongoing Battles Over the Status of Pluto was co-authored by Laurence A. Marshall, an astronomer and educator who voted for the IAU resolution, and by Stephen P. Maran, a NASA scientist who signed the petition opposing the IAU planet definition. That book, which comes out in August of this year, can be ordered from http://www.amazon.com/Pluto-Confidential-Insider-Account-Ongoing/dp/1933771801 or from another bookselling website. It is always good to be familiar with both sides of a debate, even if one is very partisan on one side, so this should be a great resource. Again, I will write a review of it as soon as I obtain and read the book.

Speaking of presenting both sides, I do give credit to the IAU for including this blog in its International Year of Astronomy Portal to the Universe Project. You can find this link here: http://www.portaltotheuniverse.org/blogs/feeds/view/105/ featuring my picture with a spacescape and Pluto in the background!

A third book, Unscientific America: How Scientific Illiteracy Threatens Our Future, examines science illiteracy in the US, beginning with the example of the Pluto debate. Authors Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirschenbaum are strong supporters of Pluto retaining its planet status and begin their book by discussing the Pluto debate. The book will be available at http://www.amazon.com/Unscientific-America-Scientific-Illiteracy-Threatens/dp/0465013058 . It has not been released yet though you can read more about it here: http://scienceblogs.com/intersection/2008/12/unscientific_america.php Again, a review will be forthcoming here once I obtain my copy of the book.

Anyone taking a trip to the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, the site where Pluto was first discovered in 1930, can literally vote with their dollars for Pluto's planet status. The observatory features donation jars with four categories asking what Pluto should be called: planet, dwarf planet, other, and "I don't care; I just want to support Lowell!" You can see the donation jars here: http://1.bp.blogspot.com/_rqd6DTuStOE/Si4T9IH82JI/AAAAAAAAAIo/0lLhHre5qvk/s1600-h/Lowell-Pluto_donations.jpg . As of June 4, 2009, the Planet jar is ahead with $1,049.65 compared with $739.21 for "I don't care; I just want to support Lowell," $417.06 for Dwarf Planet (note it never says dwarf planets are not planets at all!), and $162.52 for Other.

T-shirt afficionados can wear their support for Pluto by purchasing shirts with many designs from http://besttees.org/cgi-bin/cpshop.pl?i=pluto or from the ever popular Cafe Press.

Anyone on Facebook can join the fast-growing cause, "Bring Pluto Back" at http://apps.facebook.com/causes/241322/14617099?m=830bc981 . The rapidly-growing group has 593 members and counting, including a few professional astronomers.

2 Skinnee Js have released a tune, "Pluto," where they act as "attorneys" representing Pluto. More about this song can be found at http://johnstrophyrun.blogspot.com/2009/04/pluto-is-planet.html

And difficult as this may be to believe, you can now support Pluto by drinking wine--specifically, "Planet Pluto Meritage Red Table Wine" made in California, created to oppose the IAU demotion and support Pluto's planet status. The wine can be ordered from this site: http://planetplutowine.com/planetpluto/home.html

Over the last three months, I have been busy completing an astronomy class, "Exploring the Solar System," through the Swinburne Astronomy Online Graduate Certificate Program. As a writer with no formal training in astronomy, I felt this program would provide me with that training in a stimulating online environment, where I could "talk" with people all over the world via class newsgroups. It has been an amazing experience, and I will write more about that too. Anyone interested in pursuing courses in astronomy should consider this program.  It is most certainly not a "degree mill"; be prepared to work hard and be challenged. But it is well worth it. More information is available here: http://astronomy.swin.edu.au/sao/

Finally, in line with the theme of scientific illiteracy, I would like to share a story that to me illustrates the core of the problem with the IAU and its planet definition. Writers, bloggers, educators, astronomers, etc. are of course free to say and print whatever they want online. That does not mean their comments are some sort of gospel truth, even if they are written by astronomers. In the Discovery Space "Twisted Physics"  blog, writer Jennifer Ouellette, in discussing the passing of Venetia Burney, refers to Pluto as an "erstwhile planet," (erstwhile meaning former) meaning of course, she subsequently received an immediate objection comment from me regarding use of the word "erstwhile," as saying that amounts to taking the IAU definition as fact rather than as one interpretation in an ongoing debate. Ouellette responded by writing, "Pluto is an erstwhile planet. Deal with it. If/when the IAU reverses its decision, we'll all revise our descriptions accordingly." The link is here: http://blogs.discovery.com/twisted_physics/2009/05/rip-venetia-phair.html?cid=6a00d8341bf67c53ef011570a25cf3970b

Now just a minute. "If/when the IAU reverses its decision, we'll all revise our descriptions accordingly???" Is the IAU the arbiter of reality? Do they decide what is "Truth," and do all of us just blindly follow? Isn't science supposed to involve at least some brain activity, in other words, thinking for oneself? "We'll all follow" is, at least to me, a frightening statement. As Star Trek's Dr. McCoy would say, "What is this, the Dark Ages?"

Instead of "following," let's all lead. The IAU is only one venue in this debate, but as we approach their August General Assembly, it is crucial that they continue to hear from as many people as possible requesting they re-open the planet definition issue. Keep writing to IAU president Catherine Cesarsky at catherine.cesarsky@cea.fr and to the IAU in general at iau@iap.fr ;cite the professional astronomers who dissent with the 2006 definition, and ask that this year, the organization clean up the mess they made of this issue. It's not over!!!

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