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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!

Friday, June 20, 2008

Show Us the Data, Please

In the wake of the incredulity and ridicule following the announcement of the IAU's most recently coined term, "plutoids," IAU leaders and supporters of Pluto's 2006 demotion are abandoning all pretense of professionalism, resorting to the old political tactic of repeating something enough times in the hope that people will believe it as fact.

Dr. Catherine Cesarsky, president of the IAU, is leading this latest campaign by repeating statements that astronomers who seek to overturn the 2006 IAU planet definition constitute "a very small portion of the astronomy community," "practically nobody is trying to get Pluto reclassified as a planet," and "a few people make a lot of noise."

As a scientist, Cesarsky is certainly aware that any such claims must be backed up with supporting data if they are to be considered credible. Naturally, the question arises, on what data are Cesarsky's statements based? Did she conduct a survey of astronomers, and if so, how many, when, and was it a random sample, a comprehensive poll of everyone in the field, or a selective decision based on her own preconceived notions?

I may be completely wrong here, but my guess is that there was no survey or poll conducted at all, that Cesarsky's statements are simply conjecture with no data to back them up.  Yet Cesarsky has no problem repeating what are clearly political rather than scientific statements whose intention is nothing other than to discredit astronomers and others who support overturning the 2006 planet definition and reinstating Pluto and likely many other objects, such as Ceres and Eris, as planets.

If she claimed a scientific discovery in astrophysics, would she expect people around the world to believe in that discovery without supporting evidence? Would she expect controversial claims to be accepted on faith without any peer review? If she tried such things, she would be laughed out of her field.

In politics, the first principle of propaganda is "a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth."

Four percent of the IAU's membership voted in Prague, and most of those are not planetary scientists but other types of astronomers, meaning planets are not the area of their expertise. A tiny group decided on the term "plutoids." According to Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of New Horizons, many planetary scientists do not even belong to the IAU. Whether that is because they do not meet the IAU's requirements for membership or because they would rather spend their time on science rather than political maneuvering doesn't matter. The fact is, these people deserve to be heard, and in this electronic age, there is no excuse for not giving voice to every astronomer whose research specialty is studying planets.

Interestingly, one astronomer who would not meet the qualifications for IAU membership is the late Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto.  IAU membership requires candidates have a PhD in their fields, and Tombaugh's highest degree was a Masters, unless one counts an honorary doctorate he was given by Northern Arizona University in 1960.

Cesarsky's statements are now being parroted by supporters of the IAU decision all over the Internet and the media, none of whom back up these statements with any supporting data.

One of the most outrageous claims is being made by German astronomy journalist Daniel Fischer, who is repeating the IAU line all over the Internet. Fischer states the following regarding the signatories of Dr. Stern's petition rejecting the IAU's 2006 planet definition:

"The so-called petition (the one with the 300 signatures) is a joke: I actually contacted most of the well-known astronomers who signed and asked them for their reason. Intriguingly some actually agreed with the IAU decision and many had no opinion at all. But they had signed for purely political reasons - be it that they were involved in New Horizons, others were simply angry that they hadn't been consulted."
He also says, in an online discussion with me,  "I actually went to great lengths to contact many of the astronomers who signed the 'petition' and found out what drove them - and you just don't want their own words to be true and dismiss my research as 'hearsay.'"
Source for both:

Both Fischer and I are journalists and bloggers.  As a journalist, he should know fully well that any such claims, especially those arguing that professional astronomers signed their names to a statement in which they do not believe, must be backed up with supporting evidence as opposed to being accepted on his word alone.  Yet he does not provide any of that evidence.

So my challenge to him, is please tell us--on your blog, on the blog above, or at another site--the names of the signatories you contacted, when you spoke to them, and the exact statements they made. If you cannot provide this data, your claim has about as much credence as a story that you were abducted by a UFO but have nothing to prove it other than your word.

Cesarsky and fellow IAU supporters are also resorting to another old political tactic, namely, if one cannot defend one's position, simply attack one's opponents instead--the classic ad hominem, sometimes known here in the US as "swiftboating," after the personal attacks on 2004 Democratic presidential candidate John Kerry.  In this case, the attacks attempt to discredit opponents of the 2006 planet definition as motivated by emotions such as anger and frustration or by nationalistic, namely American, attachments and personal interest in the New Horizons mission, rather than by genuine scientific concerns.  On the site, , researcher Mark Richardson describes the efforts of Stern and others to overturn the decision as "throwing a temper tantrum and crying."

In light of all this, I encourage everyone who believes in overturning the 2006 planet definition for a better one as well as reinstating Pluto and allowing for the addition of new objects as planets, to take part in an initiative being launched by Siobhan Elias in Streator, Illinois, contacting Cesarsky, the IAU, CNN, and the BBC and stating in the strongest possible terms your support for classifying dwarf planets as a subclass of planets.

Here, in her own words, is Siobhan's message:

"Dear family, friends & organization members:

As many of you know, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has made a mess of planet definitions, upsetting very many lay people, scientists, and school children. Amazingly, the IAU's president recently stated that
"I don't think there will be a big [reaction]," she says. "A few people make a lot of noise."

Please read the letter below that I've sent to IAU president, Catherine Cesarsky, with copies to the IAU, BBC & CNN (I've provided their email addresses).Please send her your own letter! It can be as brief as a few sentences or more "vocal" like mine. Make sure to use "Dwarf Planets Are Planets Too" in the subject line. Then send a letter to your
family & friends in the USA AND ABROAD and have them do the same, and so on, and so on...I think you get the point.

Here are the e-mail addresses-

I can't do this alone, but together we can create an avalanche of e-mails to Cesarsky and show her how many thousands of people recognize the IAU's blunder. Don't miss out on being involved in this world-wide protest.

-Siobhan Elias   (see my letter below)

To Catherine Cesarsky, IAU President,

I am writing to you regarding the 'new' definition of a planet, approved by a very small faction of the voting members of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). I must add that when I first read the definition in August 2006, I was confused and angered.

As a resident of Streator, IL, hometown of Clyde Tombaugh, I saw this as a biased and calculated move to have Pluto 'stricken' from the record simply because an American discovered it. Of course, we are proud of this great feat of Clyde Tombaugh back in 1930. Why shouldn't we be? What he did was, at the very least, incredible. His subsequent contributions to the world of science and astronomy will forever be recognized.

The inconsistency of the definition in relation to what is now considered to be a planet is the term 'cleared the neighborhood.' What most intelligent people recognize to be the nine planets, all orbit the sun and have sufficient mass for hydrostatic equilibrium. However, five of the nine planets have a 'neighborhood"' which is NOT completely cleared. So if we go by the current IAU definition, Pluto, Earth, Jupiter, Neptune and Mars are not planets. That would be fine if the IAU applied the definition evenly when discriminating what is and what is not considered to be a planet.

The issue is not that planet Pluto was reclassified.The issue is not if most Americans agree or disagree with the definition. Your recent statements in the various articles I've read are insulting to the thousands of us who believe the IAU "screwed up" and now, through your comments, are trying to justify this by saying 'Nobody cares.' I know that countless scientists and lay people all over the world, have and will, continue to oppose this 'new' definition. Also, to say only the people tied to the New Horizons project are the ones pushing for the reinstatement of Pluto is ridiculous.  To minimalize their 'expertise' of the littlest planet is ludicrous. Who would know better if Pluto was a planet than the very scientists working on the New Horizons Mission?  With that thinking, it would be O.K. to have a dentist remove my appendix rather than a surgeon, simply because he was 'in the room.'

Just so there is no future misunderstanding on your part, I will do what I can to contact as many people as possible and have them also send you their thoughts (on this very controversial issue) which you seem to think 'nobody cares' about.

So here is the issue.... the current definition is inconsistent. It is not applied evenly to what some even consider, the 12 planets. Because of all these things.....the IAU has lost its credibility. Until this organization can stand up and admit their mistake, I believe most will feel the same. The IAU will not only have lost the support of people all over the world, but it will also lose the very membership which made it a 'once credible' organization.

Mrs. Siobhan Elias"

Please follow Siobhan's example and write! Let's make our voices heard!!!

Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Plutoids??? What Was the IAU Thinking???

Just when one thinks the IAU has done the extent of its damage in the planet debate and that things cannot get any worse, they do exactly that. With no advance notice to anyone but its Executive Committee, the IAU today announced that dwarf planets beyond the orbit of Neptune are henceforth to be called "plutoids."

And this is supposed to be a "bone" thrown to supporters of Pluto's planet status. Not quite.

After the resolution labeling dwarf planets beyond Neptune "Plutonian objects" failed at the IAU General Assemby in 2006 (that's the vote on the last day of the two week conference, by four percent of its members), the IAU Committee on Small Body Nomenclature and the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature set out to come up with a new term to define these objects.

After two years, all they can come up with is "plutoids?" And since Ceres does not orbit beyond Neptune, the IAU is now considering labeling it the lone "ceroid." Are you confused yet?

On one of many television programs covering the US presidential election, a commentator noted wisely that when one makes a mistake, the best thing is to admit to that mistake rather than to further compound it with additional spin and attempts at rationalization.

It's too bad the IAU cannot follow that advice. If it did, its members would admit they messed up in 2006 with the sloppy definition that states that a dwarf planet is not a planet at all and rescind the decision or at least put it to a General Assembly vote that made provisions for electronic voting.

Instead, they chose to further muddy the waters with a new definition that only further confounds the issue.

According to this new definition, no object beyond the orbit of Neptune, regardless of its size, can ever be considered a planet. What kind of science is that? What about the geophysical makeup of these objects? Does that count for nothing? The best way to remedy this is to overturn the decision that dwarf planets are not planets at all. Then we can say that Ceres is an asteroid belt dwarf planet, and Pluto, Eris, and other round KBOs are Kuiper Belt dwarf planets. That keeps things simple; it preserves the identifying feature for planets as being in hydrostatic equilibrium while recognizing the dynamics of these objects by noting they do not dominate the neighborhood of their orbits.

How many IAU members voted on this definition? Certainly far fewer than the 424 who voted for the initial demotion. Just because the IAU claims its processes are democratic does not make them so. Why were major planetary astronomers like Dr. Alan Stern, Dr. Mike Brown (co-discoverer of Eris), and Dr. Hal Weaver not even informed that this discussion was taking place?

IAU General Secretary Karel A. van der Hucht argues that the IAU is open to comments and criticism. But how can anyone comment or criticize when no one even knew this subject was up for discussion?

This was purely and simply a backroom deal, a political decision, not a scientific one. It was made behind closed doors with no attempts at peer review, as is normally done in science. Weaver rightly terms the process used by the IAU here as "archaic" and not befitting an age of transparency.

And Stern is correct in describing the decision as "irrelevant" since it is unlikely to be used by many scientists or lay people because it does nothing more than further the confusion. Additionally, it does not take into account any definition for similar objects found in other solar systems.

This decision does nothing to promote the IAU's International Year of Astronomy, an outreach effort aimed at generating public interest in astronomy; in fact, it does the very opposite by showing the IAU to be an elitist, closed organization out of touch with the public and even with professional astronomers.

I plan to be at the JPL conference in Laurel, Maryland, arguing for the most sane planet definition I have ever heard, courtesy of my astronomy instructor Al Witzgall. Specifically, he says, "a planet is a non-self luminous spheroidal object orbiting a star." That's it. Then we subdivide into terrestrial planets, gas giants, ice giants, ice dwarfs, and perhaps additional categories as more discoveries are made.

A key factor the IAU, with all its PhDs, has yet to learn, is that the process by which something is done is just as important as that action itself. And the process by which they came to the word "plutoid," like the 2006 General Assembly vote, is irreparably flawed.

If Stern follows through on his suggestion to found a rival professional astronomical organization, more power to him.

There is a silver lining here for supporters of Pluto's planethood. Several astronomers, such as Stephen J. Kortenkamp, senior scientist at the Planetary Science Institute in Tucson, Arizona, and astronomy enthusiasts like Michael Burstein of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet, have suggested that this weak, tenuous definition will only strengthen the voices of those of us who want to see Pluto's planethood reinstated.

If that does happen, then maybe this farce of a decision will have led to some good.