Tuesday, April 5, 2011

See for Yourself: Videos and Transcripts of the 2006 IAU Discussion and Vote

Thanks to Lars Lindbergh Christensen, IAU Press Officer, videos of the 2006 General Assembly, where the controversial planet definition debate and vote took place, are once again available online. They can be watched at the site of the links or downloaded for later viewing. If your computer is slow, you may want to download to avoid the video constantly pausing, which can happen when it is played on the site.

I believe it is important for anyone interested in this issue to know as much as possible about what went on during this General Assembly. Journalists are all about the public right to know since information is power, and with sufficient information, people can judge what happened for themselves instead of having to hear about it secondhand.

As research for my book, I watched all four videos; however, the most important one is Session 2, which took place on August 24, 2006. This is the session where the issue of planet definition was discussed and ultimately voted on.

The videos do not constitute the whole of the conference, as only the General Assembly sessions and not the many individual workshops, were recorded.

Here are the links. Watch and decide for yourself if these proceedings were fair, scientific, and thorough. All emphases in quotes are mine. Editorial comments between quotes are italicized and bolded.

2006 IAU General Assembly Videos

This is the opening ceremony of the 26th IAU General Assembly, which took place on Tuesday, August 15, 2006. Note that in his opening address, then IAU president Ron Ekers made the following comments about the planet definition discussion, which all knew would be a centerpiece of this conference.

Ekers cited “intense public pressure and intense pressure from the press” on the planet debate as a rationale for the IAU taking up the issue.

“We have set up groups of not just astronomers, but historians, people from outreach, science writers and educators to discuss this issue. Tomorrow, in the GA newspaper, you will read about the results of these discussions. Everything has been embargoed until tomorrow. This is certainly not the way the IAU normally works, but I hope you will accept that in this case, with the enormous outside pressure, we felt it was the best course of action.”

“You have to be fully informed because in this next week and a half, you will have an opportunity to debate what’s being proposed, to give your input, to think about it…it is a complex issue. Think carefully.”

“My final comment is, after this 26th General Assembly in Prague, I think it would be wonderful if instead of the Prague Spring, it could be remembered as the Prague Planet Protocol.”

This is Session 1 of the General Assembly, which took place later on Tuesday, August 15, 2006. This session involved mostly votes on procedural matters regarding membership, voting by national vs. individual members, dues structure, etc. A vote was held admitting Thailand, Mongolia, and Lebanon to the IAU.

Two interesting comments are of note from this session.


An unidentified participant stated: It is very important to couple this decision (assigning votes on scientific matters to individual members rather than national members, where each country has only one vote) with electronic voting because that way it will be open to all members.”

Ron Ekers then replied: “The Executive Committee could handle this through the working rules. We’ll take this as a recommendation.”

Significantly, the IAU has still not set up electronic voting. At its 2009 General Assembly, a promise was made to “look into” this matter.

In the vote to change the dues structure, Ekers admitted: It is with great embarrassment that we have to under our statutes and by laws deny votes to poor countries with few members."

This was in response to a complaint by a representative from Uruguay, who said: “Our country was not able to contribute to IAU last few years. It is very expensive to pay fees for countries with only a few members.”

Oddbjørn Engvold, a representative of the Executive Committee, noted the specific reason for the IAU taking up the issue of defining the term “planet.”

Engvold said: "The boundaries between a major planet and a minor planet have never been defined. Pluto at discovery was thought to be larger than the Earth, so there was still not a problem. Even with the current value of the size of Pluto, it would not have been a problem because the gap from Pluto to Ceres is still large. If it were not for the discovery of trans-Neptunian objects, which now at least one is larger than Pluto…this is of great interest and it has consumed a lot of time and work in the executive, which has taken steps which has taken steps with the aim to reach a decision here at this General Assembly."

Note that the “need” to distinguish between major and minor planets is attributed solely to the discovery of a trans-Neptunian body larger than Pluto, the object now known as Eris. Since Eris has since been found to not be larger than Pluto, the essential reason for the vote could be said to be invalidated.

The IAU total membership was announced as Total IAU membership 9785, from 87 countries.


If you watch only one of these four sessions, it should be this one, Session 2, which took place on August 24, 2006. There is significant discussion, and there are many questions; unfortunately, those who commented or asked questions did not state their names, so in many cases, their identities are unclear unless someone recognizes them. The session is presided over by Resolutions Committee member Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell.

At about 28 minutes into the video, the discussion begins. Note that by this last day of the conference, of the 2,500 original attendees, only 424 are left. The many empty seats are clearly noticeable.

I transcribed the entire session; however, since it is long, I will present only a few noteworthy highlights.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell began by stating the following (all emphases are mine):

“I want to start by making sure that we all have the same documents. If you came in by that door (gestures to her left from the stage), and were one of the first people in, you may have been given a white sheet with a resolution in English on it. That white sheet is wrong! (laughter)…It’s a previous version of the resolution. The definitive English resolution is in today’s newspaper on the back page, and we will also have it up on the screen. If you prefer a French version, you should have picked up a white sheet at the door with a French version of the resolution. So I hope now we all have the same text, at least to start with.

I’m very quickly going to ask you to amend your copies, but before I get to that, let me say a little bit more about the processes. If you read your newspaper carefully, you would have seen that during the lunch break, we were available in the IAU stand, in the exhibit area, and several people came to me there with very sensible suggestions. I have cleared these suggestions with the executive officers and would like now to ask you to make some amendments in your newspaper copy. So you will need a pen or a pencil, and we will get them up on the screen in due course…

Resolution 5a, Section 2 starts, “A dwarf planet.” Could you put dwarf planet in inverted commas—put quotation marks around dwarf planet. It is a definition. The same phrase occurs in Footnote 2, and it occurs in Resolution 6a near the beginning of 6a. So in 5a Part 2, 5a footnote 2, and in 6a, please put inverted commas or quotation marks around dwarf planet…

There has been a comment, and I think it is a correct comment, that the order in which we have the resolutions printed is not the order in which some countries would do the business. That is true… We don’t have a lot of choice because the reason for printing this material was so that you’d know how we run the business, and if you are seriously uncomfortable, I’m not sure we can run the business…”

Note the confusion over resolutions, definitions, and procedure. Most participants did not see this resolution until that morning.

I suggest that for the moment, we run with dwarf planet in inverted commas. This would be a recommendation for IAU usage. The rest of the world will…who knows (throws open her arms in a “who knows” gesture). Maybe the rest of the world will evolve a very suitable term. But I think for today’s discussion, we need to stick with the term dwarf planet although I accept all the points you make.”

Note here that Bell Burnell says the decision is for internal IAU usage, with no requirement or expectation that the rest of the world accept it.

Bell Burnell continued: “You will notice that the heading of the resolution is “definition of a planet in the solar system. We originally hoped to be able to define planet more widely, but we found it too difficult to manage appropriate wording on the timescale that we had. So today, we are talking only about objects in the solar system. We do know that there are other planets beyond our solar system. We are just not looking at them today.”

Here, she admits the IAU chose to act hastily, preferring the absurdity of excluding exoplanets altogether, ironically, at a time when exoplanets are being discovered with increasing rapidity. The priority is not on thoroughness or accuracy, but on getting something done quickly.

There was also significant confusion and inconsistency as to whether the footnotes count as part of the resolutions. One participant asked, “Last Friday, you said we are not voting on the footnotes. So according to that gentleman, Neptune is maybe not a planet in your definition, you’re referring to the footnote to say yes. So we either vote on the footnotes or not, but you cannot just decide when it’s in favor of your solution or not.”

Bell Burnell responded, “But I think the gentleman had a different question, and I’m sorry that in my introduction, I forgot to mention this. We were at one point trying to say that the footnotes are not part of the resolution. I think that position is not tenable. It is a stupid position. Therefore, the footnotes are now part of the resolution.  On my apologies for forgetting to say that in the introduction. Please look at the footnotes as well as the main texts. Is that clear now?”

Significant unhappiness with an arbitrary and capricious process was expressed by numerous individuals. Here is one:

“I’m not a planetary scientist, so I’m speaking for a wider group of astronomers here perhaps, many of whom have been fascinated by the debate this week and have learned a lot about the solar system that we never knew before. And like many people I have been very unhappy with the process… it would be disastrous for astronomy if we come away from the General Assembly with nothing. We will be regarded as complete idiots. And even it it’s the executive’s fault if that happens, the rest of us will pay the consequences… we all, whatever the past history of this process, that we may feel resentful about, we have to support this motion, overwhelmingly I think, and then we have to go away and sell it in a very positive way.”

This statement clearly shows greater concern with how the IAU is publicly perceived than with adopting a thorough and scientifically accurate definition.

Also note the confusion during the voting. Counting is done by hand by volunteers, and in several cases, members voting each particular way have to take turns standing up because of confusion about the count.

Resolution 5a, which established the three classes of planets, dwarf planets, and small solar system bodies, passed overwhelmingly. Resolution 5b, which would have avoided the entire mess by including the eight largest “classical” planets and dwarf planets under the planet category, was voted down in a much more divided vote. It was supported by 91 people, meaning of the 424 present, 333 determined that dwarf planets are not planets. That’s 333 who in retrospect are viewed as having spoken for the entire science of astronomy and for all seven billion people in the world.

Subsequently, Resolution 6a, which focused on Pluto, labeling it and all trans-Neptunian dwarf planets as a new special class of solar system bodies, was approved 237-157. Resolution 6b, which proposed to label this new class of objects “plutonian objects,” failed, with 183 voting for and 186 voting against.

Significantly, even after the votes on 5a and 5b, confusion continued to the point that some people clearly did not understand what they had voted on!

According to one member: “I believe that part c of items 1and 2 in the resolution 5a, that was just passed, was intended to draw a distinction between planets and dwarf planets, and clearly, Ceres could be interpreted as a dwarf planet under that language. But in the case of Pluto, I don’t know that it is quite so clear… under your definition, I don’t think it is so clear because I think one can argue that Pluto has cleared the immediate vicinity of its own orbit. And so therefore, I would recommend defeat of this particular resolution 6a, and as this resolution was introduced with the paradigm of maintaining public support and maintaining the tradition of history, I further recommend that footnote 1 of 5a be amended to include Pluto.

To which, Bell Burnell responded: “We cannot at this stage amend 5a at this meeting. We have to run through the program as printed. We are looking at resolution 6a. Do you have a question for clarification?”

Once again, pressure of time trumps process, science, thoroughness, and accuracy.

This is the closing ceremony that took place later on Thursday, August 24, 2006. It consists of a report from the IAU Finance Committee, an official invitation from Brazil to the 2009 General Assembly in Rio de Janeiro, and election of new committees, including a new executive committee and president.

Do these proceedings seem like a good way to do science? You decide.