Monday, January 19, 2015

Montmerle is wrong

A New York Times article commemorating New Horizons beginning its first approach phase (I will discuss New Horizons more in another entry) to Pluto is mostly fair but gets it wrong at the end with a quote from IAU General Secretary Thierry Montmerle.

The article appears here:

Montmerle arrogantly says, "The vast majority of the international planetary community has clearly accepted this (the IAU's) definition."

He is wrong.

First, the majority of the IAU is made up not of planetary scientists but of other types of astronomers. Planetary scientists have largely ignored the IAU and its definition over the past eight-and-a-half years, after a group of planetary scientists was rebuffed in 2009 when they asked the IAU leadership to reopen the discussion at that year's General Assembly.

The IAU leadership blatantly refused, and these planetary scientists boycotted the General Assembly that year. Many are choosing not to join the IAU at all, and a good number of those who choose to be members do not attend the General Assemblies.

Montmerle is mistaking their ignoring the IAU for silent assent. It is not.

Dawn's findings at Vesta, which show it to be more planet than asteroid; discoveries of unusual exoplanets with weird orbits; data that shows Pluto-Charon to be a binary planet system, and now conjecture that two "Super Earths" of two to 15 Earth masses may lurk unseen in the outer solar system all comprise compelling reasons to revisit the "What is a planet" discussion.

These developments have also led many astronomers to understand we need a rethinking of the concept of planet that takes all this data into account.

Montmerle is engaging in what is known as the first principle of propaganda--that a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth. He may believe what he is saying, but how much is he really in touch with the world of planetary science outside of the IAU?

Mike Brown is also quoted in the article as saying he rarely hears Pluto complaints these days. The fact is, people "complaining" or even asking about Pluto already know his position and are more likely to raise the issue with other planetary scientists than with him.

Interestingly, Neil de Grasse Tyson has been strangely silent on this issue of late.

Some scientists feel the status issue distracts from Pluto science, but that does not have to be the case. To interest members of the public in astronomy, it is important to meet them where they are. And "where they are" in terms of many people is awareness of the Pluto controversy and continued discomfort with the IAU definition.

When a member of the public asks about Pluto's status, that is an opening to discuss the science, to talk about Pluto's composition, atmosphere, geology, moon system, etc. It is a chance to talk about New Horizons and what each of its instruments will study. It is an opportunity to introduce people to a world and then let them think about what they learned and draw their own conclusion.

Anything unknown is hard to classify simply because we understand so little about it. These unknown objects constitute the frontier of planetary science, and frontiers are by nature exciting. Mysteries excite people. When someone asks whether Pluto is a planet, why not answer by presenting just what a scientific puzzle it is. Its being a puzzle means we don't have all the answers. That is why there is an ongoing debate--we know a few things about this little world, and those facts result in different interpretations by different people.

After introducing people to the world whose status interests them, why not ask them to consider all they learned and decide for themselves? That would constitute a good exercise in independent thinking.

This year is about seeing Pluto for the first time, about the data and the images. There will be plenty of time for analysis and integration of what we learn to invigorate this debate in coming years.

The discussion of the planet question isn't dying down. It's just beginning.


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