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Thursday, December 18, 2008

"Yes, Earth Residents, There Is A Planet Pluto"

Some supporters of Pluto's demotion have begun to express dismay that people won't just "get over it" and accept the IAU's decree. In an April 2008 post on Universe Today, Fraser Cain bemoans, "This has got to be be one of the most heartbreaking questions I get asked, "Why Isn't Pluto a Planet". And I get it a lot. I was expecting that a few years after the International Astronomical Union's controversial decision, the debate would have settled down and people would finally accept it. But no, it's still a sore point for many people."

While I respect Cain as a knowledgeable and competent astronomer, I also find it interesting that he was for Pluto being a planet before he was against it. In a February 22, 2006 comment on Universe Today, he says, "If the decision were up to me, I'd say Pluto's a planet. For starters we wouldn't have to go back and edit all those astronomy textbooks, websites, sculptures, museum exhibits and PBS documentaries. Our Solar System just isn't so simple; objects scale from the tiny to the huge, with all sizes in between. Any decision on Pluto's planethood will be an arbitrary one, and the arbitrary decision I like is… Pluto's a planet. "

Cain is apparently following in the footsteps of Mike Brown, who also supported planet status for dwarf planets before changing his mind.

The fact that among supporters of Pluto's demotion are astronomers who only recently opposed it has to raise questions. What made these people change their minds? The authoritarian decree of four percent of a body that purports to be the arbiter of what is real in astronomy? That seems a lot more like obeying a new religious dictate from on high than something that independent thinking academic types would do.

My grandmother sometimes says that if one or two people make a claim about you, you could dismiss it, as it may or may not be true. However, if one after another person steps up and tells you something even though it may be uncomfortable, then it's time to consider there may at least be some truth in the claim.

Around the world, people are not blindly accepting heartbreak and loss over Pluto because inherently so many of us know the demotion is just plain wrong. It's not just an emotional attachment to Pluto. The IAU seems to have underestimated the intelligence of the world's population in assuming they would unquestioningly agree to nonsensical statements such as "dwarf planets are not planets" or ridiculous notions that ignore what an object is and define it solely by where it is.

People of all ages and backgrounds are smarter than that. That's why the opposition to the demotion isn't going away. And it's not just among Americans, as some like to claim. Yes, this is anecdotal, but I have heard from people in the Philippines, Canada, England, Egypt, Morocco, Australia, New Zealand, and many other parts of the world the same strong convictions supporting Pluto's planet status and its official reinstatement.
In a Science News article dated November 21, 2008, titled "Debates Over Definition of Planet Continue and Inspire," Dr. Alan Stern addresses just why this issue remains an ongoing debate. Stern presents a compelling case of the recent "revolution" in planetary science with new discoveries taking us from a universe with nine familiar objects we called planets to one with a hundreds of planets known to orbit other stars as well as a new neighborhood in our own solar system made up of a host of small planets akin to Pluto (although as of now, only one of these objects, Eris, is known to be more massive than Pluto).

Stern's discussion of this expansion within planetary science can be found at
It is a very worthwhile read that describes why the IAU's decision has not been widely accepted.

From the standpoint of popular culture, efforts to engage children--and adults--in the effort to overturn Pluto's demotion continue, as in this Youtube broadcast from Little Big Planet's Sackboy here:
Some may dismiss this as a marketing tool, but such a tool would not attract customers if there weren't already strong convictions by children and adults alike in favor of Pluto's planethood.

As for my personal experience, a presentation I and fellow Amateur Astronomers, Inc. member Mike Luciuk conducted on the topic of "Is Pluto A Planet" drew a full house at Sperry Observatory in Cranford, NJ on a rainy November night, meaning everyone of the enthusiastic crowd who showed up did so purely out of interest in this subject. Luciuk and I referred to a 2000 article by Stern and Hal Levison titled "Regarding the Criteria for Planethood and the Proposed Classification Scheme," which proposes two categories of planets, those gravitationally dominant--the "uber planets" and those not gravitationally dominant--the "unter planets." The authors here recognize two classes of objects but never claim that the smaller class, or "unter planets" are not planets at all.

Anyone interested can read articles by Mike Luciuk and me in the October issue of "The Asterism," the monthly newsletter of Amateur Astronomers, Inc., here:

I would also like to address the argument that this debate has gone on too long. The passage of time alone does not determine whether or not a principle is correct. Anyone who has taken part in or even observed the proceedings of local government knows that when land use applications come before Planning or Zoning Boards, no one proposes to vote just because it is 11 PM and time for the meeting to end.

If more information needs to be presented, hearings are continued from one month to the next. Sometimes, with a big project, the hearings go on for over a year. This is as it should be. Choosing an arbitrary cut off time to summarily end debate without considering additional data, which is what the IAU did in Prague, would never even be considered for a local building application.

There is a lot of data on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt that we do not yet have. We know we will have it with New Horizons' findings in 2015. Why rush to judgment when we know that most of the facts are not yet in?

We're only two weeks from the first day of 2009, the International Year of Astronomy (IYA), and also the year of the next IAU General Assembly. The International Year of Astronomy is a tremendous, very worthwhile initiative to engage the public in astronomy worldwide, especially to reach out to disadvantaged populations and countries. It is being organized to commemorate the most significant watershed moment in astronomy's history, the first telescopic observations of the sky and celestial objects by Galileo 400 years ago. More information on IYA and how to get involved can be found at . The US node for IYA can be found at

I am working on promoting IYA events here in New Jersey, where we do not yet have a group coordinating the project. As such, I would love to hear from any individuals or groups interested in organizing IYA events in New Jersey.

The theme of IYA is "The Universe: Yours to Discover." Initiated by the IAU, this global effort is in many ways the polar opposite of the events that took place at the Prague General Assembly in 2006. Why? Because the IAU is inviting citizens of the world to actively take part in discovering the universe instead of dictating by fiat what the "reality" of the universe is.

As for Pluto, the people have spoken--not unanimously, but clearly. The same people whom the IAU seeks to enchant with its 2009 yearlong activities have "discovered" the facts for themselves and have determined that Pluto and dwarf planets are in fact a subclass of planets. The IAU cannot fail to acknowledge this without being rightfully accused of being out of touch with public sentiment.
For me, what was a marginal interest in astronomy has become so much more, and it started with the Pluto debate. Sometimes, what we in the newspaper business call a "hook" is all that is needed to engage people. In the space of two years, I have observed planets, stars, nebulae, open clusters, and galaxies; I've completed the Swinburne Astronomy Online short course "From Planets to the Universe," which I highly recommend, and have discovered the magnificence of the universe for myself.

The weekly newspaper for which I write has committed to a yearlong focus on the International Year of Astonomy by covering astronomy related programs and events here in central New Jersey, a commitment for which I am extremely proud.

Experiences like the ones I have had is what IYA strives to bring to people of all ages all over the world. To successfully accomplish this, the IAU must acknowledge, recognize, and respect public sentiment on astronomical issues. The Pluto case is a classic one, as it involves not just sentiment but sound science as well.

In this holiday season, regardless of what--if anything--one celebrates, my personal message to the world is, "yes, Earth residents, including IAU members, there is a planet Pluto." It's time to acknowledge this and reverse the decision of August 2006. It's the right thing to do, and it just might motivate who knows how many people to discover not just one planet, but an entire universe.

Happy New Year!

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Some Other Lessons from Phoenix

Less than six months ago, on the Sunday of Memorial Day weekend, after a family barbeque, several friends and I gathered around my laptop to watch the Phoenix Mars Lander touch down on the north pole of Mars. Of course, we didn't actually see it land; what we saw was the live footage from NASA headquarters. Still, it was a magical moment, followed by an opportunity to view Saturn from my backyard with a special friend's telescope.

That is why, like so many who follow astronomy and the space program, I felt a genuine sadness upon hearing yesterday that Phoenix has frozen with the onset of the Martian autumn and winter. It was like hearing that a friend had died. In fact, Phoenix has been a Facebook friend to me and to many, as are the Mars Rovers, New Horizons, Messenger, the Hubble Telescope, various lunar missions, etc. Even though everyone knew this day would come, there is no denying a very real sense of grief.

We still have many science lessons to learn from Phoenix's findings. But there is another lesson here too, specifically that sentiment and human emotions cannot ever be entirely separated from science.

People ranging from scientists officially part of space missions to avid followers cannot help personifying the spacecrafts and robots we send to explore the solar system. The Mars Exploration Rovers are affectionately referred to as "the girls" or the "twin girls" by the mission's leading scientists, who take enormous pride in the fact these "girls" that were intended to last 90 days have gone on more than four years.  Phoenix inspired the same attachment, the same anthropomorphism; it was the lander built from the remains of a previous unsuccessful mission that became our eyes and ears in searching for water on Mars.

Likewise, we cannot help but view the Pioneers and Voyagers, the only spacecrafts to leave our solar system, as our ambassadors to the stars, as extensions of ourselves pioneering our first ventures into the unknown.

This is why those who argue that science must remain completely free of sentiment are fighting a losing battle. We have no Vulcans; no one,  not even the most objective scientist, can ever completely separate him/her self from human emotions.  What those who demean supporters of Pluto's planet status as being motivated by sentiment are unable  to see is that they, too, are motivated at least somewhat by sentiment. Everyone is; if not, we would never have had the excitement that motivated the Apollo missions or the universal inclination to personify machines sent to Mars.

Sentiment in science is not necessarily a negative thing. How many of today's scientists were first motivated by the thrill of viewing the Apollo missions or even by the wonder of viewing planets or stars through a telescope for the first time? Nothing can substitute for the awe and wonder inspired in so many by the night sky. If we took that away, and insisted only on hard, cold facts and mathematical equations, so much of the beauty of astronomy would be lost.

Of course, sentiment alone, if it contradicts science, is inadequate in telling us anything meaningful about any subject. That is why medieval dogmas like geocentrism cannot be sustained.

The Pluto case is not like that.  There is sufficient science, as discussed in this blog many times, to support the classification of dwarf planets as a subclass of planets, based on their being in hydrostatic equilibrium and experiencing the same geological processes as the major planets.

But, in addition to the science, there is sentiment too. Not just in the US, but all over the world, people are drawn to Pluto, enraptured by it. Maybe it's because of the enigma of an object so small and so far away. Or maybe, with its planet status in question from day one, Pluto has come to represent the underdog in all of us. Whatever the reason, the sentiment is a positive thing, not only because it has science behind it, but also because it means people feel excitement about astronomy, that same excitement experienced during the heyday of the US space program, the same thrill at seeing a celestial object through a telescope for the first time.

More than two years after the IAU vote, that excitement over Pluto is still very much alive. A new PS3 game by the European firm Little Big Planet features Sackboy, a rag doll type character and prototype of an avatar players can customize and use, in "Proposition Pluto," an online petition to get Pluto's planet status reinstated. That petition can be found here:

I've never had any version of Playstation, but I just might go out and buy PS3 and Little Big Planet's games as a measure of solidarity with Sackboy's support for Pluto.

Mike Wrathell, an artist and writer in Michigan who shares with me a passion for Pluto and for political campaigns, has a site with Pluto-themed art, among many other works, at According to Wikipedia, "A documentary about Wrathell and his art called The King of Pluto won an Award of Excellence for its director, Sheila Franklin, at the Berkeley Film & Video Festival in 2004, and was also screened in New York City and Indianapolis." A blog post he wrote about his recent campaign for public office can be found here:

I am also happy to report that after I complained about an entry in the LA Times Kids Reading Room that presented only one side of this issue, namely the view that our solar system has only eight planets, the Readers' Representative has contacted me with a pledge to post the other, pro-Pluto as a planet side of this issue, on its online page of reader responses, which can be found here That post is upcoming.

And for anyone in or near New Jersey, I invite you to a joint presentation at Amateur Astronomers, Inc. in Cranford, NJ this Friday, November 14, at 8:30 PM, by AAI members Mike Luciuk and me on the subject, "Is Pluto A Planet?" This will not be so much a debate but a presentation. Mike has a Masters in astronomy, is very well versed on this subject, and did a superb job putting our Power Point together. The presentation will be at William Miller Sperry Observatory located at Union County College,1033 Springfield Ave., Cranford, NJ. We will discuss the criteria that define a planet and the controversy surrounding Pluto's status. This event is open to the public and has no admission fee. Free parking is provided. For directions and more information on AAI, visit . Hope to see you there!

For those who could not attend the Great Planet Debate, both audio and video proceedings of the conference can be found online at . The panel discussions are available in audio form, and the debate between Dr. Mark Sykes and Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson can be viewed on video.

In short, there is a lot of continuing good news for Pluto!

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Let Go? Hell, No!

This entry is in response to a commenter named Christopher P. Martin, who along with me and quite a few other people posted comments on the naming of Haumea, the solar system's newest planet, at this site:  . Unfortunately, the comments section for the article was closed before I had a chance to answer his last comment, which I feel deserves a response, so I am responding here.

First, Mr. Martin's comment, verbatim: "My throwaway teaching comment was an oversimplification, of course! I, like you, want to encourage debate. That I had to teach Pluto's planet status as a 'fact' was the problem. However, I still insist that people need to 'let go.' It isn't that important. I think anyone who is particularly bothered one way or the other (as you clearly have been for at least two years judging by your extensive livejournal on the topic) should really learn to let go! Doesn't matter what you call it, it's still there! You just said so yourself- reality cannot be changed 'by dictate,' so why do you care what Pluto's called? Stick to your politics. That's a more usual place for passionately expressed semantic debate that fails to change or mean anything."

In an earlier comment, Mr. Martin claimed he left teaching because of frustration over being required to teach the IAU planet definition regarding Pluto's status, an issue I discussed in many previous entries. I believe it is important what Pluto is called for exactly the reason that caused Mr. Martin's frustration. Semantics do matter. Words determine how we perceive the world around us. Terminology determines what is considered important enough to make it into school curricula and what is seen as extraneous. The IAU demotion obviously cannot change the fact that "Pluto is still there," but the harm it can do is cause far fewer people, especially young people, to be aware that it is there.

Supporters of Pluto's demotion can emphasize as much as they want that the new definition does not diminish Pluto's importance, but the fact is, in real life, in real classrooms and textbooks, it does. If curricula that used to teach nine planets now teach only eight, the result is a diminishing of knowledge, typified by the student I mentioned in the previous entry who after telling her mother she learned about the solar system in school, when asked "what about Pluto?" innocently responded, "there is no Pluto."  If he was so bothered by being compelled to teach the IAU definition, Mr. Martin should join those of us who publicly advocate for a fair teaching of the controversy in schools rather than simply walk away.

To some extent, what is and is not important is a value judgment. Mr. Martin may have legitimately decided this issue is not important to him; however, his remarks telling me to "let it go" show a clear lack of respect for my values and, in fact, for anyone who happens to think differently than he does. Our culture, through numerous talk shows and self-help books, has an inherent bias towards "letting things go," which in many cases and for many people, is not appropriate. A one-size fits all solution usually never is. Think about it. If a person believes something is ethically, morally, scientifically, or in any other way wrong, why should he or she give up that conviction just because time passes? It's been five and a half years since President Bush started the Iraq War. Should opponents of the war just "let it go" because time has passed even though nothing has been resolved? Should those of us concerned about global climate change "let it go" because it's been 20 years since the issue came into national focus, and during those years we've gone in the wrong direction regarding dependence on fossil fuels?

If anyone should be urged to "let go," it is the IAU. The people of the world, both scientists and lay people, have spoken--in classrooms, in seminars, on the Internet, in emails, in art and culture, in surveys, even in their purchasing of pro-Pluto merchandise--and have made it clear that by wide margins, they oppose the 2006 planet definition. Leading planetary scientists have gone as far as to hold their own conference on the issue (the Great Planet Debate), and attempts to rectify what the IAU did continue at numerous astronomical and planetary science conferences. Even many who stand by the IAU vote give it lukewarm support at best and admit both the process at the General Assembly and the outcome were sloppy. Yet IAU president Catherine Cesarsky and the IAU leadership stubbornly refuse to admit they might have made a mistake and persist in their denial of public rejection to the decision. Instead of continuing to dig a bigger and bigger hole for themselves and destroy what is left of their credibility, the IAU should own up to the fact that they mishandled this issue and commit to revisit it--along with including electronic voting--at their 2009 General Assembly.

Admitting to the mistake and taking action to correct it would actually increase rather than diminish the group's standing in the world. Everyone makes mistakes; the real courage comes in owning up to them and doing what is necessary to set things right. As a writer and a person who loves astronomy, I do care very much what Pluto is called. Mr. Martin might want to take a look at George Orwell's novel 1984 for a lesson in just how much language is power, and perception is reality. People in power (in this case the IAU) cannot change objective reality of what is out there, but they very well can manipulate perception about it through dictating specific uses of language. To me--and to many others--this is unacceptable, no matter how much time passes, if it is not rectified.

If Mr. Martin doesn't like this journal or my passion about Pluto, he in no way is obligated to read my writing or ever visit this site. He can find plenty of "passionately expressed semantic debate that fails to change or mean anything" in the rhetoric surrounding the upcoming US national elections. Whether he recognizes it or not, the fight to reinstate Pluto's planet status--and that of all dwarf planets--will result in real change. Hopefully, that will be sooner rather than later, but even if it takes 20 or 30 years, I don't plan to "let go" any time soon, and I hope other Pluto supporters have no such plans either. Every time I or other Pluto advocates help one child get a grade reinstated or one teacher to understand that there is legitimate scientific reasoning for viewing Pluto as a planet and therefore teach the controversy rather than just one side of the issue, we are making a difference, as my best friend puts it, "saving Pluto one child at a time" (and one adult at a time as well). Meanwhile, this journal will stay around for as long as is necessary.

Monday, September 22, 2008

And Now There Are Thirteen

Last Wednesday, September 17, the IAU officially bestowed dwarf planet status on 2003 EL61, an egg-shaped Kuiper Belt Object now given the Hawaiian name Haumea.  This brings the total number of dwarf planets in our solar system to five and the overall planet count around our sun to 13.

That number results from using what should be the correct definition of "dwarf planet" as a subclass of planets, specifically referring to small planets that do not dominate their orbits but have attained the crucial state of hydrostatic equilibrium and therefore have the geophysical properties that make it appropriate to designate them as planets.

In order of distance from the Sun, the planets are: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Haumea, MakeMake, and Eris.

Being that Haumea is so oddly shaped, I was initially surprised at its being granted dwarf planet status at all. However, according to Dr. Alan Stern, premier expert on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt, hydrostatic equilibrium doesn't mean an object has to actually be spherical. "It just means in fluid equilibrium, which can and does include centripital forces...EL61 is certainly massive enough to be in hydrostatic equilibrium where (it) is spherical. That it is not is just a detail due to the high spin rate, but spherical is not the real central issue in the dwarf planet or planetary definition, it's hydrostatic equilibrium." It turns out EL61's odd shape is due to its being elongated due to a very high spin (rotation) rate.

Discoverer Dr. Mike Brown, in responding to a comment on his blog, notes that there are likely many additional Kuiper Belt Objects in hydrostatic equilibrium that should be given dwarf planet status. This is undoubtedly true. In some cases, these objects' tremendous distance from us combined with their small sizes makes it difficult for us to determine whether any specific individual one has attained hydrostatic equilibrium.

What this means is that for a time, either years or decades, we will have to live with a degree of uncertainty about these objects. For now, it is useful to refer to them as "dwarf planet candidates" until we have sophisticated enough tools to determine whether they actually meet the criteria for consideration as dwarf planets.

Daniel Fischer, a supporter of the IAU planet definition, claims that the fact that we will likely end up having several hundred dwarf planets in the Kuiper Belt "devalues" the term planet because there will be so many of them. What exactly does he mean by "devalue?"  Does being "special" mean the number has to be limited and the occurrence of a phenomenon scarce?  Until the 1920s, astronomers believed there was only one galaxy, the Milky Way.  Now we know there are billions.  Does that diminish the significance of the term galaxy?  Does the fact that there are billions of stars diminish the value of the word "star?" Fischer's logic is hard to understand because it is so subjective.

In the early days of civilization, humans believed the Earth to be the center of everything. Over subsequent centuries, we came to realize we are one planet in one solar system in one galaxy in a universe with a multitude of galaxies, solar systems, and planets.  We're not inherently "special"; we're one planet of many. Similarly, the term planet does not somehow lose its value because we have discovered that instead of there being nine in existence, there are hundreds, both in our solar system and in others.

Fischer also argues the need for a fixed number of planets in our solar system. This too is unnecessary. We all grew up in a world with a fixed number of nine planets; the real change we must acknowledge is not that that number is now reduced to eight; it is that that number is no longer going to remain fixed.  Even looking only at our own solar system, the rapidity of new discoveries makes it clear that the number of planets orbiting our sun--or rather, the number of which we are aware--will continue to be in flux for a long time. There is no logical reason why textbooks and teachers cannot explain this fact. Not only will doing this save the need to publish new textbook editions every time another planet or dwarf planet is found; it will also will bring home the excitement that discovery is ongoing and that we do not need to artificially set the number of planets orbiting around our sun at any particular number.

Brown states that his main concern is distinguishing the eight gravitationally dominant objects in our solar system from those that are not gravitationally dominant.  That can in fact be accomplished while still acknowledging that dwarf planets are planets due to their differentiation and geophysical characteristics.

In 2000, Stern and Dr. Hal Levison published a paper explaining the existence and distinction of two classes of planets. That article can be found here: .  Stern and Levison argue the following:

Because such smaller bodies [KBOs] clearly play a dynamically different role in the solar system than the large bodies that architecturally shape the system, distinguishing between the bodies on some dynamical basis is both useful and desirable.
Hence, we define an ├╝berplanet [higher-planet] as a planetary body in orbit about a star that is dynamically important enough to have cleared its neighboring planetesimals in a Hubble time. And we define an unterplanet [under-planet] as one that has not been able to do so.From a dynamical standpoint, our solar system clearly contains 8 ├╝berplanets and a far larger number of unterplanets, the largest of which are Pluto and Ceres.”

While this description clearly distinguishes those objects that dominate their orbits from those that do not, it nevertheless recognizes that both categories, “uberplanets” and “unterplanets,” which we can view as “classical planets” and “dwarf planets,” still fall under the broader category of planets.

The key here is balance. We need a planet definition that encompasses both the dynamical and the geophysical characteristics of these objects. Using only the dynamical, as the IAU did, leaves us with the absurd situation of having the same object be a planet in one place and not a planet in another. For example, if Earth were located in Pluto’s orbit, it would not be considered a planet. Neither would a Mars-sized object if one is found there.

Conversely, if we use only the geophysical definition, we ignore the importance of an object’s location and the role it plays within its orbit. This too leaves us with a very incomplete picture of the solar system as a system.

All these issues were discussed extensively last month at the Great Planet Debate. Some of these discussions are now online at . I urge anyone interested in this issue to take the time to listen to some of the most eminent planetary scientists in the world discuss all these issues and more.

I would also like to make reference to education, a subject that came up many times at the Great Planet Debate. Ideally, this issue can be used as a “teachable moment” to help young people and those of all ages learn that there are many unresolved issues still open to debate.  Yet during the last few weeks, I have read about or received communication about children being taught only one view as fact, specifically the view that our solar system has eight planets. One parent in the Philippines was baffled when after learning the planets in school, her daughter responded to a question about Pluto with, “there is no Pluto.”

These parents responded very positively when referred to Internet sources, especially the petition signed by Stern and 300 professional astronomers saying they will not use the new planet definition, and are often very excited to learn that there is an ongoing debate.

At the same time, in many places around the world, Pluto is still being taught as a planet. Anecdotally, I have heard from people all over the world, in places as diverse as South Africa and Egypt, that Pluto remains part of the curriculum on planets of our solar system.

One interesting anecdote comes from a Facebook group, where a mother relates how her nine-year-old and five-year-old nearly came to blows over this issue, with the older one stating Pluto is a planet, and the younger one maintaining it is not.  What is significant about all this is that in most cases, children’s pronouncements on either side are determined by the fact that “my teacher said so.”   No matter which view teachers convey, if all they do is teach one view as “the way it is,” they are doing a tremendous disservice to their students by promoting an authoritarian world view in which something is a certain way because an authority says so rather than because the student has reviewed the evidence and come to his or her own interpretation.

If I were the parent of these children—which, if they are reading this, they likely are very thankful I’m not—I would send both of them to books and Internet sites with the assignment of defending their positions with real evidence, not just a statement that “someone said so.” Whether they changed their views or not, at least they would have a learning experience that encouraged them to question and think for themselves.

Isn’t that kind of thinking the goal of science? Isn’t it the goal of education in general?

Sunday, August 24, 2008

Two Years Later: Not Gone, Not Forgotten

Two years have now passed since the debacle conducted by the IAU at its General Assembly in Prague, and amazingly, the debate over the status of Pluto simply refuses to die.  In spite of all the misguided efforts by those seeking "closure," planet Pluto has continued to stir passions, inspire discussion, and remain in the public eye as a not just a scientific issue but a cultural icon.

The latest IAU bungle by creation of the term "Plutoids," which no one, even supporters of the dynamical planet definition that leaves us with eight planets, likes, has only fueled the fire over the highly flawed planet definition crafted by 424 astronomers in an equally flawed process two years ago.

Just this month, the Great Planet Debate at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, brought this issue to the forefront of public attention once more.

I always cringe upon hearing or reading that a student was given a lower grade because he or she included Pluto in a school project on the solar system. It is inconveivable that teachers would unquestioningly rely on a so-called authority, whether a textbook or the IAU, to promulgate one side of an ongoing debate as fact.  Naturally, the teachers who attended the Great Planet Debate understand the importance of teaching the controversy in all its complexity; otherwise, they would not have taken the time to attend the conference.

However, all too often, teachers, especially here in the US, where they are constrained by federal and state mandates and the priority on standardized tests, teach the minimum students need to pass these tests in any subject.  Some have criticized the argument that Pluto's demotion would lead to children learning less about the solar system as not a valid argument for keeping Pluto in the planet category. Certainly, this is not the main argument; there are plenty of scientifically valid reasons discussed here and on many other web sites.  Yet it is a point we need to consider. Under time and curricular constraints, teachers all too often resort to teaching only the basics of any subject, which under the IAU definition, would likely include only the eight major planets.

Even a teacher who believes in the dynamical classification adopted by the IAU does a disservice to his or her students by reducing a grade for those whose projects include more than the minimum. A student who on his or her own chooses to include the dwarf planets in a discussion of our solar system should receive credit for going beyond the minimum rather than be punished for including additional information.

We lost a golden opportunity to excite children and adults about the discovery of Eris, a new planet in our solar system, by centering the discussion on taking Pluto away rather than on adding Eris and the entire new category of planets it has introduced to us.  The real world, practical result in education was a shrinkage of knowledge about the solar system when we could have had the exact opposite, a broadening of and increase in such knowledge.

Last year, I listed various songs, poems, and advocacy web sites inspired by Pluto. With the passage of time, even more have sprung up.  Here are some of the more recent ones:

The Great Planet Debate (transcripts of sessions and of the Tyson-Sykes debate forthcoming):"Keep Pluto Alive," an advocacy site by astronomy educator Steve Kates, aka Dr. Sky: and Telescope interview with Dr. Alan Stern: in The Telegraph, a British newspaper, "Pluto Should Get Back Planet Status, Astronomers Say":, "Demotion of Pluto Still Stirs Passionate Debate":"Pluto Still Attracting Attention," by New Mexico syndicated columnist Jay Miller: Geographic, "'Pluto Huggers' Fight to Renew Planet Status":"It's Still A Planet In My Heart," advocacy site by Adrian Speyer: of Facebook's largest groups, with over 1.3 million members, "When I Was Your Age, Pluto Was A Planet": Web Site Tribute to Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto:
"Pluto's A Planet," a song by Tom Knutson:
”Ode to Pluto,” a song by Mark Burrows:  

And of course, there is the official web site of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto, which predates the demotion (the spacecraft was launched in January 2006):

As a writer, I cannot help but view this phenomenon from a literary perspective.  In "Star Trek," Kirk and Spock make the interesting observation that every myth has some modicum of truth in it.  I have always had a personal fascination with mythology, and Pluto, named after the Greek/Roman lord of the underworld, has a wealth of mythological folklore associated with it.  The underworld, viewed as the abode of the dead, also represented to ancient peoples the physical underground where seeds lie buried in the winter--and sometimes for many years--only to germinate and be "reborn" when spring comes or when sunlight long blocked by a tree or other object finally reaches that seed.  In Babylonian mythology, the spirit of vegetation was represented by the god Tammuz, who descended to the underworld as summer ended, the harvest commenced, and the sun began to wane.

This connection with the seasonal cycle continued in the Greek/Roman myth of Pluto's abduction of Persephone, the maiden of spring.  In the wake of Persephone's having been abducted, her mother, the grain goddess Demeter, also known as Ceres, in her grief withheld her bounty and refused to allow anything to grow, thus leading to the desolation of winter.  Only when a compromise was reached, and Persephone was permitted to spend a portion of the year above ground with her mother, did Demeter allow vegetation to return and even teach agriculture to human civilization.

Ancient peoples resorted to stories to explain the cycle of the seasons because they knew these phenomena occurred but did not fully understand why. Yet these myths contain within them a greater truth, an understanding of life as a cycle of death and rebirth in which nothing is truly lost, only transformed.

At the Great Planet Debate, one participant asked whether any of us interpreted any symbolism in the banishment of the planet named after the lord of the dead.   That's the type of question literary types like me love to ponder. Pluto was named after the god of the underworld by 11-year-old Venetia Burney, a child fascinated by both mythology and astronomy, because it is a dark and cold place.  Though it is not scientific, in my literary mind, I think there is significance in our effectively banishing the planet that represents the unknown, the dark, the enigmatic, the mysterious, the intense representation of death and new life, to some sort of astronomical netherworld.  Both the mythology and the astronomy of Pluto challenge the limits of what we know and make us think about subjects that make us uncomfortable, subjects we often would rather stay buried.

Symbolically, Pluto's refusal to "die" as a planet fits beautifully with the entire mythology and folklore for which it is named.  In this era when education focuses on learning across the disciplines, namely examining the same subject in the areas of science, math, history, literature, art, music, etc., it will make a fascinating research paper topic for students.

Speaking of literature, I would like to share, with proper attribution, a poem I found online linking Pluto the planet with Pluto the god of the underworld and with Tammuz, the Babylonian vegetation deity. It is titled, "The Death of Pluto."

"The Death of Pluto"
Adapted by Robert Croog (by substituting Pluto for Tammuz) from the poem by Saul Tchernichowsky, "The Death of Tammuz," Hebrew, translated by L. V. Snowman, published in A Treasury of Jewish Poetry from Biblical Times to the Present, edited by Nathan and Marynn Ausubel."Pluto is dead," Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology, discoverer of Eris, told reporters in a teleconference, August 25, 2006.

"And behold, there sat the women, weeping." Ezekiel 8:14

"Go, daughters of Zion
And weep you for Pluto,
For Pluto, the beautiful Pluto is dead;
And days dark with cloud and eclipse of the soul,
Autumn days endless the days are ahead.

Let us rise with the sun
In the spring of the morning,
To the forest where lingers the

darkness of night,
To the forest where visions and secrets are hidden,
To the altar of Pluto-- high place of the light.

What dance shall we dance
Around the high altar?
What dance shall we dance for

Pluto this day?
To the left, to the right, and sevenfold seven,
We shall bow to him, calling 'return to our play.'

To the left, to the right,
And seven by seven,
But hand in hand straightly, and

footing it slow;
Pluto wherever he be we shall seek him,
The lads and the maidens apart they will go.

We have sought on the roads
And the highways for Pluto,
Where the crossroads lie bathed in the

light of the sun,
Sweet to the heart in their warmth and their peace,
The sparrows fly there and the larks carillon.

We have sought Pluto
In thickets where leaves fall,
In mazes of holly and forests of pine;
Peradventure he sleeps among incense

of spices,
In the circle of toadstools, the faery shrine.

We have sought Pluto
But vain 'twas to find him,
We clambered the hills and came down

through the dell,
We followed the traces of all mystic wonders--
The abode of the gods and wherever they dwell;

In the grove, in the hedges,
By trees that are altar fuel,
The woodland recesses-- all fodder for

But only the sparrows cried in their hunger
About the high place-- ruins trodden in mire. 

No trace of the fairies
Was found in the meadows,
With the whispering brook their

laughter ceased, too,
Calves graze in the meadows and there the lambs frolic
Round the springs and the wells with fall of the dew.

O, daughters of Zion,
Go mourn in beholding
How the world on its course dull and

troublous is sped,
The distress of a world whose spirit is darkened,
For Pluto, the beautiful Pluto, is dead."

The comment below is by Philip Brown, who quoted the above poem: 

"I am inspired by this poem and its themes which are symbolic of Pluto: death, youth, hidden and mysterious places, occult energy and return to the Earth, decay and regeneration in nature, and a playful sense of foreboding. It is apropos of Pluto's recent demotion from planetary status, and the comments of Mike Brown."

On a personal note, while I wish Pluto's demotion had never happened, I am immensely grateful for the many wonderful people I have met in the quest to get this decision reversed; for the knowledge it has brought and love for astronomy it has rekindled in my life; for the numerous experiences I have had that would otherwise never have come my way--everything from the wonderful club known as Amateur Astronomers, Inc., in Cranford, NJ; to new friends around the world; to the opportunity to see Jupiter, Saturn, the Ring Nebula, and so many other celestial objects through a telescope; even to reconnect with various members of my family. Pluto's plight has also inspired the artist in me; the result is I have written a play of more than 100 pages incorporating the mythology and symbolism of Pluto in a fantasy-drama tale of its demotion and reinstatement. Just this Friday, I received the official copyright certification for this play, which I hope to publish and someday bring to production. It is no understatement to say that Pluto has changed my life.

The poem above is powerful, but I am as convinced as ever that Pluto is not dead, that this is not the end.  It may not be a scientific assertion, but I believe Pluto the planet will follow the archetype of death and rebirth for which it is named, the death of winter giving way to the rebirth of spring.

Pluto is not gone or forgotten, and it never will be. It is not a TNO or planetoid or plutoid or asteroid or comet or minor object in any way.  It is a planet.  Ultimately, history will vindicate this.  So to Dr. Brian Marsden, who promised Clyde Tombaugh he would someday give Pluto an asteroid number even if Tombaugh did not live to see it, I have my own promise: Whether or not you live to see it, I and the many like-minded citizens of the world will see Pluto reinstated to full planet status.  You can take that to the bank.

Thursday, August 21, 2008

Is Pluto Really A Kuiper Belt Object?

Since the discovery of the first Kuiper Belt Objects in 1992, some astronomers have argued that Pluto is just one of many objects in the Kuiper Belt, now referred to as Kuiper Belt Objects, or KBOs.  The Kuiper Belt is named for Gerard Kuiper, who in the 1950s postulated the existence of a second belt of asteroids beyond the orbit of Neptune.

Of course, most KBOs are small, shapeless asteroids too small to have attained hydrostatic equilibrium, the condition at which differentiation and geophysical processes begin to occur on such bodies.  The largest ones such as Eris, Pluto, and Makemake are different from the majority in that they are in hydrostatic equilibrium, which is why simply grouping them with the KBOs without distinguishing them for their roundness is not an accurate portrayal.

The argument made by supporters of the geophysical definition of planet, which states that the only criteria for planethood are that an object be non-self luminous, in hydrostatic equilibrium and orbiting a star, is that these round objects have a sort of dual citizenship as both KBOs and planets (of the dwarf planet subcategory), as does Ceres, which is unique as a round object in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Now, the latest research into the area beyond Neptune's orbit suggests that the term Kuiper Belt may have been used too broadly to describe the large region beyond Neptune.  That region, it turns out, is actually a composite of several distinct sub-regions.  Its central area, the Kuiper Belt proper, where most KBOs are located, is at quite a distance beyond Pluto and the small objects that along with it orbit in a 3:2 resonance with Neptune, known as the plutinos (literally meaning little Plutos).

In a diagram presented on Saturday at the educators' workshop of the Great Planet Debate, the division of what is commonly described as the Kuiper Belt into three separate areas was obvious.  The first area, where Pluto and the plutinos are located, is at the very edge of this region.  Significantly further is the area most densely populated with objects while even further is an area of objects scattered at various orbital inclinations.  These objects in the third region, which include the round Sedna, are known as Scattered Disk Objects, or SDOs.

This means that while all objects in this area can be accurately termed Trans-Neptunian Objects (TNOs), that broad term encompasses objects in three separate regions, which in each case have characteristics like other objects in their regions but not necessarily like TNOs in other regions. The question arises, should this entire huge area, which is also the source of short term comets, be classified as the Kuiper Belt, or should that term be reserved for the central region where most TNOs are clumped, a region of which Pluto and the plutinos are clearly not a part.

Our understanding of this far-removed region is constantly evolving as more discoveries are made.  These discoveries are now coming in at a very rapid pace.  Only this week, a new object called 2006 SQ372, made of rock and ice and estimated to be only 50-100 kilometers across, was detected by the Sloan Digital Sky Survey.  The object is comet-like but has no tail as it never comes near the sun. Its orbit is extremely elliptical, taking it as far as 150 billion miles away (compare that with Pluto, which is 3.6 billion miles from the sun) at its furthest, and within the orbit of Neptune, where it is now, at its closest.  It takes a whopping 22,500 years to orbit the sun (compare that with Sedna, which takes 10,000 years, Eris, which takes 550 years, and Pluto, which takes 248 years).

What is this object?  We have no category in which to place it.  It has an orbit like that of a comet and a composition like that of an asteroid, yet it is different from both of these. Astronomers theorize that it originates in the inner Oort Cloud, a still theoretical region that is believed to be the source of long period comets. Yet even at the most distant point in its orbit, 2006 SQ372 is ten times closer to the sun than the main Oort Cloud area is estimated to be.  This object and Sedna are the only ones we know of that appear to have originated from the Oort Cloud.

Clearly, new discoveries will present the need for new categories and new classifications.  A great deal of the controversy over these objects stems from the fact that there is too much about them and their regions that we simply don't know.  What has been viewed as the Kuiper Belt may actually be several separate regions, and there may yet be more regions beyond that. In these cases, the best option for scientists, educators, textbooks, and web sites is to present what we do know while explaining that there is far more we don't know, which will likely inform future classifications.  That is a far better option than to leap to conclusions when major pieces of the puzzle are still unknown to us. Even children can understand that there is still a lot that even the best minds and experts in the world do not yet know.

As for Pluto, not only is its status as a KBO in question; its classification as a Plutoid is clearly problematic.  The suffix "oid," when added to a word, means a thing like the original word; hence, "humanoid" means a life form akin to humans in body shape, composition, etc.  By calling Pluto a Plutoid, the IAU is saying what--that Pluto is like itself??? Also, Plutoids are defined by the IAU as objects with a semi-major axis greater than the orbit of Neptune, meaning they orbit beyond Neptune.  But for 20 of its 248-year orbital period, Pluto's eccentric orbit actually takes it closer to the sun than Neptune.  Does that mean that Pluto is a Plutoid for 228 years but not a Plutoid for the other 20? Again, we have a definition that makes very little sense. 

Also discussed at the Great Planet Debate were the asteroids Vesta and Pallas. These objects are not round but a look at images of them illustrate they are far closer to being round than the other, many shapeless asteroids between Mars and Jupiter.  In fact, Vesta appears to have been round at one time only to have been hit by an asteroid that lopped off its south pole.  Does that mean it was a dwarf planet once but is so no longer?  Do Vesta and Pallas have geophysical properties like the planets, and if they do, doesn't classifying them as asteroids blur that distinction?  We will learn some answers when Dawn gets to Vesta in 2011.  In the meantime, we have yet another gray category, with objects that do not clearly fit into any of the classifications we have created.

What makes something a planet or a comet or a KBO; what makes an entire area part of a belt as opposed to a separate region with its own characteristics?  If there is one thing these questions bring to bear, it is that there is far more that we don't know than what we do know. In light of that, some definitions and classifications will have to remain in a state of flux until we learn more.  This is another important lesson the IAU needs to take into account.  Better than endorse the false perception of a dichotomy (planet vs. not planet), they should keep the subject open with the recognition that only with time and research will we have enough data to make these determinations. Between New Horizons, Dawn, and new discoveries from earth and space-based telescopes, there is no reason to rush to judgment.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Pettiness, Politics, Pluto, and Prague

The Great Planet Debate presented a wealth of information about issues of planet formation and migration, asteroids, extra-solar planets, objects that straddle the border between categories, and of course, the core dispute at the root of this issue, the dynamical versus geophysical perspectives of viewing our solar system.

But there also was another side, an uglier side of the planet debate and the fateful events in Prague two years ago that came to light during this conference.  It is not pretty, and it is not science.  It is a tale of pettiness and politics coming together and how they motivated the most crass, base motivations for the flawed planet definition adopted by the IAU.

On a personal level, I take no joy in reporting these events. I wish none of what I am about to relate were true.  But the facts are, these things did happen, and citizens of the world have the right to know the truth about the way in which an organization that claims to be the authority on astronomical matters came by a decision that has worldwide implications.

I will emphasize that none of these petty or political considerations were present at the Great Planet Debate, where even professionals holding opposing views treated each other congenially and with a sense of humor, even having drinks together at night after the official conference proceedings.

But back to Prague.  There are three specific incidents of pettiness and politics that clearly motivated the vote and therefore, in effect should be considered to render it illegitimate.

A. For unknown reasons, Dr. Brian Marsden, British astronomer and Director of the Minor Planet Center at Harvard University (the Minor Planet Center falls under the auspices of the IAU), has harbored a personal grudge against Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto, since at least 1980.  People with firsthand knowledge of the situation confirmed this at the conference.  Apparently, on numerous occasions, Marsden expressed to Tombaugh his determination to "torpedo your planet," vowing that he would make sure Pluto was given an asteroid number even though Tombaugh might not live to see it.
The Minor Planet Center assigns numbers to asteroids and, since 2006, to dwarf planets as well.  Marsden obviously pursued his goal rigorously and achieved it two years ago.  Yet the motivation for his hostility toward Tombaugh remains unknown.   What is known is that a personal vendetta rather than science motivated Marsden in his quest.

B. After the IAU's Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature recommended a schematic with 12 planets, including Ceres, Charon, and Eris, a few dynamicists began a revolt that ultimately shot down that proposal and replaced it with the one eventually adopted, going against the IAU's own rules by proposing a resolution in real time without it having first been vetted by the appropriate committee(s). One of the ringleaders in this effort is reported to have said that if the provision allowing dwarf planets to be classified as a subcategory of planets were adopted, his life's work would be ruined. This almost certainly was a melodramatic exaggeration, likely a guilt trip to bully other IAU members into going along with the replacement resolution that precluded dwarf planets from being considered planets. However, it is extremely noteworthy because here we have a scientist clearly motivated not by science but by concerns centered around his own ego.

C. European astronomers in general, French astronomers in particular, repeatedly bullied American astronomers at the General Assembly telling them that Pluto was going down because of their anger over US policy in the Middle East.  Many have suspected the IAU vote had been motivated by anti-American sentiment, as Pluto is the only planet discovered by an American.  But to hear that such blatant political statements were made, with no attempt to even be subtle or conceal these motives behind scientific jargon, is tremendously disturbing.  The IAU wants citizens of the world to view it as the authority on astronomical matters, yet its members openly and publicly proclaimed their plans to seek a pre-determined outcome based on politics, not science.   How can anyone view the IAU as a legitimate arbiter of celestial definitions after its members have so compromised their commitments to science and objectivity?

The above may sound like a rant; it may sound like a conspiracy theory, but the fact remains that all these incidents have been confirmed by people who experienced them firsthand. Before educators of the world rush to change textbooks and lessons, they need to hear this truth, however painful it is, about the personal and political manipulation that directly led to the pronouncement that "Pluto is not a planet."

Two years ago, in my first blog entry on this topic, I commented, "The IAU decision, made in a highly political context on the last day of its conference, with a very small minority of members even taking part in the vote, tells us more about old-fashioned human weaknesses than it does about the outer solar system. Even in our most educated circles, we still have ego issues, factional disputes, and individuals vying for personal recognition."   There is no "I told you so" here, just infinite sadness that this statement so captured the reality, that the events that took place in Prague two years ago are so much more a study in psychology than in astronomy.

Knowing these truths of what really happened only make the case for reversing the IAU's 2006 planet definition more compelling.  In fighting for such a reversal, the words of a song from the play "Rags," in which I performed in 1990, come to mind.  That play is a historical musical depicting the lives of Irish, Italian, and Jewish immigrants in New York City in 1910.  One of the characters, Saul, a labor union organizer against sweatshop abuses, sings the following:

"If it's wrong, you can fix it.  If you can't, you can fight it.  If you don't like to fight, you can learn. You don't need to be blind here.  You can open your mind here.  Better than see the light--help it burn!"

In this case, our choices are attempting to get the IAU to "fix" its broken planet definition of 2006, or, if that fails,to fight in the public arena for a better one.  This is an effort that calls not just to scientists but to all citizens of the world to contribute our efforts, our input, our insights, to help the light of truth burn.

The reality of what happened two years ago is painful, but knowing it is the first step to undoing it, as recognition of any problem is the first step toward addressing that problem. As a Lebanese activist once said about injustices committed in his country, "It must be told.  The world must know."

Sunday, August 17, 2008

It Shouldn't End

"It just won't end. Two years after the International Astronomical Union demoted Pluto from a planet to a dwarf, the bickering goes on."  So begins an online article by on The Great Planet Debate.

There is a very strong case to be made that  it shouldn't end. We are continually discovering new data about Pluto, the Kuiper Belt, Ceres, Vesta, exoplanets, etc., all of which must go into informing our concept of what makes something a planet. I cannot understand this need to artificially end what is clearly an open discussion, largely because we just don't have sufficient data yet about some of these bodies to draw firm conclusions. What the IAU did was horrible--a linguistically nonsensical definition brought about through a highly flawed process that did not even adhere to the recommendations of its own committee. Should we just leave things in this mess because "the IAU has spoken" (well, four percent of them, anyway). What about the fact that most planetary scientists, those whose expertise and research specifically deal with planets, are not IAU members? Shouldn't these be the people making such a decision if it is made at all? There is a very real dichotomy between two strains of thought--dynamicists, who look at where objects are, and planetary scientists, who look at what they are. In an age where new knowledge is constantly pouring in, of course such definitions will be in flux.

What if we had decided to "cut off debate" and end discussion of what a planet is after the discoveries of Uranus and Neptune or after the 17th century revolution in which we realized the sun is the center of the solar system? How would we incorporate new information? What's wrong with the debate being ongoing???

Even more significantly, we have one spacecraft en route to Vesta and Ceres and another en route to Pluto.  Dawn will arrive at Vesta in 2011 and at Ceres in 2015, the latter being the same year as New Horizons' rendezvous with Pluto.   This means we know that within seven years, an entire new set of data will become available to us about these objects, data that is likely to surprise us and could very well change how we view and classify these objects. Knowing this data is coming makes the idea of shutting down the debate even more incomprehensible.

As for education, what is wrong with teaching that there are two schools of thought, and both are equally valid? What is wrong with discussing something that excites people about astronomy?  Like it or not, the subject of Pluto evokes passion.  Why not use that passion as a stepping stone to introduce astronomy to many people who have had little or no previous exposure to it?  NASA submitted sample lessons for teaching the controversy at the second through fifth grade level and again at the high school level.   The lesson plan for younger children calls for the teacher to introduce a new term, such as "dwarf planet," have the students explain the term in their own words, have them create a non-linguistic representation of the term, engage in activities that help them understand the term, discuss the term with one another, and engage in games that allow them to play with the term.

In another lesson, the students are asked to compare characteristics of Earth, Ceres, Vesta, and Pluto--location relative to other solar system bodies, size and shape, mass and gravity, density, presence or lack of water, internal structure, surface features, number of moons, presence or lack of magnetic field, length of day, length of year, and presence or lack of atmosphere--and are then presented with both the IAU definition and a contrasting definition based on an object's geophysical characteristics. This opens debate on the issue, followed by a written exercise in which students explain how their understanding of a planet has changed or not changed as a result of the lesson.

At the high school level, students are presented with the case of the discovery of a hypothetical planet and then given a list of that planet's characteristics as compared with those of the known planets, dwarf planets, various of the planets' moons and asteroids. They are then asked to classify the new object using these many characteristics.  The lesson then proceeds to a debate with some students representing the IAU viewpoint and others taking the opposing position.  Both sides are evaluated on clarity and coherence of their arguments and rebuttals, teamwork, and adherence to rules regarding each person's time to speak and their opening and closing statements.

Has our culture become so focused on needing and seeking "closure" to everything that we cannot comprehend the utility of discussion that goes on for decades, centuries, or even indefinitely?

One online comment in a forum discussing the Great Planet Debate is especially troubling.  The poster states that the IAU has spoken; they are the authority and the experts, and therefore, we should follow what they say. This sentiment was echoed by one of the dynamicists at the Great Planet Debate, who stated that while he would have preferred that the IAU come up with a better definition, one that includes dwarf planets as a subclass of planets, now that they have done something else, we need to recognize their definition and work with it to avoid chaos and a situation in which multiple planet definitions are used.

The same speaker said he believes some decisions by authoritative bodies are so wrong that they beg for revolution and/or resistance, but this one does not rise to that occasion.

We clearly have a cultural issue here, and it centers on how people respond to authority.  American education is supposed to prepare students to be active participants in democracy, which requires critical thinking skills.  Those skills can and do often involve the need to question authority, even to question the legitimacy of those who claim to be in authority. Development of these skills mandates that the goal of education be teaching students how to think rather than what to think.
Blind obedience to any authority is dangerous because it turns people into automatons, easily enabling the rise of dictatorships and the perpetration of all sorts of injustices. Opposition to such blind obedience is inherent in American culture and can be seen on both sides of the US political divide.  Whether the issue is the decision to have an abortion or the right to own guns, the American people largely do not like being told what to do.

However, resistance to blind obedience in general and to the IAU decision in particular are not, as some claim, occurring only in the US.  Astronomy educators in England and Australia have discussed their own opposition to the IAU's planet definition in online blogs and report just as much resistance to it from their own populations.

The writer of the article in argues that the Great Planet Debate is about maintaining status for New Horizons and even about making money through books, T-shirts, and bumper stickers.  These arguments are highly questionable and sound a lot like ways of dodging the very real issue at hand.  There are always people who will use controversy to sell objects and make money; if this controversy didn't exist, they would likely find something else.  And the fact that so many people continue to buy items supporting Pluto's planet status is a statement in and of itself.  People vote with their dollars; their purchase of these items is their expression, through the market, of displeasure with the IAU decision.

As for New Horizons, the mission hardly needs to manufacture publicity.  It is already fully funded, and its stunning Jupiter flyby images speak for themselves.  NASA has active Solar System Ambassadors and Educators, some of whom specifically focus on educating the public on the New Horizons mission. This debate was not done to promote New Horizons.  It was done because there is a need for open, participatory debate on the issue of what constitutes a planet, a process not provided by the IAU.  In effect, the Great Planet Debate did what the IAU should have done but failed to do.

These discussions can and should continue, and they should involve not just professional astronomers but amateurs and members of the public as well.  The goal is to get people thinking, questioning, evaluating, and re-evaluating their positions on this topic.  If that results in a planetary version of the Boston Tea Party and a throwing of the IAU definition into bodies of water, so be it.

In short, it's all good.

Saturday, August 16, 2008

A Genuine Learning Experience

I've just spent the last two days here in the city of my namesake in an intensive and exhilarating learning experience. The time has flown by.  Both days were so filled with seminars, discussions, and evening socializing that I've barely had time to open up my laptop except to save the audiotaped sessions from my digital tape recorder.  So while I promised to blog from the conference, the entries are a bit delayed, as this is the first time I've had any significant free moments to process everything I have experienced and share it with readers.

This will be the first of several entries on the conference, which still lasts one more day.  Tomorrow's portion is geared toward educators and focuses on how to teach the planet controversy along with updates on the Dawn and New Horizons missions. But like my early research and outreach efforts two years ago, what started as advocacy for a cause evolved into so much more, into a genuine, never-ending learning experience.

In a very open, friendly environment, those of us at this conference learned so much about the solar system--about planetary formation; solar system dynamics; asteroids such as Ceres, Pallas and Vesta; properties of jovian and terrestrial planets; diverse exoplanets; classification schemes; a first hand account of events at the fateful IAU General Assembly two years ago, and so much more. We learned not just from the professionals, but from one another.  Participants ranged from professional astronomers to teachers to writers to interested members of the public, to Clyde Tombaugh's daughter Annette--also a teacher--as well as her husband and grandson.

And we had the both educational and highly entertaining opportunity to witness a lively debate between Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson and Dr. Mark Sykes on planet definition and, of course, Pluto.  They may not have agreed with one another, but neither was especially enthusiastic about the IAU planet definition.  Tyson wants to toss the term planet entirely, claiming it no longer has any meaning.  Sykes, one of the conference organizers, advocates keeping the term but differentiating the many diverse types of planets by creating subcategories.

On a personal level, I learned so many new things about the solar system--how orbital resonance works, the fact that Vesta and Pallas are closer in composition to planets than to asteroids, the decaying orbit of Triton that will eventually crash it into Neptune, the existence of Earth's "second moon," a tiny object orbiting our planet, and much, much more.   Among family and friends, I like to play the "know it all" about the solar system, but here, like almost all participants, I found out how much I didn't know.

The social networking opportunities during the breaks were less formal, but equally enlightening learning experiences.  In addition to meeting my personal equivalent of celebrities--leaders of the movement to overturn the IAU's demotion of Pluto, who are leading experts in their fields--and the daughter of Pluto's discoverer, I and the other attendees got the chance to chat with these leading minds in a relaxed setting, to tell jokes and "hang out" while at the same time sharing insights into the planet definition issue and each of our individual perspectives.

My grandmother often says she would rather be the least intelligent person in a group full of very bright people than the most intelligent person in any group.  That kind of sums up our experience here at this conference.  We were all privileged to not just meet but spend time conversing with some of the greatest minds in planetary science and with a general group of highly intelligent people.  After all, how many people would choose to spend three days of their summer vacation in seminars discussing what is a planet?

In the education field, the buzzword today is lifelong learning, meaning learning does not stop once one graduates from high school, college, or graduate school.  Instead, learning is a lifetime activity, as important and meaningful for adults as for children.

I came here to fight for Pluto, and I did--in my oral and poster presentations, in question and answer sessions, in personal discussions, even in lobbying the professionals who are members of the IAU to go to next year's General Assembly in Rio and stage a revolt to get dwarf planets recategorized as planets.  But in the process of doing all this, I got the opportunity to take part in what amounts to a summer enrichment course in planetary science and have personal discussions with some of the key players in this drama, including some who hold views supporting the opposing side.  By enhancing my knowledge of the subject matter, I know I have better positioned myself to be not just an advocate, but a well-informed one.

A lot was said about culture, the fact that "planet" is a cultural term as well as a scientific one, and the need for professional astronomers to take this into account.  This is something the IAU failed to do in making its decision in spite of the fact its own committee charged with developing a planet definition recommended doing just that.  In upcoming entries, I  will discuss the issue of the term planet in culture and why this aspect is something astronomers ignore at their own peril.

In the meantime, I want to thank APL, Dr. Hal Weaver, and all the organizers of this conference for opening attendance and even participation to all interested parties, for providing us this opportunity to have input into this issue and play a role in this important dialogue about just what makes something a planet.  Hopefully, this conference will be the first of many that will succeed in this endeavor, which the IAU so utterly failed to do.

Monday, August 11, 2008

Getting Ready for the Big Event

The excitement is a lot like that felt on the approach of a birthday, special personal occasion, or New Year's Eve. An event I've known about, anticipated, and planned for over a long period of time is fast approaching as reality.  The Great Planet Debate is scheduled to take place in less than three days in Laurel, Maryland.

Originally announced in the wake of the IAU vote demoting Pluto and scheduled for 2007, this conference for so long seemed just an abstract idea.  There were many times I wasn't even sure it would really happen though I kept on hoping. And now, it's real, not abstract, something brought home in the necessary last minute preparations for the long awaited trip to Maryland.

Unlike the IAU General Assembly, this conference is open to the public. In fact, not only is attendance open to the public, so is participation.  I am deeply honored at being given the opportunity to do a five-minute presentation on Friday morning as well as a poster presentation on both days. Not being a scientist, I do not have prior experience with such presentations and posters, and I am deeply grateful to Dr. Hal Weaver, who patiently answered my many questions and helped me through the process of preparing these.  The thought that I, a writer from New Jersey who feels passionately about Pluto, could have a say at a major event like this one speaks volumes about the openness of the organizers to a multiplicity of participants and perspectives.

One of the most exciting things about the Great Planet Debate is that it has once again ignited discussions all over the Internet about Pluto and the larger question of what is a planet.  IAU officials who stand by the untenable definition created by four percent of their organization in 2006 are right to be concerned.  That definition, flawed, sloppy, and rejected by scientists and lay people alike, has only a very shaky leg on which to stand. Its eventual overturning is all but inevitable.

Facts cannot be dictated by fiat or by the vote of a committee or even that of an organization such as the IAU. The concept that any object starts or stops being a planet at the stroke of a pen or count of a vote is ludicrous.  The only thing that pen stroke or vote accomplishes is the statement of a belief that the object in question has changed. We cannot vote Pluto out of being a planet any more than we can vote that the Earth rather than the sun is the center of the solar system.

It seems like the IAU has gone from being a scientific organization that centralizes naming and cataloguing in astronomy to a priesthood dictating by fiat what is and is not reality. How can any scientist expect people, whether other scientists or lay people, to blindly accept that an object is no longer what it used to be, not because something about that object changed, but because this small, closed group has decreed it so?

If the IAU has become this out of touch with the public and with members of its own field, then maybe it's time for another group, a more open, more professional, and less political group, to take its place.

Some IAU supporters are ridiculing the conference as "The Great American Planet Debate," as if this conference were open only to Americans.  That is not the case.  In fact, both the dynamical defintion of planet as well as the geophysical one will be presented and discussed.  The initial call for abstracts by those interested in presenting did not preclude anyone from making a presentation defending the IAU position.

It is true that a large percentage of American astronomers are planetary scientists while a large percentage of European astronomers are dynamicists.  But that has nothing to do with nationality.  Who would know better how to classify planets than those who study planets? (as opposed to those who study neutron stars, quasars, black holes, cosmology, etc.).  The nationality of these planetary scientists is completely irrelevant, just as is their religion, race, ethnicity, etc.  The attack on the conference because its organizers are Americans is based on completely flawed logic.  Additionally, there are many planetary scientists who are not members of the IAU, and they too deserve to be heard on this matter, as this is the field in which they specialize.

Getting back to my own involvement, and my presentations, whose topic will be "Planet Definition Is Important," I find the openness and receptivity of the organizers to be most refreshing and very welcoming. These are obviously people who want to engage the general public with astronomy as opposed to keeping the community of people involved with the field small and closed.

On a personal level, I want to thank some very, very special friends who have made this trip possible for me.  On July 24, my hard drive crashed, and as a result, a lot of my information was lost.  Thanks to the efforts of Mark Barry, Eileen Marville, Karl Hunting, Siobhan Elias, and Dr. Alan Stern, I was able to get back much of the Pluto-related information that had been on that hard drive.  For help with the Power Point presentations, I especially thank Amateur Astronomers, Inc. in Cranford, New Jersey, and the members who worked with me in the computer room on getting everything right in the presentation. There are many other ways these wonderful friends have made it possible for me to attend this event and do my best to take part in it, and for them, I will be forever grateful.

It is exhilarating to know that one can make a real difference, especially when one is not even a professional in the field.  Without the Internet, none of the worldwide discussions about Pluto by ordinary people would be possible. Without the Internet, no one but IAU members in a particular room on a particular day could have a say on this matter.   How amazing it is to live in an age where everyone can contribute to such discussions, provide input, and have their input valued and incorporated into such major decisions.

Throughout this week, I will be blogging on this site about the progress of the conference.  Stay tuned as the fight to reinstate Pluto goes into high gear.  The best is yet to come.

Sunday, June 29, 2008

Dwarf Planets Are Planets Too

Within the last week, the renewed media focus on Pluto has resulted in encouraging news. More and more people have been commenting on various blogs and web sites expressing opposition to the IAU demotion of Pluto and its general undemocratic decision-making processes.

I am happy to report that as part of the advocacy campaign to inform IAU president Catherine Cesarsky, the IAU, and the media that contrary to Cesarsky's claim, many astronomers and lay people do in fact care a great deal about the designation of Pluto, that Siobhan Elias of Streator, Illinois, has started a new web site,  .  At this site, you can find links to background information on Pluto, the New Horizons mission, Clyde Tombaugh and general astronomy web sites. Siobhan also provides a good summary of what happened at the 2006 IAU General Assembly, links to both professional and lay petitions opposing the new planet definition, and contact emails to Cesarsky, the IAU, CNN, and the BBC. It is important to cc all messages sent to Cesarsky to the IAU, CNN, and BBC to publicly show the overwhelming public support for Pluto.

A huge thank you goes to Siobhan for her hard work and dedication in setting up this very helpful and comprehensive web site.

There is also an excellent interview dated June 23, 2008 with Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of New Horizons, on the web site of Sky and Telescope. The interview and comments responing to it can be found at . In language that is at the same time compelling and easy to follow, Stern presents the argument why the geophysical definition of planet (namely, the definition that a planet is a non-self luminous object in hydrostatic equilibrium orbiting a star) is by far the most sensible and most useful one, especially in light of ongoing discoveries of a wide variety of planets in other solar systems.

Along with Dr. Stern, I once again urge anyone who shares our view that dwarf planets are planets too and therefore should be redesignated by the IAU as a subclass of planets to, in Stern's words, "get involved" and contact Cesarsky at and cc your message to the IAU at , to CNN at , and to the BBC at . Your message can be as simple as "Dwarf Planets Are Planets Too" in the subject line or, if you so choose, can be more detailed. Feel free to use any ideas from my message to Cesarsky, which appears below:

Dear Dr. Cesarsky, IAU President,

I am writing to express my profound opposition to the 2006 demotion of Pluto from planet status and the subsequent designation of dwarf planets beyond the orbit of Neptune as “plutoids” and to urge the IAU to re-open and reconsider this entire issue.

It is especially disconcerting to me to read comments by you that nobody or very few people, whether scientists or lay people, care about this issue. This claim is simply not true.

As you are well aware, over 300 planetary scientists signed a petition within days of the 2006 vote describing the new planet definition as “sloppy” and stating they will not use it. The lead scientist circulating the petition is Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and one of the foremost experts in the world on Pluto and the Kuiper Belt.

However, the claim that only scientists connected to New Horizons seek reversal of the 2006 definition is outrageous and untrue. Yes, those in charge of New Horizons focus on study of Pluto and the Kuiper Belt and therefore are more familiar with the particular nuances of this area than most other astronomers. This should give them more, not less credibility with the IAU in a decision on this matter.

The reality is that New Horizons is already fully funded and on its way to Pluto, so there is no issue of compromising the mission by Pluto’s downgrading. And many astronomers not connected with New Horizons, not even American, believe the IAU 2006 planet definition to be irreparably flawed and unusable.

The main problem is the rejection of the concept that dwarf planets are a subclass of planets. If this is reversed, much of the controversy will dissipate. In astronomy, dwarf stars are a subclass of stars, and dwarf galaxies are a subclass of galaxies. What is the problem with keeping the term planet broad with multiple subcategories such as terrestrial planets, gas giants, ice giants, ice dwarfs, super-Earths, etc., with more to come as we discover a wider variety of exoplanets?

This raises another concern, which is that the 2006 definition does not make any provisions for exoplanets whatsoever. That seems quite archaic in an era when these objects are being found on a regular basis.

Also, the concept of an object “clearing its orbit” is vague and could be interpreted to exclude every single planet in our solar system, all of which orbit with asteroids in their orbital fields. It could especially be applied to Neptune, which does not “clear its orbit” of Pluto; for this reason, one could argue the definition sets up a double standard—Neptune is a planet, but Pluto is not even though the orbits of both overlap. And the requirement that an object clear its orbit makes it virtually impossible to have a binary planet system where two objects orbit one another—and also orbit a star—with a common barycenter.

Even if this requirement is changed to state that a planet must “dominate” the neighborhood of its orbit, that is a qualification that never historically has been viewed as necessary for qualifying an object as a planet. It could be kept as a dynamical consideration if we use the most sensible planet definition, which is that a planet is a non-self-luminous spheroidal object orbiting a star and then create a subcategory of dwarf planets that meet this criteria yet do not dominate their orbits. This compromise would give equal value to both dynamical and geophysical considerations and would maintain Pluto, Eris, and Ceres as planets but of the dwarf planet subcategory.

Like many, I am especially troubled by the process the IAU has been using to reach these decisions. Not using electronic voting means that anyone who can’t be in a room on one particular day has no say. In 2006, that left out 96 percent of the IAU’s own membership. The recent “plutoid” classification was made without consulting leading planetary astronomers such as Dr. Mike Brown, Dr. Hal Weaver, Dr. Mark Sykes, Dr. Alan Stern, and many others. How could the IAU craft a definition without seeking input from those who study this subject on a daily basis?

As Stern has pointed out, there are many planetary scientists who are not members of the IAU, meaning they currently have no say in such decisions. I ask that the IAU find a way to include their input, which is of tremendous value here, far more so than that of astronomers who specialize in areas other than planets, such as black holes, quasars, cosmology, etc.

I am a writer, not a professional astronomer, but I love astronomy and see a tremendous opportunity to engage the general public in it during the International Year of Astronomy in 2009. However, I also believe that the credibility of the IAU has been severely compromised by this debacle. Large numbers of both astronomers and lay people feel their voices have been unheard and discounted and are now looking elsewhere for leadership in the field.

For all these reasons, I implore you to recognize publicly that the 2006 definition is a mistake arrived at through a flawed process and to re-open this issue in a manner that is transparent, open and inclusive of all interested parties, makes use of electronic voting, and incorporates the views of planetary scientists who may not be IAU members but have a valid, vital perspective to contribute on this issue.

Laurel Kornfeld
Highland Park, NJ, USA

Finally, to interested readers: Consider attending the Great Planet Debate in Laurel, Maryland, from August 14-16. It's not too late to register! You can find more information about the conference at

Dwarf planets are planets too!