Monday, March 9, 2009

New Mexico and Illinois Have It Right About Pluto

The legislatures of New Mexico and Illinois seem to have much more sense than a certain 424 IAU members who voted in Prague on August 24, 2006. New Mexico, for the third year in a row, passed a resolution honoring February 18, the anniversary of the day Pluto was discovered, as Planet Pluto Day in their state. And Illinois, thanks largely to lobbying by Pluto supporter and Streator native Siobhan Elias, adopted a resolution recognizing March 13, the anniversary of the day Pluto's discovery was announced to the world, as Pluto Day in Illinois, honoring Clyde Tombaugh. Both states openly defied the IAU decree and declared Pluto to be a full-fledged planet, at least when it is over their skies.

Here is the text of both resolutions:

1) New Mexico





Joni Marie Gutierrez






WHEREAS, Dr. Clyde Tombaugh is best known for discovering

the planet Pluto in 1930, but he also discovered and named a

total of fourteen asteroids; and

WHEREAS, Dr. Tombaugh also engaged in serious scientific

research regarding unidentified flying objects; and

WHEREAS, on August 20, 1949, Dr. Tombaugh claimed to have

seen several unidentified flying objects near Las Cruces,

stating "I doubt that the phenomenon was any terrestrial

reflection because ... nothing of the kind has ever appeared

before or since"; and


- 2 -

WHEREAS, Dr. Tombaugh worked at the White Sands missile

range during the 1950s and taught astronomy at New Mexico state

university from 1955 until his retirement in 1973; and

WHEREAS, Dr. Tombaugh died in Las Cruces in 1997; and

WHEREAS, approximately one ounce of his ashes is being

carried on the New Horizons spacecraft that was launched in

2006 and that is scheduled for a fly-by of Pluto in 2014; and

WHEREAS, Pluto was recognized as a planet for seventy-five

years; and

WHEREAS, Dr. Clyde Tombaugh's discoveries have shaped and

advanced the field of astronomy; and

WHEREAS, his enduring scientific accomplishments and

personal contributions shine brightly on New Mexico state

university as well as the rest of the world; and

WHEREAS, New Mexico is proud to recognize these

accomplishments and contributions; and

WHEREAS, thanks to Dr. Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto will always

be considered a planet in New Mexico;



2009 be proclaimed "Pluto is a Planet in New Mexico Day" at the

house of representatives in honor of the seventy-ninth

anniversary of the discovery of Pluto by Clyde Tombaugh; and

BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that copies of this memorial be

transmitted to the family members of Dr. Clyde Tombaugh.
2) Illinois

SR0046 LRB096 04130 KXB 14171 r


2 WHEREAS, Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of the planet Pluto,
3 was born on a farm near the Illinois community of Streator; and

4 WHEREAS, Dr. Tombaugh served as a researcher at the
5 prestigious Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona; and

6 WHEREAS, Dr. Tombaugh first detected the presence of Pluto
7 in 1930; and

8 WHEREAS, Dr. Tombaugh is so far the only Illinoisan and
9 only American to ever discover a planet; and

10 WHEREAS, For more than 75 years, Pluto was considered the
11 ninth planet of the Solar System; and

12 WHEREAS, A spacecraft called New Horizons was launched in
13 January 2006 to explore Pluto in the year 2015; and

14 WHEREAS, Pluto has three moons: Charon, Nix and Hydra; and

15 WHEREAS, Pluto's average orbit is more than three billion
16 miles from the sun; and

17 WHEREAS, Pluto was unfairly downgraded to a "dwarf" planet

Both proclamations have generated some less than complimentary responses by newspaper columnists and bloggers. Who are these politicians, who claim to know better than the IAU? the writers rant. Don't they have anything better to do? Why are they contradicting a consensus of the scientific community? What a lot of these commentators are missing is the fact that there is no scientific consensus on the status of Pluto among the scientific community.

Certain people with a particular agenda like to act as though such a consensus exists when it really does not. Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson and Dr. Mike Brown both routinely give talks titled, "How I Killed Pluto, and Why Pluto Had It Coming." The two of them can compete with one another over who committed the dirty deed, but that does not change the fact that Pluto as a planet is not dead.

Journalists, if they do their job as it should be done, are responsible for telling both sides in any controversy. In the case of columnists who deride lawmakers in New Mexico and Illinois for enacting pro-Pluto resolutions, the writers fail to note that the 424 members of the IAU (out of a total of 10,000 members plus many planetary scientists who do not belong to the IAU) who voted on this acted more like politicians than like scientists at the 2006 General Assembly. Both the process and the outcome of the planet definition session are political. One need only view the video of that session, still on the IAU web site under the category of the 2006 General Assembly, to see a spectacle that is part politics, part circus, and no science whatsoever.

Legislative bodies at all levels frequently pass symbolic resolutions honoring individuals, ethnic and advocacy groups, awareness weeks and months for various causes, etc. These resolutions do not take up any significant amount of time and do not cost taxpayers any money. Any claims that these are being passed to avoid addressing other, more serious issues, are ludicrous.

Resolutions like the ones above, both of which honor a native son and his accomplishments (Tombaugh worked in New Mexico for many years and was born in Illinois) are not adopted with any notion of forcing their viewpoints on people. The legislatures of New Mexico and Illinois are not telling anyone they have to reject the IAU decree; they are simply expressing the sentiment of these governing bodies, in this case partly as a protest, with no illusion that anyone, including teachers, will be compelled to comply with that sentiment.

Hopefully, teachers are smarter than the journalists who have made fun of these efforts and understand that the best way to teach this issue is as an ongoing controversy. They can find a great resource in an educational activity created by Montana State University that was selected by NASA as an "exemplary product" at

As I write this, it occurs to me that today is the one-year anniversary of my radio interview on Pluto with Karl Hricko on Centenary College's WNTI "Contours" program. Interestingly, while some who deride these resolutions note that March 13 falls on a Friday the 13th, there is another, more positive association with this week and month. Tonight and tomorrow mark the Jewish festival of Purim, a carnival like holiday of feasting and merriment. In the Jewish calendar, the month in which Purim occurs, named Adar, is considered especially lucky. And in addition to both Purim and Pluto being five letter words that begin with the letter "P," both have something else in common--a lesson about the inherent goodness of diversity.

About 2,500 years ago, the story goes, an evil Persian minister sought to exterminate the Jewish people in the huge Persian empire. His justification for seeking permission to do this went something like this, according to the Book of Esther in the Bible. "There is one nation, scattered and spread out among the peoples, and their ways are different from those of all others, and they do not follow the king's rules, and so for the king, it is not worthwhile to keep them around. If it pleases the king, let it be decreed that they be destroyed..."

This sentence can be rewritten as follows: "There is one object in the solar system whose orbit takes it above and beyond the plane of the other planets, and its makeup is different from that of all the other planets, and it does not behave as a proper planet should, and so for the International Astronomical Union, it is not appropriate to continue including it. Therefore, if it pleases this Assembly, let it be stricken from the planet list..."

Along with the Jewish people of the story, Pluto shares the trait of being different, and unfortunately, some people are unable to grasp that diversity is not only favored by biology, but by the cosmos itself. That is what we are finding as we discover planets around other stars. One commenter responding to my previous entry on this blog noted that a total of three, not one, solar systems containing two giant planets in a 3:2 orbital resonance with one another, the same resonance shared by Neptune and Pluto, have so far been discovered.

How does one celebrate Pluto Day? some bloggers asked. The answer is actually quite simple. Advocate for Pluto. Email IAU president Catherine Cesarsky at catherine.cesarsky@cea,fr , email the IAU at , and cc the emails you send to CNN at and to the BBC at . Ask Cesarsky and the IAU to honor their commitment to communicate astronomy with the public, listen to the ongoing objections people are expressing to the 2006 planet definition, and reopen the planet definition issue at their General Assembly in Rio de Janeiro this August. The more people Cesarsky and the IAU hear from, the better the chances that they will consider this request.

Meanwhile, no matter what state or country you live in, Happy Pluto Day!

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