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!!!"