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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!