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.

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