Friday, December 31, 2010

A New Year's Message

The Internet is a strange place. On the one hand, it empowers people, providing easy access to information and enabling those with like-minded interests to come together and share those interests. Unfortunately, the nature of the beast is that it can also become a venue for rumors, false information, and misunderstandings.

On several recent occasions, especially over the last few weeks, various comments and statements which I never made and do not support have been attributed to me. Additionally, things I said in jest have been misinterpreted as being serious when this was never the intention. Whether this all is due to simple misunderstanding or miscommunication of things I said, I want to take this opportunity to set the record straight.

I have never said and never would say that Mike Brown's book should be banned or not published or that he should not be permitted to give public talks.  As a writer, I recognize the sanctity of the First Amendment, and as the cliche says, I may disagree with what someone says, but I will defend to death their right to say it. That is true for those with whom I disagree about any subject, including the status of Pluto. Suppression of discussion and debate is never a good thing.

What I do advocate is that forums, publications, web sites, seminars, etc. present both sides of the issue by hosting speakers representing both opposing positions and/or printing articles representing both opposing positions. In some cases, there are more than two positions on an issue, and all should be heard.

In his essay On Liberty, 19th-century writer John Stuart Mill advocates an "open marketplace of ideas," meaning every idea, every position should be given a venue. An optimist, Mill believed the best ideas would rise to the top on their own merit. Whether and how often this happens is a matter of debate, but Mill's noble concept remains an ideal for every free and open society.

Additionally, some comments I have made as jokes or tongue-in-cheek remarks have unfortunately been taken the wrong way. Brown's description of himself as "plutokiller" will inevitably bring on references to Death Stars and various science fiction destruction scenarios. It should naturally be understood that this is an attempt to inject some humor into the debate. Similarly, humorous comments referencing Star Wars or Harry Potter in response to the "plutokiller" theme are also jokes and not meant to be taken as ever wishing harm on anyone.

The response to my involvement in astronomy and advocacy for Pluto has been overwhelmingly positive. There have been a few exceptions where I have received vitriolic emails from people who either disagree with me or do not like what I am doing. These have been very hurtful, and as a journalist, I have publicly exposed their contents in the hope of deterring any such future messages. Sometimes, it is hard to remember that by putting oneself in the public eye, one automatically leaves oneself vulnerable to less than positive feedback. This is the unfortunate nature of the beast, yet it is still a painful thing to face.

The ideal in science is being dispassionate and objective. In the arts, such as writing and acting, where I have spent most of my life, expressing passion openly is much more accepted. I admit to being very passionate about Pluto and about astronomy, but I assure anyone put off by such passion that it in no way reflects any type of malice. While I might be involved in boycotts, protests, or parodies of things I don't like, I would never wish harm to anyone whose views differ from mine or whose style differs from mine (wishing electoral defeat or dissolution/reform of a group such as the IAU does not count as "harm" in my book).

Astronomy is a grand adventure, a constant experience of wonder and discovery. I have been extremely fortunate in finding teachers and mentors, beginning with fellow members of Amateur Astronomers, Inc. of Cranford, NJ, and extending to amateur and professional astronomers around the world and instructors at Swinburne University, who have been eager to teach, generous with their time, and patient in explaining difficult concepts. These experiences and a love of planetary science have led me to decide to further my studies at Swinburne in the Masters program.

Astronomy also unites us all by reminding us that we are one people on one "pale blue dot," a small planet that is fragile, has seen too much abuse, and is in tremendous need of healing. The "Star Trek" universe always appealed to me because in it, humanity was able to move beyond war and petty divisions to come together for the greatest adventure of all--the exploration of "strange new worlds." I still believe this can be our future.

Toward that end, I apologize to anyone of whom I spoke ill or maligned or was perceived to do so, and emphasize again that my purpose in writing online is solely the promotion of planet status for Pluto and all dwarf planets. It never has been and never will be a personal vendetta.

Here's wishing a Happy, Healthy 2011 to all seven billion people on this planet and to the animal and plant life with which we share our world. While debating the definition of planet and the status of celestial objects, I hope we can all remember to have fun, to maintain a sense of humor about the whole thing, and to never forget the wonders of our universe and be grateful for the opportunities to experience them.Happy New Year!

Monday, December 20, 2010

The Solstice Is the Reason for the Season

“All that lives must die to be reborn again.”

 As far back as I can remember, this time of year felt sacred, even otherworldly. At first, I thought it was the fairy tale atmosphere of Christmas, the lights, the music, the colors, the gifts. And because my family didn’t celebrate this holiday, this special time became one of sheer misery, a party everyone else had to which I wasn’t invited.

Always the “bookish” type and at the same time a rebel, I decided at about 11 or 12 to use the encyclopedia we had at home to look up the origin of celebrations at this time. That was when I learned why others have felt, recognized, and commemorated the solemnity of this time for as far back as 10,000 years—the Winter Solstice.

Because I live on Earth and experience the seasons as much as anyone, I realized with a surge of joy that the Winter Solstice is my party too. No one is “not invited.”

By now, it is well known that just about all of the trappings of the holiday season, everything from wreaths, evergreens, and most of all the new birth, originated well before Christianity ever existed. Yet because Christianity so completely co-opted just about every aspect of Winter Solstice celebrations, the original meaning of the season has been lost to so many people. This is in no way meant to offend those who celebrate the Christian holiday. No one around today was involved in the suppression of the Solstice celebrations, which happened centuries ago.

Hanukkah never really did much for me personally. Maybe it’s because many Jewish leaders take part in a similar attempt to dissociate it from the Winter Solstice, which is somewhat disingenuous. While it commemorates events that took place over several years, Hanukkah clearly is rooted in seasonal celebrations representing the waxing light of the Sun. In fact, the one candle that lights all the others has the very same name as the Hebrew word for Sun.

Those who told me that holiday has nothing to do with the Winter Solstice only made me less interested in it. The same is true of those who described it as a “minor” holiday. Nothing about this time of year is “minor.” Such sentiment runs completely counter to everything I authentically feel inside.

In the last 20 years, there has been a revival of Earth spirituality, and abundance of books on the seasonal festivals, and a growing movement to go back to our roots in nature and celebrate them. Along with the Internet, this has been a godsend to so many of us who know in our gut the profundity of the season and long to not just celebrate it but be part of it.

People sometimes ask me, why celebrate the rebirth of the Sun since as an amateur astronomer, you know the Sun doesn’t change at all; rather, it is the Earth that moves.

To me, science does not negate every bit of mysticism and symbolism in the universe. The Sun might not literally die and be reborn, as the old myths describe, yet from our perspective on Earth, it certainly appears that way. Knowing it is all caused by the Earth’s axial tilt does not diminish the magic represented by the apparent birth of life from death. Nature appears dead; the trees are barren; the seeds lie hidden and buried underground. Yet life does not end. The growing strength of the Sun from the day of the Winter Solstice forward is the spark that kindles new life in everything. Seeds germinate underground, growing to the strengthening light until at last they break through the frozen surface at the Spring Equinox. Dormant trees eventually grow new buds that become leaves. Hibernating animals rest only to return as the warmth grows stronger.

The “comfort and joy” of the Solstice is in knowing that it is a time of sleep, but sleep does not equal death. Even physical death, which appears to us as an end, may be just a time of rest before a new birth. The seasonal cycle may very well be nothing less than a reflection of a much greater, much more profound cycle. It provides us the hope that, as stated in one Solstice story, “everything lives and dies and lives again. There is no end to life.”

Skeptics will jump on that last statement, calling it a fairy tale and wishful thinking. Maybe it is, but maybe it is not. The Winter Solstice provides an opportunity to not just understand the mechanics of an astronomical event, but to allow awe, wonder, and magic into our lives. It is something everyone has a right to celebrate and honor. Limiting the joy of the season to only Christians is a disservice to everyone else.

I live for the day when, instead of having the “Christmas talk” with their four-year-olds, or feeling like December is a “dilemma,” non-Christian parents—and Christian parents too—instead share with their children the mystery, beauty, and even sanctity of the real reason for the season.

The words of this song, "Winter Solstice," by Ruth Elaine Schram, express well the hope of this time of year.

"In the Midwinter when the air is chill,
on the horizon the Sun stands still.
After December's full Moon so bright,
soon it will be the year's longest night!

Stars will align, and they will leave their mark
showing the point of the Sun's new arc!
From this day forward, its path will ascend!
Hours of daylight grow longer again!

This is the Winter Solstice!
Winter Solstice!
Follow the path of the Sun!

This is the Winter Solstice!
Winter Solstice!
Now a new path has begun!

Follow the path of the Sun!"

Happy Winter Solstice!

And Happy Summer Solstice to all in the Southern Hemisphere!

Friday, December 17, 2010

Pluto Has Oceans Under Ice?

Pluto Has Oceans Under Ice?#ng_comments

Some more fascinating information about this intriguing little planet.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Mike Brown, Mind Reader???

Mike Brown, who never misses an opportunity to dub himself the “plutokiller,” apparently missed his calling. Given his latest outrageous statement, which presumes to know what supporters of Pluto as a planet are thinking better than we do ourselves, he should have pursued a career in fortune telling or mind reading.

Debates in which people representing opposing views agree to disagree and discuss issues in a civil manner, without resorting to ad hominem attacks, have a long and proud tradition. At the Great Planet Debate in August 2008, scientists and lay people representing both sides of the planet definition debate successfully conducted such a debate in a spirit of friendship and camaraderie.

Unfortunately, Brown, who continues to repeat the false claim that the planet definition debate is over and that the only astronomers who still support Pluto as a planet are those affiliated with the New Horizons mission, has shown himself incapable of conducting such a debate.

When asked in an interview by about the many astronomers who still regard Pluto as a planet, Brown offered this answer:

“There aren't many astronomers. There is a very small number of very vocal people. The people who jump up and down the most about Pluto being a planet have the most to gain from Pluto being a planet. They're on the New Horizons mission to Pluto. I understand their nostalgic need to still feel like they're going to a planet. There's this feeling that by saying it's not a planet it becomes less important, and their life's work to send this spacecraft to Pluto becomes less important”

The comment can be found here:

This is a blatant lie, and it is downright unprofessional for Brown to mislead the public this way. The overwhelming majority of astronomers who still consider Pluto a planet are not affiliated with the New Horizons mission. In fact, one of them is a member of the trio that discovered Eris—Dr. David Rabinowitz.

New Horizons is fully funded and loses nothing from the demotion. Dawn is a mission to a dwarf planet and an asteroid, and it has just as much respect as New Horizons or any other NASA mission. Most astronomers who consider Pluto a planet—and there are many—are simply planetary scientists who believe that astronomers who don't study planets should not be the ones to define what a planet is.

The comment about New Horizons is nothing less than a cheap shot at Dr. Alan Stern, who has led the objectors to the IAU decision, not because of this mission but because he believes in what is known as the Geophysical Planet Definition—that a planet should be defined by what it is rather than where it is, and that any non-self luminous spheroidal body orbiting a star is a planet. This is a legitimate scientific position.

As unprofessional as the above statement sounds, it is not Brown’s worst. That new low was reached yesterday in an interview with Universe Today, where Brown accused supporters of Pluto’s planet status of deliberately lying and misleading the public, of not actually believing our own stance on this issue.

He says, regarding those who view Pluto as a planet: And honestly, I think manipulative is the word. They don’t believe what they say, they know what they say is not true and they say it in ways that are deceitful. That is maybe a strong statement to make, but they know what they are saying is not true. That bothers me. You shouldn’t say things that you know is not true just to make a point.”

What absolutely unbelievable arrogance. Brown reaches a new low with this baseless ad hominem attack. Those of us who view Pluto as a planet most certainly DO believe in what we are saying. We advocate a geophysical definition of planet, in which any object massive enough to be rounded by its own gravity that orbits a star is a planet. The idea is a definition based on what the object is, not where it is. Pluto is both a Kuiper Belt Object and a planet.

Is Brown a mind reader now? What makes him think he knows what supporters of the geophysical planet definition believe or know to be true more than they do? His palm reader? If anyone is misleading the public, it is Brown who falsely claims the debate over planet definition is over, when it is not. And it is hard to believe those who claim he is sick of the debate when he is making money off of the book and numerous talks he gives on the subject.

There is a logical way to say our solar system does not have only eight planets. Simply, it is to note that there are not only two types of planets, terrestrials and jovians, but a third class, the dwarf planets. Dr. Alan Stern coined this term in 1991 to indicate objects large enough to be rounded by their own gravity but not large enough to gravitationally dominate their orbits. Our solar system, in the words of writer Alan Boyle, has four terrestrial planets, four gas giants, and more in the form of numerous dwarf planets.

How does it make sense to put Earth and Jupiter in the same category? Earth has more in common with Pluto than with Jupiter. Jupiter has no solid surface, has its own “mini-solar system,” and is composed mostly of hydrogen and helium. That makes it more like the Sun than like the Earth (except, of course, it doesn’t conduct hydrogen fusion). Earth and Pluto are both rocky, both have large moons formed via giant impact, and both have nitrogen atmospheres. How we classify objects is subjective; it is based on attributes we pick and choose. Different astronomers will choose different attributes.
Brown’s cheap shot here is a disservice to science, an attempt to marginalize a legitimate scientific point of view. Imagine if, in 1920,when astronomers Harlow Shapley and Heber Curtis held a public debate over whether the Milky Way constitutes the entire universe (Shapley’s view) or whether the universe is made up of many galaxies (Curtis’ view, later proven accurate), one of the debaters suddenly told the other, “you don’t really believe the point you are arguing, and I know this for a fact.” That person’s scientific credibility would have seriously been called into question.

A likely reason Brown is resorting to these underhanded tactics is his underlying awareness that the IAU definition does not stand well among astronomers, with the growing undercurrent favoring a broader, more inclusive planet definition that makes room for more than just terrestrials and jovians as planets.

Brown wrote a book about himself, not about Pluto. In fact, a good portion of the book is dedicated to his life as a husband and father. That sort of thing belongs in the autobiography, lifestyle, or parenting sections, not in a book about astronomy. Not a single one of the many books on the subject of Pluto and planet definition takes such a detour.

Interestingly, one writer ended a book review by stating the real credit goes to Brown’s wife Diane. As a woman, I find this highly offensive. What sort of message does it send to women and girls when a woman is credited for being married to an astronomer rather than being an astronomer herself? It is nothing personal, but Diane Binney Brown is not a hero of astronomy or the person to be most credited for Eris’ discovery.

In my astronomy studies, I just completed a research project on Henrietta Leavitt, the astronomer who discovered what is known as the Period-Luminosity relationship, the fact that for a particular type of stars that vary in brightness (known as Cepheids), their period of going from minimum to maximum to minimum again is directly related to their brightness. Leavitt,
like astronomer Caroline Herschel in the 19th century, never married or had children. Instead, she contributed something different. Her discovery transformed cosmology by allowing astronomers to determine the distances to galaxies near the Milky Way. Yet because she was a woman, Leavitt was never allowed to pursue research on these variable stars, not allowed to use telescopes at Harvard College Observatory, and consigned to doing menial work for observatory director Edward Pickering.

If any people should be held up as role models for women in astronomy, it is women like Leavitt and Caroline Herschel, not women who marry astronomers.

Brown will likely object to any criticism of his wife, noting that his family members should be off limits to critics. Well, he cannot have it both ways. If he wants his family members immune to criticism, then he should keep them out of the public eye, as many politicians do. If he uses them as pawns for self-promotion, then that use is fair game for any critic.
In rhetoric, logic, and debate, resort to ad hominem attacks is done most by those who know they are losing the debate. That is what is happening here.

Supposedly, at one point in his book, Brown prides himself on so accurately predicting a relative’s pregnancy that the relative questions whether he is an astronomer or an astrologer. Many other people are wondering just this too. Since Brown is so sure he knows what his opposition thinks, I suggest we bring in skeptic James Randi to test his mind reading skills.

Or we could just hire a psychic to read his palm.

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Fight for Dwarf Planets Continues

Check out this excellent interview with Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto, by here:

I want to commend for presenting both sides of the Pluto debate rather than just one. Stern's argument makes sense because it is based on what an object is rather than where it is. Gravitational dominance is addressed if we class these small planets as "dwarf planets." It means they are planets but not large enough to gravitationally dominate their orbits.  Arguments that "we cannot have too many planets" because kids won't be able to memorize them or because then the term planet won't be "special" have no scientific merit. We might as well limit Jupiter to four moons instead of 63 for the same reason. The same is true for arguments that there are only two kinds of planets, terrestrials and jovians. Just because an object is not a terrestrial or a jovian doesn't make it not a planet--it makes it a different kind of planet. We very well may discover objects in other solar systems that require adding a fourth, fifth, etc. category of planets. As for eccentric orbits, many giant exoplanets, some with several Jupiter masses, have orbits far more eccentric than that of Pluto. There are at least two cases of systems with two giant planets orbiting their stars in a 3:2 resonance just like Neptune and Pluto. If these objects are not planets, what are they?

Similarly, spherical moons of planets are compositionally akin to planets themselves, which is why Stern and others have proposed calling them "satellite planets." If we ever land rovers on Triton and Pluto, the challenges and circumstances will be very similar in spite of the fact that one orbits a planet and the other orbits the Sun directly.

Brown's argument that there are only a few astronomers left who view dwarf planets as planets and that they are all on the New Horizons mission was a cheap shot and is blatantly untrue. How many of the 300 professional astronomers who signed the petition rejecting the IAU decision are on the New Horizons mission? The answer is very few. New Horizons is already fully funded and unaffected by whatever resolutions the IAU passes. In fact, the Dawn mission to Ceres and Vesta, launched to a dwarf planet and an asteroid, receives no less credibility than any planetary mission. The reality is many astronomers know that the IAU decision was politically motivated and done surreptitiously in a way that violated the group's own bylaws. Rather than accept it, most planetary scientists are simply ignoring it. Most of the 424 IAU members who voted on the 2006 resolution are not planetary scientists but other types of astronomers. Why should they and not those who study planets be the ones who determine what a planet is?

Wednesday, November 24, 2010

A Thanksgiving Message

On February 22 of this year, I posted an entry in this blog asking for help to save the observatory of my beloved astronomy club, Amateur Astronomers, Inc. Last December, we were sent an eviction notice by Union County College, where our observatory is located. This is a very belated thank you to all those people who took the time to call and write to the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders and the Trustees of Union County College asking to save Sperry Observatory, which has been on the site for over 40 years. We were blessed with an outpouring of support from the public and the media, which ended up making a real difference. We were especially blessed by the support of State Senate Majority Leader Barbara Buono, who publicly stood up and spoke on behalf of our observatory.

During the spring, negotiations with the college administration were re-opened, and a new two-year agreement with the college was reached, granting us a reprieve. The announcement of the agreement can be read here: . Click on "Special Notices."

Writing only as an individual, not representing anyone but myself, I want to thank everyone who took action on behalf of our club and our observatory. That little building has been like a second home to me for over three years. Thanks to your efforts, we can continue to share our love of astronomy and the beauty of the universe with the public from our beloved home of more than four decades.

On a similar note, I want to thank the many individuals--lay people, amateur astronomers, and professional astronomers--who have not only stood by planet Pluto, but have given me moral support on several occasions when I received some very nasty emails by a few meanspirited people opposed to my advocating for Pluto. Those who sent these messages, which were filled with personal attacks and not legitimate arguments DO NOT represent the majority of astronomers or lay people who support the IAU decision. I have had many friendly, respectful conversations with those on the "other side" of this debate, including the late Dr. Brian Marsden, who died too young this month and will most certainly be missed. How sad that he won't be here to see the images from Dawn and New Horizons, which certainly would have been of tremendous interest to him.

This is also an appropriate time to make an announcement concerning my book The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto's Story. Yes, the book is still coming, but unfortunately, not by the end of 2010, as I had hoped for so much. In past entries, I have reported that I am taking classes in astronomy at Swinburne University with the goal of obtaining a Graduate Certificate of Science in Astronomy. These classes have been rewarding but also extremely challenging--challenging to the point that I realized I could not adequately complete the classwork and at the same time do justice to a project as important as a book about Pluto. The book is a work in progress, but with the last Swinburne class assignment, a research project, due on December 4, that progress has had to be put on hold.

Once that project is submitted, I will be back at work on the book full speed ahead. I will be taking a break after four classes at Swinburne with the goal of resuming studies toward the Masters in Astronomy after the book is completed, published, and promoted, hopefully with a book tour.

Also coming after the classwork is done will be the promised review of the DVD "Naming Pluto" and a book review of Pluto: Sentinel of the Outer Solar System by Dr. Barrie W. Jones.

Here's wishing a Happy Thanksgiving to all who celebrate and a big thank you to all of Pluto's loyal fans!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

It Was Never "Eris vs. Pluto"

When Eris was observed occulting (passing over) a faraway star late last week, astronomers realized that their conclusion of Eris being bigger than Pluto was likely premature. No sooner had the information been released than the media began referring to a demotion for Eris equaling a victory for Pluto. And once again, they have it wrong.

On November 5, several teams of astronomers in the Chilean Andes observed Eris pass in front of a 17th magnitude star in the constellation Cetus. Many additional astronomers observed the efforts of one of these teams remotely, via the Internet. The best observation was made by Jose Luis Ortiz at the Institute of Astrophysics of Andalusia, Spain using a 16-inch telescope. Their occultation video can be found here:

By viewing Eris pass over this star, astronomers can determine Eris’ diameter. What they discovered is that Eris has a diameter of 2340 kilometers or 1454 miles or less, making it a bit smaller than Pluto, which has a diameter of 2344 kilometers or 1456.5 miles, plus or minus 10 kilometers.

Because Eris’ discovery re-opened the already ongoing debate over the definition of planet, Eris is often portrayed as Pluto’s rival, the cause of its demotion. This viewpoint misses the mark completely because the two planets were never in competition. On the contrary, Eris’ existence confirms that Pluto is not a loner, that there is an entire class of small planets beyond Neptune, which share features with one another as well as with Neptune’s largest moon, Triton.

Small objects at such distances are difficult to measure under the best of circumstances. Eris is three times further from the Sun than Pluto. Previous Hubble images showed it to have a slightly larger diameter than Pluto, but even the best such measurements have a degree of uncertainty.

According to Kelly Beatty in Sky and Telescope magazine, Eris may have previously appeared larger than it really is because its axis is pointing toward the Sun, warming up the hemisphere facing the Sun and thereby leading to inflated infrared measurements. The article can be found here:

Eris’ mass is currently believed to be 2.5 grams per cubic centimeter, making it more massive than Pluto even if it is smaller. Pluto’s mass is estimated at 1.8 to 2.1 grams per cubic centimeter. Higher density likely means it is composed of more rock and less ice—another argument against classifying either Eris or Pluto as comets or “dirty snowballs,” given that the majority of their composition is rock. And Eris has a reflectivity of about 90 percent, significantly higher than that of Pluto, meaning it is highly reflective of sunlight falling upon it. This too could make the planet appear bigger than it really is.

The diameter numbers for Pluto and Eris are so close as to be almost identical. No one should be surprised if the “contest” over which is bigger goes back and forth many times as new data becomes available.

The fact that Eris and Pluto are so similar works against the mindset that demoted Pluto in the first place. The argument was we have four terrestrials, four gas giants, and one misfit, Pluto. Eris’ discovery illustrates that Pluto is not and never was, a misfit. It was the second (as Ceres was the first) of a third class of planets to be found in our solar system, small objects large enough to be planets because unlike asteroids, they are large enough for their own gravity to pull them into a round shape. Dwarf planets are simply small planets not large enough to gravitationally dominate their orbits. There is no rational explanation to label them as not being planets at all other than the artificial, convenience-based argument that our solar system cannot have too many planets, as children will never be able to memorize them.

Pluto and Eris are not rivals; they are two of a kind. Makemake and Haumea are likely similar in composition, mass, and density. Interestingly, all these objects also bear striking similarities to Neptune’s largest moon, Triton. Triton orbits Neptune backwards, meaning it revolves in the opposite direction as Neptune does around the Sun. It is in an unstable orbit, meaning it likely was once a planet with its own orbit around the Sun and was subsequently captured by Neptune.

With a diameter of 2700 kilometers, Triton has a composition strikingly similar to that of Pluto. Both have surfaces covered with frost of carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitrogen, and methane, and both have a pinkish-red color. These similarities are enough to raise questions about whether Triton, Pluto, and Eris, as well as possibly Makemake and Haumea, have similar origins.

Anyone interested in more detail about Pluto’s troposphere (lower atmosphere) can find it at

Even among the four terrestrials and four gas giants in our solar system, no two planets are identical in size, composition, geology, number of moons, etc. The similarities and differences that we pick and choose to categorize these objects are largely subjective. Saturn has the lowest density of all the planets; it would float if we could find a large enough ocean in which to place it. Jupiter and Saturn have more in common with the Sun than with the Earth when it comes to composition, as the former are composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, and neither has a solid surface.

Astronomers determined Jupiter and Saturn are not stars, however, because they never conducted hydrogen fusion and therefore never produced their own light—neither is anywhere near massive enough to do this. Yet at the same time, they chose to put Jupiter and Earth in the same overall category of planet even though the two bodies have little in common. Earth actually has more in common with Pluto than with Jupiter. Both Earth and Pluto are rocky with solid surfaces; both have nitrogen in their atmospheres, and both have large moons believed to have formed via giant impacts with the original planet.

The next time you hear people use the argument that Pluto is “not like the other planets,” the old “one of these things is not like the others,” remember that inherent in this statement is a subjective choice of characteristics used to determine similarity and difference. A different choice of characteristics will yield a different categorization system. If we use hydrostatic equilibrium to classify an object as a planet, spherical moons of planets like Triton are essentially planets themselves and deserve their own category of secondary or satellite planets.

The best way to learn the specifics about these bodies is to go there. An Eris Express would take about 30 years, but if we can find a way to speed up that travel time and to fund such a mission, the returns would be priceless. The same is true for further exploration of Uranus and Neptune and their satellites, possibly through orbiters like Galileo did for Jupiter and Cassini is doing for Saturn.

Until we actually see these places up close, all conclusions should be understood to have a tentative quality about them. People want quick, easy answers, but that does not work for small objects at such distances. For the foreseeable future, we just have to learn to accept that there is no “final answer.”

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Kuiper Belt of Many Colors,0

Kuiper Belt of Many Colors

Kuiper Belt of Many Colors

Friday, October 22, 2010

Thank you, Peter Becker, for acknowledging the ongoing Pluto debate in your weekly column!

Looking Up: Meet the King of the North - Adrian, MI - The Daily Telegram

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pluto: "How Wrong They Were"

Four years ago today, a tiny contingent of the International Astronomical Union and a planet discoverer who would rather be known as a “planet killer” believed they had ended the tumultuous planet definition debate with a vote in a room in Prague.

In the beautifully apropos words of Alan Boyle, author of The Case for Pluto, “how wrong they were.”

During these four years, I have used this blog to advocate the overturning and/or ignoring of the highly flawed planet definition that resulted from that vote and to chronicle worldwide opposition to it.

What I have found is fascinating.

In an era with attention spans so short that many can barely remember a politician’s scandals after media coverage ends, the little planet at the epicenter of this debate has now held public attention for an unbelievable four years, with no sign of abating. Every time it is thought the dust has settled, and the debate is over, the topic resurfaces, and each time, it captivates people worldwide.

Just this past week, I circulated the hard copy petition supporting the petition of astronomers opposing the 2006 decision at a picnic, and people were clamoring not just to sign it, but also to get copies of their own to circulate. They remembered the demotion announcement as if it happened yesterday. They remembered a powerful sense of feeling “this is wrong” and wanting to do something in response.

The latest count on a Facebook petition, “Bring Pluto Back,” located at is 1,427 signatures. That may not sound like much, but it is 1,000 more than the number of astronomers who voted in Prague.

At , where members of the public can vote, the results are an overwhelming 28,408 for Pluto being a planet to 5,983 for Pluto not being a planet.

Dr. Alan Stern accurately referred to the IAU vote as “an embarrassment to astronomy.” The way the media has covered the planet debate issue, specifically regarding Pluto, can be described just as equally as an embarrassment to journalism.

Most of the mainstream media has, whether deliberately or inadvertently, deceived the public into believing the IAU decree is fact; the solar system has changed, and we now have only eight planets. With a few notable exceptions, they have completely failed to do the central work of journalism—convey both sides of a controversy and act as watchdogs over any institutions that claim to be an “authority.”

This is why we see articles, columns, book reviews, etc., referring to Pluto as a “former planet” and our solar system has having only eight planets instead of seeing what should be told—that the subject of what defines a planet remains a matter of debate with two legitimate sides, resulting in the planet count of our solar system remaining uncertain.

The fact that most of the media has blindly accepted and reported only one side of this ongoing debate as fact is the reason so many people remain confused about this entire topic.

Here is a review a few of the most common confusions:

The first is that “the experts” met and decided, and they are the ones who know best. This is false for several reasons. I often note that only 424 out of 10,000 IAU members took part in the 2006 vote. An overwhelming majority of those 424 did approve Resolution 5A, which established three classes of solar system objects: planets, dwarf planets, and small solar system bodies.

However, this resolution never claimed dwarf planets are not planets at all. That conclusion was put forward in Resolution 5B, which would have established two classes of planets—classical planets, referring to Mercury through Neptune, and dwarf planets, referring at that time to Ceres, Pluto, and Eris with more to come.

Significantly, that resolution was approved by 333 IAU members and rejected by 91. Resolution 6A, which determined “Pluto is a ‘dwarf planet’…and is recognized as the prototype of a new category of trans-Neptunian objects” was approved by 237 members and opposed by 157, with 17 abstaining.

This means that the so-called “new rules” defining what a planet is and the demotion of Pluto from planethood was done by an underwhelming number of somewhere between 237 and 333 astronomers—in a decision the IAU has since attempted to impose on a world of 6.8 billion people.

So few IAU members took part in the vote because it was held on the last day of a two-week conference when most participants had already left. More importantly, those who had left had been deceived. Why? Because the General Assembly violated the IAU’s own bylaws by rejecting the resolution of its own Planet Definition Committee, which was put together over many months, and at the last minute, threw together an alternate resolution without first following the proper procedure of vetting it by the appropriate committee.

In retrospect, several who left early have actually stated that had they known the vote would be on a different resolution, they would have held off on making their airline reservations to go home so they could take part. In many cases, reservations made cannot be changed due to other flights being fully booked.

No electronic or absentee voting is allowed at IAU General Assemblies. Many attendees have to pay their own way for the conference and cannot afford the expenses of the trip. That is how 96 percent of the group’s membership ended up not being allowed to vote on this important decision.

Even more importantly, there are thousands of professional astronomers who are not IAU members at all, for many reasons. Should their input not count?

Conclusion: Some experts met; a small number decided; a huge number did not.

Another confusion: Pluto is now an asteroid. This is not even true according to the IAU definition, which very specifically distinguishes dwarf planets, an intermediate category, from small solar system bodies, a term that refers to rocky and icy bodies not large enough to be rounded by their own gravity (asteroids, comets, and centaurs).

A third area of confusion: Opposition to Pluto’s demotion is based only or largely on sentiment rather than science, and only a few “fringe” astronomers continue to reject the IAU decision. Or, the corollary: it is only Americans, both astronomers and lay people, who oppose the demotion.

Again, not true. Stern’s petition of professional astronomers rejecting the IAU decision garnered 300 signatures in just a few days. Those who signed this petition, viewable here include representatives of the following institutions:

Subaru Telescope
National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
University of Southern Queensland, Australia
University of Oslo
Tel Aviv Uni.
University of Hong Kong
IASF INAF Roma Italy
Freie Universitaet Berlin, Germany
National Taiwan Normal University
Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute
FU Berlin
INAF-Istituto di Fisica dello Spazio Interplanetario
Ho Koon Astronomical Center Hong Kong
Max-Planck-Institute fuer Sonnensystemforschung
FU Berlin (again)
Universidad de Chile, Astronomy Department

Fourth misconception: The IAU had to make a decision because of the discovery of Eris. The only decision the IAU had to make was which of its committees would get to name Eris—that dealing with major planets or that dealing with minor planets. Why not just adopt the easiest solution and have both committees address it together while allowing sufficient time to sort out the nature of the new discovery?

Fifth misconception: we can’t have too many planets in the solar system; we have to keep the number small or else the term “planet” will lose its value. Also, there is no way kids can memorize the names of hundreds of planets.

In this case, the argument has no scientific merit whatsoever. The solar system has whatever number of planets it has, whether or not that is convenient to us. We don’t restrict the number of rivers or mountains on Earth so kids can memorize them. Memorization was done when little was known about these worlds other than their names. Today, we know them firsthand from robotic missions, and there is so much more and so many more fascinating things to teach about these worlds that memorization is all but useless. More important is that kids understand the nature of different types of planets, such as the characteristics of gas giants, terrestrials, dwarf planets, etc.

The “losing value” argument is even sillier. Do terms like star or galaxy lose their value because there are billions of each one? If anything, the argument that planet is a term of value only if the number is small is based on sentiment—the exact accusation made by supporters of the demotion against those who oppose it.

As for argument based on sentiment, again, some of the worst have been made by supporters of demotion. Try this one by French astronomer Dr. Alain Maury: In reality, most of the astronomers do not consider planetology as a science, and don't want to hear about it. Have you every seen a planetologist receiving a nobel prize, so, you see... It is not real science. That's the main reason for which the debate is closed. Nobody in the community of astronomers, not only cares, but don't want to hear about it.

Well, if most astronomers do not consider planetology a science, why do they bother voting on it? Why not leave the planetology decisions to those who actually study and value the field?

Note: I do not believe Maury’s view is typical of even the majority who support the IAU decision.

The bottom line is, one doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist or a professional astronomer to understand that the 2006 IAU definition is flawed, problematic, and certainly not the last word on the matter. Or that an issue like this doesn’t have to have a right answer and a wrong one; instead, there can be multiple answers depending on the viewpoint from which one looks at the issue.

And that is the reason why books and articles continue to be published on the subject; conferences continue to be held on it, and lively discussion continues.

The latest book on the subject is Pluto: Sentinel of the Outer Solar System by Dr. Barrie Jones, a British astronomer who has stated he prefers that “dwarf planets” be considered a subclass of planets. And I am personally working on a book of my own, The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto’s Story. Updates on its progress will be discussed here:

Even Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson has come around to recognizing that the debate is not over, and has placed a plaque in the Hayden Planetarium noting this. He has also said that he never publicly stated that our solar system has only eight planets.

When an issue is really settled, the only discussion left is its history. Early in the 20th century, there was a famous debate as to whether the entire universe has one galaxy, the Milky Way, or many galaxies. Once observation definitively proved the existence of many galaxies, the debate was over. No one continued to argue that the entire universe is contained within the Milky Way.

And this is where we are with Pluto. Among professional astronomers, amateur astronomers, and members of the public, support for the planet status of Pluto and all dwarf planets is gaining momentum.

That sure doesn’t look anything like “dead” to me.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Book Review: Percival's Planet, by Michael Byers

Writers of historical fiction face the challenge of capturing the essence, in both feeling and facts, of the times in which they set their stories. That challenge becomes even more difficult when the stories’ main characters are based on actual people, some of whom are either still living or were known well by people alive today. In Percival’s Planet, a fictional account of the search for Pluto, Michael Byers rises to this challenge with a stirring tale that envelops readers in the intricacies of the waning days of the “Roaring ‘20s” and their collapse into the Great Depression.

The novel is especially timely, coming as it does at the 80th anniversary of Pluto’s discovery in February 1930.

Byers spent five years researching his novel, and it shows. His writing is filled with detailed descriptions of subjects ranging from the hardships of farm life in the 1920s to the vapid lives of old money scions of Boston wealth. Byers knows his subjects and knows them well, whether he is discussing the specifications of telescopes, social issues of the time, principles of astronomy, dinosaur digs, or the culture of 1920s academia.

His depictions of the state of early 20th century astronomy illustrate at least one of the roots of the Pluto controversy. Alan Barber, a fictional character studying astronomy at Harvard, at one point complains about the bias against planetary science in the highest echelons of the field, noting that astronomy professors do not even want to hear mention of planets, instead preferring to study more abstract areas of the field such as galaxies, nebulae and cosmology.

This looking down on planetary science as some sort of second class area of astronomy is unfortunately still held by some today, in spite of the enormous amount we have learned about solar system bodies in 50 plus years of planetary exploration. Ironically, while reading the novel, I received email correspondence from an astronomer with the following statement: “In reality, most of the astronomers do not consider planetology as a science…That's the main reason for which the debate is closed. Nobody in the community of astronomers, not only cares, but don't want to hear about it.”

To be clear, I do not believe this view in any way reflects that of the majority of professional or amateur astronomers today. However, it is significant that anyone in the field today professes this at all.

Having my own interest in all things Pluto, I found myself, throughout the novel, constantly comparing what I know about the real Clyde Tombaugh and the actual events leading up to the discovery of Pluto with their portrayals in the novel. At times, it was difficult to realize that the fictional Clyde and the fictional events do not have to be identical to the real ones. This is a novel, not a biography.

Percival’s Planet, at least to this reader, is a tale shrouded with a prevailing sentiment of sadness. The term “X” refers to the unknown, and in this novel, Planet X, the term used to describe the as yet unknown ninth planet, represents more than just the object now known as Pluto. “Planet X” is but one representation of the never-ending chase or search for something undefined, unknown even to those who chase it, reflected in the sentiment of a skeptical Professor Harlow Shapley, that Lowell Observatory’s planet search amounted to “chasing ghosts.”

The novel encompasses a wide range of characters whose stories begin separately, yet whom the reader knows will somehow end up converging in Flagstaff, Arizona, the epicenter of the planet search. With so many characters in play, Planet X and Clyde Tombaugh are less the center than the strings that tie everyone and everything together.

And that is where the sense of sadness, even of despair, enters. Every one of these characters is searching for something, some clear about their quests but others far more murky. A wealthy heir with no interest in his father’s factories desperately looks for meaning, for a time pursuing spirituality, until he finally settles on digging up dinosaur remains. The boat carrying his supplies is lost along the way and never found. A retired boxer looks for love, his quest leading him to the trail of his ex-girlfriend Mary’s missing brother, another who is lost and never found. Mary, suffering from mental illness, fights unsuccessfully for her sanity and cannot quite let go of the search for her brother.

The Tombaugh in the novel comes off as somewhat angry, with a sense of being undeserving. His father is a defeated man who has come to accept that he will never leave his bleak farm life. In contrast, the real Tombaugh, as described in David Levy’s biography Clyde Tombaugh: Discoverer of the Planet Pluto and by people who knew him, seems to have been more upbeat, more hopeful, less confrontational. His father and entire family, according to Levy, strongly valued education, and this background helped fuel Tombaugh’s passion for astronomy and provided a moral support not present in the novel.

Similarly, whereas the Tombaugh of the novel reacts to the finding of Pluto with a combination of guilt for having possibly tricked the world into believing the object he discovered is Planet X, and frustration over being burdened for life by being in the position of its discoverer, the real Tombaugh, in spite of recognizing what he found was not the expected gas giant, was genuinely ecstatic over his discovery. Levy describes Tombaugh’s spending the evening of February 18, 1930 at the movies doing his best to hide his elation and keep the discovery a secret as Lowell Observatory Director Vesto Slipher required. Tombaugh’s subsequent reunion with his family and community were far more upbeat than they are in the novel.

The object discovered at Lowell Observatory was a question mark in real life as well, with its planet status questioned as early as 1931. It certainly was not the gas giant Percival Lowell had sought. However, Tombaugh was convinced it was a planet and maintained that belief to the day he died, unlike his fictional counterpart, who doubts the status of his find from the beginning and feels he was used to pull one over on the public.

And the residuals, or anomalies in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, which fictional character Alan Barber uses in a mathematical attempt to find the planet, ended up never existing either in fiction or fact. They didn’t exist because astronomers’ calculations of these planets’ orbits were faulty, but this was not realized until 1986 and 1989, when Voyager II flew by Uranus and Neptune respectively. By 1990, the point at which the novel starts and ends, this was known, and Byers’ would have done well to have the older Tombaugh note this in the story.

But doing so would have meant a definitive answer, and these are virtually non-existent in the world of Percival’s Planet. Whether the thing sought for is found is always ambiguous. For several characters, it is also tragic. Their plight mirrors the descent of the nation from the excesses of the 1920s into the prolonged, seemingly endless suffering and despair of the Great Depression.

With his eye for detail and interest in both historical fiction and astronomy, Byers might want to consider as his next subject the fascinating and convoluted drama surrounding the discovery of Neptune in 1846. In that story, there is a potential novel equally riveting just waiting to be written.

For those interested in Tombaugh’s own account of his discovery, there is his book Out of the Darkness: The Planet Pluto, published in 1980.

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Caltech Astronomer Finds Planets in Unusually Intimate Dance around Dying Star - Caltech Media Relations

Once again, an exoplanet discovery illustrates a far greater variety of planets and planetary configurations than the IAU can imagine. These two giants are in a resonant orbit just like Neptune and Pluto. By definition, that means neither "clears its orbit" so neither would be considered a planet according to the IAU definition.

This is just more evidence that we need a broader rather than a narrower definition of the term planet.

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Five More Years

Five years from today, New Horizons will be rendezvousing with Pluto, and stunning the world by revealing the first close-ups of the scorned planet, images and data certain to transform our very understanding of this little world at the edge of the solar system.

The data we receive on July 14, 2015 will not be the first the little spacecraft sends from Pluto. Six months earlier, in January 2015, New Horizons will begin taking and sending home its first close-up images of Pluto. And data will continue coming in after the July 14 approach.

The progress of New Horizons can be followed at

The last few months have been quite active on the Pluto front. A video here, , in spite of its mention of the 2006 demotion as fact rather than as one interpretation, provides much useful information about Pluto and ends with announcement of the New Horizons flyby. David J. Eicher of Astronomy magazine provides a video tour of “How We’ll Explore Pluto” here to accompany the magazine’s July 2010 article with the same title.

The “Naming X” contest to name an asteroid, which took place from April 30-May 30, recently announced its winners and runners up, here

According to the “Naming X” press release, “After hundreds of submissions from 34 countries during the course of a month, Naming X, a global online competition launched in honour and memory of Venetia Burney Phair, who named Pluto in 1930, aged 11, reveals its winners and runners up!

In April 2010, Naming X asked people around the globe to suggest a suitable name for a minor planet and a reason why. Applicants were required to adhere to competition guidelines and suggestions were accepted in three categories, under 11 years, +12 years, and schools & groups. The +12 group was open to all ages.

Competition organizers Thilina Heenatigala of Space Renaissance Education Chapter and Ginita Jimenez of Father Films commented, ‘This educational initiative was very successful and got learners thinking creatively; some educators preceded the competition with an activity explaining the definition of a minor planet, facts on characteristics, discovery and naming protocol. Other teachers asked students to imagine a minor planet, then draw and name it. An entire class kindly sent its drawings in to us!’ They add, ‘It has been an honour to have a world class team onboard as advisors, expert panelists and supporters and their endorsement and enthusiasm has been central to the initiative's success. The International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Committee for Small Body Nomenclature’s (CSBN) endorsement gave Naming X a fundamental purpose.’ Winning names are Glissade, suggested by 10-year-old Erica Reed; Erytheia, suggested by 15-year-old Nathan Phillips and Virgil, offered by McKinney High School, USA.

Winners will receive a signed certificate, telescope time care of Bellatrix Observatory, Italy and a copy of the award-winning documentary of Venetia’s story, Naming Pluto and film poster, care of Father Films. Winners’ suggested names will be included in a formal paper to the International Astronomical Union’s (IAU) Committee for Small Body Nomenclature (CSBN). Special mentions in the form of runners up in each category originated from Belgium, Ghana, India, Sri Lanka, United Kingdom and USA.

The Naming X team is delighted with the international response and may even consider opening its doors for a longer period in 2011 to encourage as many creative scientific thinkers as possible, so watch this space!!" (link mentioned above).
It is my sincerest hope that the teachers who conducted activities on minor planets, their characteristics, discovery and naming protocol conveyed accurately that there is an ongoing debate about the planetary status of dwarf planets and specifically distinguished between “minor planets,” a term used to describe asteroids, and dwarf planets. The latter are small and shaped by chemical bonds while the former are small planets rounded by their own gravity. This is an important distinction children and adults deserve to know.

The reality is that there are hundreds of unnamed asteroids in the belt between Mars and Jupiter as well as centaurs, objects that are half comet/half asteroid in the outer solar system, and Kuiper Belt Objects, both those that qualify as small planets and those that are essentially asteroids. The IAU Committee for Small Body Nomenclature should consider the many other entries, some of which were submitted in memory of entrants’ departed loved ones, for these bodies.

Now that the competition is over, I can proudly report that my suggestion was MadeleineL’Engle, a one-word version of Madeleine L’Engle, a prolific writer who often incorporated astronomy into her novels, many of which convey a message of universal love and peace. She is one of very few writers who could weave both science and spirituality into tales that are fantasy on the surface, but at the same time contain universal truths about the human condition. My favorite writer, she died at age 88 in 2007, and I sincerely hope her name is considered, as she deserves a celestial body named in her honor.

Actually, my initial choice was John Goodricke, the name of a deaf-mute 19th-century amateur astronomer who first discovered Cepheid variable stars at age 19 and unfortunately, died of pneumonia, which he likely caught as a result of his nightly astronomical observations, at age 21. It’s a good thing I checked the database of asteroid names first, as I discovered Goodricke already has an asteroid named for him.

And yes, I still owe readers a review of “Naming Pluto,” the DVD about Venetia Burney that was one of the prizes given to the winners, and of Percival’s Planet, a work of historical fiction by Michael Byers on the race to discover Pluto. Both are upcoming.

New York City’s Inwood Astronomy Project hosted a wonderful discussion on “The Problem with Pluto” on June 5. Speaker Jason Kendall, the Inwood Astronomy club president, pointed out that the only “problem” with Pluto is us, specifically human beings and our need to categorize things. Pluto itself is not experiencing any problems. Our very human problem is trying to fit it into the scheme of what we know, which is only a problem when one assumes there are only two classes of planets, terrestrials and jovians.

While the program was a presentation by Kendall, it morphed into a discussion, something for which I personally bear much responsibility (in other words, I wouldn’t shut up). However, it was a fun, friendly, and lively discussion, not a heated or angry one. Kendall, who is a NASA Solar System Ambassador, provided handouts on the New Horizons mission.

An interesting point was raised during this talk, one that goes back to the question of who decides what definition is used. Kendall discussed past discoveries, emphasizing there was no lack of controversy over many of those going back to Galileo finding the four biggest moons of Jupiter. The discovery of Neptune was so disputed that even today, four astronomers are credited with the accomplishment. Much of this is the same history presented by Dr. David Weintraub in Is Pluto A Planet? and by Alan Boyle in The Case for Pluto.

This history is crucial to understanding the present day debate. Yet today, there is one important additional factor, which is that knowledge previously held sacrosanct by a small academic elite is now available to all at the click of a mouse. This may very well answer the question as to why there was no known outcry over the 19th-century demotion of Ceres. How many people then even knew that Ceres had been discovered? How long did it take for knowledge of its demotion to reach the public? How much of the reasoning behind that demotion (which turned out to be in error, as Ceres is in hydrostatic equilibrium) was available for anyone seeking to understand the decision?

For most of history, detailed astronomical knowledge was reserved to a small, “ivory tower” elite of scholars, who guarded it carefully. The average person simply didn’t have the data to argue with the PhDs. Today, that is no longer the case, and this may explain some of the resentment by supporters of demotion at the public outcry that ensued after the 2006 IAU vote.

Through books and the Internet, the same astronomical data accessible to academics is accessible to all. Even professional journals are online for the public to read, either for a fee or through connection with a university database—or even via an interested friend. This means anyone with an interest in debates such the one on Pluto’s status can now enter these debates armed with the same facts, theories, and detailed explanations as the so-called “experts.”

And more than a few of these “experts” are less than happy with this development. This is reflected in online comments where even people who present strong scientific arguments are told to leave decisions like this to the “experts.” But democratization of science and of scientific debates is here to stay, and it should not be viewed as a bad thing. The goal is to for everyone to become well-informed, and people who are well-informed will not just sit back and allow a small group who invoke “authority” to make decisions if those decisions make little sense and are of questionable utility.

The Inwood Astronomy Project is hosting the Pluto discussion again on Saturday, July 24 at 10 AM at New York City Parks’ Inwood Nature Center. While the focus will be on educating children, all are welcome to attend and participate. More information can be found here:

If you actually want to observe Pluto for yourself, this month is one of the best times to do so, as Pluto is currently transiting Barnard 92, a dark nebula in the constellation Sagittarius. Charts and advice for observing Pluto can be found here: and here: .

In that vein, I want to publicly thank my friends from Amateur Astronomers, Inc. (AAI) and the United Astronomy Clubs of New Jersey (UACNJ), who made a special effort to find Pluto as an early birthday present for me using AAI’s 14-inch telescope at UACNJ’s observatory at Jenny Jump State Park, NJ, on the night of July 3. It was a beautiful night, with the best possible observing conditions, and the night sky gave us all many treats, including, for me, my first ever personal view of the Milky Way. Unfortunately, we were not able to match the view showed by the computer software with the star field in the telescope, meaning we saw a field of stars, one of which was not a star at all, but Pluto itself. It was a magical night, but I still want to see my favorite planet and know which object in the eyepiece it is. We’ll just have to try again, hopefully sooner rather than later.

One of the latest developments in the planet definition debate is a request by Australian astronomers Charles Lineweaver and Marc Norman to expand the roster of dwarf planets to include up to 50 additional objects by reducing the minimum radius required for objects to be considered dwarf planets. Lineweaver and Norman do not address the issue of whether dwarf planets should be considered a subclass of planets.

Yet, in a bizarre and biased interpretation of this request, the media has repeatedly described this possible change as “an additional demotion for Pluto.” Those who understand Dr. Alan Stern’s initial intent in coining the term “dwarf planet”—specifically, to create a term referring to objects large enough to be rounded by their own gravity but not large enough to gravitationally dominate their orbits—know this interpretation is outrageous. The dwarf planet category was created with the assumption that it would encompass a large number of objects. Just as dwarf galaxies are the most common types of galaxies, and dwarf stars are the most common types of stars, dwarf planets are very likely the most common types of planets. Adding large numbers to the category does not amount to any type of demotion for Pluto—unless one goes back to the original, unscientific reason for demoting Pluto, specifically, objection to the solar system having “too many planets.”

Those who reject this notion have no reason to interpret additional dwarf planets as somehow equating to any sort of demotion for Pluto or any of the others. Anyone interested can read more about the proposal by Lineweaver and Norman at and
Finally, I have always encouraged supporters of Pluto’s planet status to vote with our dollars. Here are links to the latest pro-Pluto products:

Solar System Jewelry by Laura Cesari accurately depicting distances between planets (some pieces include not just Pluto but asteroids as well!):

Michael Byers’ book Percival’s Planet:

Celestron Pluto Image (by company that makes telescopes and other astronomical equipment):

Other interesting links:

Gene Evans’ New Horizons article in Muscatine Journal:

“Pluto Is A Planet” Chords by Mr. Seley:

“Pluto, Pluto, Pluto: A Sample Travel Commercial for a Grade 6 Unit on Space”:

“New Pluto Pictures Unveiled; Hubble's Sharpest Yet”:

“Pluto: Never Forget” Song and Music Video:

And finally, an article describing discovery of an exoplanet that challenges our understanding and definition of the term “planet”: Interestingly, a planet formed orbiting a brown dwarf is suspected to have formed not the way we know planets to form, but the way stars do—directly from a circumstellar disk.

I am also especially excited to announce that I am working on my book about Pluto, tentatively titled The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto's Story, with the goal of completing it by the end of this year. Anyone on Facebook can find its page at!/pages/The-Little-Planet-that-Would-Not-Die-Plutos-Story/130622596958309?v=wall&ref=ts

Stay tuned…

Thursday, May 27, 2010

"Naming X": Contest to Name an Asteroid

Can you come up with a name for an asteroid, aka minor planet, by May 30? Yes, I know it's short notice, and I apologize for not posting this earlier. Blame it on the heavy workload of my Swinburne class on galaxies, including a 10-12 page single-spaced paper due on June 5.

As a tribute to the late Venetia Burney Phair, and the late Clyde Tombaugh, the Space Renaissance Education Chapter and Father Films (the creator of the film "Naming Pluto," still due for a review on this blog), with the support of the Committee for Small Body Nomenclature of the IAU, is holding this contest to find a name for one of our solar system's many unnamed asteroids.

More information can be found here:

Here is some information from the web site:

"Winning names will pass through the same judging process as any other minor planet name proposals from discoverers or orbit computers.
The process is detailed and can take from 4 to 6months for a decision to be made, so there is no guarantee that Naming X’s winning names will be accepted, applied or used. 

However, the important fact to remember is that there are minor planets out there in space waiting to be named. And you could name one of them.

Naming X is giving you a unique platform in which to think creatively, use your imagination and make a historical contribution to astronomy, like Venetia did. Reach for the stars!

Competition Rules   
  • Entrants must choose one name per entry and their reasoning for their choice of name is to be no longer than 25 words
  • Please enter your name, year, age and school’s name, City and Country and email address.
  • In the subject box write the Category you are entering and your chosen name only, ie: Category 1 - Pluto. Please abide to this format or your name will not be considered.  
  • Should the same name be submitted by different applicants, the first to be submitted will be selected, so hurry!
  • Winning entries are at the sole discretion of the judges and their decisions are final. Submissions after the deadline will not be accepted. 
To adhere to the CSBN’s naming of minor planet protocol suggested names must be: 
  • 16 characters or less in length preferably one word
  • pronounceable (in some language)
  • non-offensive
  • not too similar to an existing name of a Minor Planet or natural Planetary satellite.
 The names of individuals or events principally known for political or military activities are unsuitable until 100 years after the death of the individual or the occurrence of the event.
In addition
  • names of pet animals are discouraged
  • names of a purely or principally commercial nature are not allowed.
  • Be as creative as you can. Think within the guidelines and outside the box. Remember we live in a different world and have made vast scientific advances since 1930.  
This could be your opportunity to make a contribution to astronomical history. Good luck!

Category 1 – for 1 – 11years 
Category 2 – 12+ 
Category 3 – School groups  

-Category 1 resist help from your tutors or parents.
-Category 3 means that a classroom, a school or an after school group can enter as a team. 


Submissions to Naming X closes on 30th May 2010 and winning names will be announced around June 14th 2010.
Winning names will receive the following:

  • A signed certificate from our judging panel
  • Your name will be included in a working paper and presented formally to the CSBN of the IAU
  • Telescope time from Bellatrix Observatory, Italy with guidance of a professional astronomer. All you will need is Internet connectivity.
  • A copy of the award winning short film of Venetia’s story, Naming Pluto and an A3 film poster, both care of Father Films
Judging Panel 
We have the A-team of judging panels. We are very lucky to have them support Naming X. You can see their biographies and impressive portfolio of astronomical achievements

David Levy
Professor Ian Morison
Dr. Marc Buie

Educators, Carolina Odman, Julia Elizabeth Taylor, Janet Ivey-Duensing and Joan Chamberlin will also assist. The competition is coordinated by Thilina Heenatigala (Space Renaissance Education Chapter) and Ginita Jimenez (Father Films).
IMPORTANT: In the subject line of email, please include the Category and Name you are proposing.
e.g: Category 1 - Pluto

 Send your submission to before 30th May 2010"
Here are a few important notes to consider:

This contest is open to all ages, children and adults. Adults entering should list themselves under Category 2, which has no upper limit, giving their ages as 18+

Before submitting a name, please check the above link of existing names of minor planets, so you don't inadvertently submit a name already in use.

This contest is to name one minor planet and also to promote astronomy education and outreach. There are actually hundreds of minor planets that remain unnamed. So if you don't win, hold on to the name you chose--it still might end up being used.

Ceres, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris are not minor planets. However, these names are considered to be in use and should not be submitted.

Again, I apologize for the late notice of this opportunity. Hopefully, most people will find it easier to come up with a minor planet name by May 30 than to write a 10-12 page paper on the Milky Way by June 5--though getting hooked on astronomy may result in you winding up in the latter situation sooner rather than later. :)

Monday, May 17, 2010

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Mysterious Pluto

Mysterious Pluto

This short video discusses Pluto as a dynamic world, a planet and not simply an "iceball."

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Be Kind to Your Small Planet Friends

Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto on February 18, 1930, but the discovery was announced by the Lowell Observatory nearly one month later, on March 13, 1930, to coincide with the date on which William Herschel had discovered Uranus in 1781. That makes today the 80th anniversary of the announcement, a day declared Pluto Planet Day, and the date of the third annual Pluto Is A Planet Protest in Seattle, Washington.

To their credit, several dozen people of all ages from children through seniors took part in the rally, which ended with a chance for children to read essays they had written both for and against Pluto's planet status. The Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company, which sponsors the event, is a non-profit writing center that helps kids ages 6-18 improve their creative and expository writing skills, so the focus on essays definitely made sense.

My immediate thought is, wow, a writing center that holds an annual Pluto protest? That's my kind of place! Unfortunately, it is also on the other side of the country, and less-than-wealthy writers who spend their time promoting Pluto's planet status tend  to be short on the money needed for such a trip. I would love to have been there, and I will order the new Pluto T-shirt the company is selling to add to my collection.

What I find troubling are some of the comments posted in response to articles depicting the protest, many of which border on "trolling." Commenters cynically state people should "get over it" regarding the IAU decision, that anyone who cares this much about Pluto is a "loser" and needs to "get a life," that the issue has no bearing on anyone's life, and various other insults. One commenter even claimed, falsely, that Pluto is not spherical! He took the time to comment on a web site about Pluto but never bothered to visit one of the many sites with real, Hubble images that would instantly have clarified his misconception.

Another commenter states that Pluto is just another bit of rock in the Kuiper Belt like all the others, completely ignoring the issue of hydrostatic equilibrium. Most other Kuiper Belt Objects are not large enough to be rounded by their own gravity; Pluto is. So are Haumea, Makemake, and Eris, as well as Ceres in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Most troubling is an underlying authoritarianism that characterizes many posts, a sense that the "experts" have spoken, and no one else, especially lay people, have the right to a say in the matter. "Science" they claim, has declared Pluto is not a planet.

It is disconcerting that so many people cannot distinguish "science" from 424 members of the IAU. At the root of the problem is a seeming unwillingness or inability to question. Questioning is at the heart of critical thinking. As soon as one reads "science says," questions such as "who speaks for science?" "who appointed these people as science's spokespeople?" "how did they arrive at this conclusion?" and "does their argument make sense?" should come to mind. The subject at hand matters far less than does the willingness by too many people to just accept any statement they are told has been decreed by an expert. This is not a good reflection of our educational system, to say the least.

About the claim that Pluto protestors have "no life"--the first question is, why does an interest, even a fascination with Pluto, constitute "not having a life?" Do we hear people make that claim about football fans or NASCAR fans, or followers of any sport who pay big bucks to attend games where chances are they will never meet their athlete heroes? There is absolutely nothing wrong with someone having an intense interest in sports. The question is, why is that interest viewed as "normal" and an interest in something that happens to be a more academic subject viewed as "strange?"

And going one step beyond hobbies, what about fans of so-called "celebrity gossip" who hang on to every word about and picture of their favorite actor or actress? I once knew someone whose entire life centered on Michael Crawford, to the point that she spent all her money going to conventions and performances of his, some of them overseas. How is latching on to a so-called celebrity so desirable? It is a life lived completely vicariously, entirely through another person. It is a passive life and to some extent, a sad one.  Why not do the exciting things yourself instead of just watching others do them?

In contrast, an interest like astronomy promotes an active rather than a passive life. Amateur astronomers and astronomy fans attend astronomy club meetings and lectures, where they socialize and meet friends. They have first-hand experiences of looking through telescopes and viewing celestial objects directly rather than through a photo. They engage with ideas, and even though many of those ideas are esoteric and may not directly affect their daily lives, the acts of thinking and debating are the equivalent of exercise for the brain. As with any muscle, the more people use their brains, the better they become at using them.

So to those who say, what does Pluto have to do with paying your bills, or getting a job, or your everyday life, one could similarly ask, what does Paris Hilton have to do with any of these things? What do pro sports have to do with any of these things? Does a hobby or subject even have to relate to paying bills or jobs or every day life to be meaningful? Young Clyde Tombaugh was a farmboy who taught himself astronomy, telescope building, and trigonometry for the love of these subjects. When the time was right, they became useful to him by helping him get a job during the Great Depression, but that never changed the fact that his true motivation was love for all these activities. That's how he ended up with all those unusual telescopes made from parts of old Buicks and lawn mowers.

Those of us who believe the IAU decision was wrong are motivated by a desire to obtain a better definition that reflects the amazing diversity of planets out there, who don't want to settle for a political decision masquerading as science, especially when that decision is imposed on children. We are people who ask questions, think, read, consider new ideas--the exact opposite of being "resistant to change"  or just like those who rejected the idea of a Sun-centered solar system. Whether lay people, amateur astronomers, or professional astronomers, we find it natural to question, especially when told something that just does not sound right. We want to be part of the discussion on planet definition and rightfully believe that any person who takes the time to learn about the subject has the right to contribute to the debate.

Not only do I find Pluto more interesting than any Hollywood actor (they're just human beings, and I also act, so what is the difference?); I also find that staying up to date on the latest about Pluto and researching Pluto are active pursuits that are personally rewarding and have had the side benefit of introducing me to many fascinating people. I have a life, and while Pluto is far from the only thing in it, it currently has star billing, and to me, that is a good thing.

In solidarity with the protestors, I'm wearing one of my many Pluto shirts today. This one reads, "A planet is a planet, no matter how small," with the word "Pluto" in the center. The statement is a reference to the central theme of a children's book by Dr. Seuss called Horton Hears A Who. In that book, Horton the elephant makes a shocking discovery of an entire world existing on a dust speck. Of course, no one believes him, and the various animals in his community go from mocking him to blatant paranoia accusing poor Horton of every conspiracy under the sun.

To save themselves from their world being boiled in oil, the inhabitants of this tiny world must make themselves heard to the "big people" or rather, big animals ready to throw Horton's dust speck into the fire.  They go on a noise frenzy, banging on drums, blowing horns, shouting and screaming, but their tiny voices just aren't loud enough--until Dr. Whovey, the scientist leading them, finds one baby who isn't making any noise at all. "This is your town's darkest hour," he admonishes the child, who hesistantly says he doesn't know if he even can make noise. But at Dr. Whovey's insistence, he tries. And of course, his one little voice puts the sounds made by the little world's inhabitants over the threshold, and those who hold their world in their hands finally do hear them. "They are there," the "big ones" say in wonder.

Dr. Seuss concludes the book with a statement designed to make children think. "The people had spoken, no matter how small. And their whole world was saved by the smallest of all." The musical video concludes with Horton paraded around town as a hero and everyone singing, "Be kind to your small personed they float around from one place to another. Remember, no matter how small, that a person is a person after all."

Pluto Planet Day is a celebration of the fact that no one, none of us, is too "small" or insignificant to make a difference. If we believe the demotion of Pluto is wrong, we can enter the debate and make ourselves heard, the same way an obscure farmboy took on the search for a distant planet even though he had no formal training in astronomy, the same way children and adults can come together and rally for our favorite small planet friend.

The message to the world: Be kind to your small planet friends--because the supporters of that small planet are not "giving it up" any time soon.

Seattle protesters chant it: Pluto is a planet! - Seattle astronomy |

Seattle protesters chant it: Pluto is a planet! - Seattle astronomy