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:
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 . 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 . 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: and here:
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: ystem/

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.


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: . The more people they hear from asking for fairness in presenting both sides, the better!

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