Friday, August 24, 2012

We've Kept Planet Pluto Alive

On the website http://www.plutoisaplanet.us/ , the count of Pluto’s time taken away already read six years in the afternoon of what was still August 23 in Eastern Daylight Time. That count has been running continuously since “that day,” August 24 six years ago, when four percent of the IAU rushed through a hastily thrown together planet definition resolution that they expected the rest of the world to blindly follow.

“Eight around the Sun they roll. One we just had to let go. Too small is Pluto,” the band One Ring Zero sang in “International Astronomical Union,” a song recorded within months of that controversial decision.

Six years ago, an astronomer who is not an IAU member, who should be taking pride in having discovered several planets, followed this vote with the premature declaration that “Pluto is dead.” That line has evolved over time into “Pluto is still dead,” but more and more, this particular astronomer seems to be trying to convince himself rather than the rest of the world, of the little planet’s “demise.”

On this sixth anniversary of that “embarrassment to astronomy,” as Dr. Alan Stern accurately described the 2006 vote, Planet Pluto is very much alive, and the debate is very much ongoing.

Planet Pluto is alive because of us—all of us, astronomy enthusiasts, members of the public, amateur astronomers, professional astronomers, geologists, planetary scientists, teachers, writers, even kids—would not let it die, would not accept a bad decision simply because 423 people who claimed to be “authorities” dictated it.

I say 423 rather than 424 because my research into the events of 2006 uncovered at least one person, a scientist who spoke only on condition of anonymity, but at the same time a very credible source, who admitted they were bullied into going to Prague just to vote against Pluto, threatened with serious career “consequences” if they did not comply. This is the sort of thing one would expect in the most corrupt circles of the political world, but certainly not in science.

Supporters of the IAU decision decried public opposition to it as based on emotion and sentiment, often contrasting the demoting of Pluto with the demoting of Ceres in the 19th century. Why did no one at that time mount a campaign to save Ceres, they asked. Why are all those “Save Pluto” advocates not also advocating planethood for Ceres?

I believe the answer is the Internet. In the 19th century, chances are many lay people didn’t even know about the existence of Ceres when it was demoted. No one knew what Ceres looked like other than a point of light in the sky, one of many between Mars and Jupiter, none of which could be resolved into disks. And even those who did know Ceres was demoted and might have objected to the decision did not have a way to organize, come together, share information, and influence what was largely a closed, elitist academic world.

Today, academic elitism is a thing of the past. Astronomy is not specialized, privileged knowledge reserved only for a small, exclusive club. The resources to learn the subject, discuss it with others who share an interest, even to pursue formal education online, bring once coveted exclusive knowledge into every living room. People who share not just interests, but particular viewpoints on the subjects of their interest, can organize and create hubs online through which they can quickly disseminate those viewpoints.

When news first came of the IAU decision, many people reacted negatively, refusing to accept what they inherently understood as making little sense. In another time, such people may not have had much power to do anything other than complain about the decision. Today, things are very different. Today, one man or 423 can claim “Pluto is dead,” and an equal or larger number of people can read or hear the transcripts of the debate where the decision was made, research the arguments used, tear those arguments apart in a venue accessible to huge numbers of people, and literally keep the debate—and the little planet—alive.

Because we are asking for it, manufacturers of solar system models, curators of museums and planetariums, programmers designing online solar system simulations, book publishers, teachers, etc. are keeping Pluto in these solar system models or adding it back in after having previously removed it. Some are adding the other dwarf planets as well. Astronomers who write books, articles and blog posts or who embark on lecture tours with the message that “Pluto is dead” can be confronted and have their arguments refuted by anyone who has sufficiently researched the issue and understands the weakness of those arguments.

And when people who are not professional astronomers need help understanding a particular idea or phenomenon, they can turn to almost any expert via email and often gain quick answers to their questions.

Even more significantly, today, amateur astronomers with a computer and Internet connection can take part in actual astronomical research through online programs such as Zooniverse, which can be found here: https://www.zooniverse.org/ . These programs offer opportunities for citizen scientists to take part in a huge range of research activity including classifying galaxies, identifying features on the Moon, finding exoplanets, observing variable stars, and much more.

Today, any of us can search for Kuiper Belt Objects through the Ice Investigators program, the successor to the Ice Hunters program. These searches have been established to assist the New Horizons mission in searching for small nearby KBOs the spacecraft can study after the Pluto flyby. Anyone interested in KBO hunting can get started here: http://cosmoquest.org/iceinvestigators/ .

The Lowell Observatory, site of Pluto’s 1930 discovery, has now established the Lowell Amateur Research Initiative, which offers a wide range of research opportunities for amateur astronomers. More information is available here: http://www.lowell.edu/LARI_welcome.php .

Whether the PhDs like it or not, today, members of the public not only can do astronomical research but can also have a say in matters like planet classification. The attempt to demote Pluto failed at least in part because a huge contingent of the public rejected it, and those of us who did have been able to obtain easy access to the data that supports our position. We have been able to connect with one another online, share information and contacts, post actively in forums, write blogs, give teachers and students resources to support our position, and respond as equals to those in the highest level of professional astronomy.

Of course, if our position were erroneous or untenable, this would not have been possible. It is actually because the IAU definition is so flawed and so weak that we have been so successful in challenging it. But challenge it we did, signaling at least to some the dismaying thought that defining planets is no longer just the province of “experts,” that every interested person has a say in this and other science questions.

“We draw the charts and maps,” IAU members are portrayed as declaring in One Ring Zero’s Pluto song. Maybe once upon a time, that was true. Maybe way back when, “experts” made decisions, and everyone else blindly followed.

But not today, not any more. Planet Pluto lives, and the debate over its status and over planet classification and definition is more alive and active than ever. Six years after what was supposed to be the final word, the end of the debate, the fight for Pluto and for a better planet definition has only just begun.

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