Friday, August 24, 2012

We've Kept Planet Pluto Alive

On the website , 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: . 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: .

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: .

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.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012

An Open Letter to the 28th IAU General Assembly

August 22, 2012

Dear Dr. Williams, Members of the IAU Executive Committee, Members of the
Secretariat, Members of the Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature, Members of the Working Group on Small Bodies Nomenclature, and Delegates to the 28th IAU General Assembly,

For the second time, I am writing to respectfully request the General Assembly officially reopen the planet definition issue in order to address ongoing questions and controversy that resulted from the 2006 planet definition vote as well as to incorporate new data on objects in our own solar system and on exoplanets into a more broad, inclusive, and comprehensive understanding that streamlines the spectrum of sub-stellar bodies ranging from tiny asteroids and comets to the largest sub-brown dwarfs in this and in all stellar systems in the universe.

As I did in 2009, I ask specifically that you reconsider and add Resolution 5b from 2006, which would establish “planets” as a broad, umbrella category under which both classical and dwarf planets would be included; that the definition be expanded to include objects that orbit a star or are free-floating, to accommodate exoplanets and rogue planets; and that electronic voting be enabled to allow IAU members who are unable to physically attend General Assemblies to vote remotely.

In the six years since the 2006 vote, there have been significant discoveries in both our solar system and others that call into question the utility of the planet definition then adopted. Many exoplanets since discovered would not fit the planet definition adopted then even if it were expanded to include objects other than those that orbit the Sun. Astronomers have discovered exoplanet systems in which two planets share the same orbit; systems with two giant planets in 3:2 resonances; systems with as many as six planets all orbiting within a distance from their star comparable to Mercury’s orbit; planets that orbit their stars backward; and planets that formed directly from stellar nebulae the way stars do. Many exoplanets discovered have extremely elliptical, even comet-like, orbits.

In our solar system, the Dawn mission has revealed Vesta, which is not quite in hydrostatic equilibrium, to be far more like a terrestrial planet than like an asteroid. Vesta turns out to be a complex, geologically layered body with an iron core that formed in a process similar to the way terrestrial planets like Earth did. Dawn’s revelations have led some astronomers to question whether Vesta should be considered the solar system’s “smallest terrestrial planet. Vesta is not a simple ball of rock. This is a world with a rich geochemical history. It has quite a story to tell,” according to Dawn Principal Investigator Dr. Chris Russell.

As members of the IAU are well aware, Dawn is now departing Vesta and heading for Ceres, which it will study in similar detail.

The initial reason that prompted the 2006 General Assembly to determine a need for defining the term “planet” was the discovery of Eris, which was at the time believed to be larger than Pluto. However, in November 2010, when Eris occulted a star, a team of astronomers led by Dr. Bruno Sicardy determined that Eris is smaller than previously believed, marginally smaller than Pluto though about 27 percent more massive. This is significant because it calls into question the initial “need” for a definition since this “need” was based on erroneous information.

I am troubled by what appears to be an inflexible stand by the IAU, a determination to never reopen the planet definition discussion at any General Assembly, even into the indefinite future. This makes absolutely no sense. The 2006 discussion was based on new data discovered about Eris and the Kuiper Belt. Now, in 2012, we once again have more new data on bodies in this and other solar systems. Three years from now, we will have even more data on small planetary bodies via the Dawn mission to Ceres and the New Horizons mission to Pluto.

How can the IAU justify not reopening this discussion in light of all this new data? If this year’s General Assembly is determined to not take up the discussion, why not commit to putting it on the agenda for 2015? That would be an ideal time to take up the planet question again, as there will likely be a host of new information from the Dawn and New Horizons missions on two of the objects directly at the center of this debate.

As I did in 2009, I emphasize that this request is not about Pluto; it is about the need for a more useful, clear definition that encompasses both orbital dynamics and planetary geophysics, one that covers both our solar system and others.

The IAU considers communicating astronomy with the public as one of its essential tasks. I remind the organization that communication is a two-way street. Members of the public, astronomy enthusiasts, and amateur astronomers have consistently communicated dissatisfaction with the 2006 planet definition resolution. Isn’t it time the IAU hear them and respectfully respond to their concerns instead of ignoring and disenfranchising them?

Planetary science is constantly evolving with new discoveries, and in light of this, it makes sense that definitions will need to be updated and refined continuously. The 2006 vote was a first attempt at a definition, but it should not be considered a final one. This is not religion, where an authoritative body speaks once for all eternity, issuing a decree that can never be changed. By reopening the planet definition discussion, the IAU will affirm its relevance and flexibility through willingness to constantly reconsider previous decisions when new data call those decisions into question.

However, if the IAU continues to dig in its heals and refuse to even consider a new discussion on planet definition, the organization risks being viewed as emotional, bureaucratic, and dogmatic, and will become increasingly irrelevant as an authoritative body on the science of astronomy. At that point, other groups and individuals will very likely fill the void and take up the issue on their own, to the point that the matter may fall completely outside the influence of the IAU.

In order to further respectful two-way communication with the public, I urge the IAU to actively seek input on important issues such as this one from a broader population, including professional astronomers who are not IAU members, amateur astronomers and groups representing them, and astronomy students at all levels.

Regardless of the fact that no action on the planet classification issue has been planned for this General Assembly, I implore the IAU’s leadership, delegates to the GA, and members to do what needs to be done, to show courage and sensitivity to both scientists and lay people by admitting the planet definition issue remains unresolved and by adding a provision to this year’s GA reopening the planet definition discussion, or at least committing to putting it on the agenda of the 29th GA in 2015.

More specifically, I also ask that the Resolutions Committee place a resolution on the General Assembly floor for a vote on August 31, 2012, to officially reconsider resolution 5b of 2006, which if passed would establish dwarf planets as a subclass of planets. I also ask that a second resolution be put to the GA floor to include exoplanets in all further planet definition discussions. Finally, I ask that a resolution allowing for electronic voting be adopted before any other resolutions are considered to allow the IAU’s full membership to vote on all relevant issues, a provision badly needed in these difficult economic times when so many cannot afford the expense of travel and lodging to attend the GA in person.

Laurel E. Kornfeld
Highland Park, NJ, USA
Writer, amateur astronomer, astronomy student and blogger