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!”

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