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Saturday, July 11, 2009

Pluto Speaks Out: Scorned Planet Defiant about Status

As a writer and actress, I blatantly reject the so-called “celebrity culture,” which was especially over the top by the media during this past week. As a rebel and stickler for fairness, I believe that talent is talent, and should be valued on its own merit, not because it is attached to a “name.” An actor the industry refuses to recognize can be just as talented as a "name actor," and worship of people almost as gods is just plain unhealthy. In that context, I was inspired to write about the similar phenomenon taking place in our solar system.

Pluto Speaks Out: Scorned Planet Defiant about Status

Recently demoted by Earth’s International Astronomical Union, Pluto has endured three tough years, not just among Earth’s humans but in the solar system as a whole, facing ridicule and discrimination from other solar system bodies for defiantly clinging to its planet status. In an exclusive interview for this web site, Pluto speaks out about planetary discrimination, and solar system hierarchies, revealing the inner workings of a system riddled with patronage, favoritism, and jockeying for position.

Interviewer: Pluto, I’m going to start out being blunt. After all, facts are facts. The solar system has seven moons larger than you. Another Kuiper Belt Object, Eris, is bigger than you are, and at least two others are pretty much your size. How then can you justify putting yourself in the same category as the eight Big Guys?

Pluto: The problem here is that you’re arbitrarily choosing size as somehow being of more value than a whole host of other criteria. Size isn’t everything. I say, look at shape. I’ve achieved hydrostatic equilibrium. I’m shaped by my own gravity. That’s what puts me in the same category as your so-called “Big Guys.”

Interviewer: Honestly, Pluto, how many moons of other solar system planets are also in hydrostatic equilibrium? They don’t insist on being called planets. They accept that they’re not in the inner circle. They understand that they’re just not in the big leagues.

Pluto: We’ve got a couple of misconceptions here. First of all, I never denied them the status of planet. In fact, in my view, if they’re in hydrostatic equilibrium, they’re planets too. For some reason, maybe their own low self-esteem, they feel the need to center their lives around other planets instead of maintaining their own orbits.

Interviewer: So you have no problem with calling these moons planets.

Pluto: Of course not. I just feel bad that they don’t think enough of themselves to recognize that they can orbit the Sun directly. They don’t have to attach themselves to the so-called giants to be important. Unfortunately, they’re buying into the propaganda that they’re somehow inferior and will get nowhere unless they faun all over the giants.

Interviewer: And Eris and those other round Kuiper Belt Objects? They’re planets too?

Pluto: Of course. And they’ll tell you that themselves. It’s only these so-called Big Guys who are spreading the lie that if you’re not one of their “Big Eight,” you’re not a planet, and that the best you can do is hang onto their coattails. Here in the Kuiper Belt, we laugh at their self-importance.

Interviewer: But realistically, you can’t say you have the same degree of influence as the giants. Jupiter regularly intercepts comets, stopping them from impacting other planets, including Earth. What do you do that is comparable?

Pluto: First of all, you’re assuming Earth is somehow more deserving of protection than any of the rest of us. Not to mention, what’s wrong with comets? They hang out with me here in the ‘hood all the time. If they want to take a trip into the inner solar system and see what it’s like near the Sun, why should they be prohibited from doing that? We don’t tell Mercury, Venus, Earth, or Mars not to get near the Sun. This is just the same old size discrimination again. That or special favoritism to Earth because it’s directly related to humans.

And you know what? Most comets who take that trip, once they get close to the Sun, they realize it’s hot as hell over there, and they come racing back into the outer solar system very happy to get home. Some of them come back broken and damaged from all that heat, and once they’re back, they choose to live here in the ‘hood, what those Big Guys ridicule as the boondocks.

Interviewer: So comets should be allowed to roam freely all over the solar system.

Pluto: Of course. Why should there be one set of rules for the Big Guys and another set of rules for the little guys? That’s a blatant double standard.

Interviewer: Yet every day comets leave your ‘hood trying to get closer to the Sun. Thousands of asteroids compete just get closest to Jupiter or Saturn. For every one that makes it, thousands don’t. You don’t have asteroids clamoring to orbit you. The overwhelming majority want to be part of the Big Guys’ kingdoms, even if it means just being a speck in their ring systems.

Pluto: You see; that’s where their value systems are all screwed up. Why make your whole life revolve around another planet when you can be one yourself, when you can have your own orbit? Okay, I’m small, but I orbit the Sun directly. They only live vicariously through attaching themselves to the giant planets. Why would I want to orbit another planet when I can have an orbit of my own? Yes, it’s kind of different, but you know, I like it, and I have complete freedom to do what I want.

And you know, having moons isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And I say this as someone who has three moons myself. The whole planet-moon thing is part of the hierarchical mentality that is the root of most problems here in the solar system. Why can’t we all be planets? In fact, Charon and I are unique in that we co-orbit one another. Ours is an orbit of equals. I love Charon, and I don’t feel the need to make myself superior.

Interviewer: You do have Nix and Hydra orbiting you though.

Pluto: Because they choose to. They happen to like our different way of doing things. And Charon and I are fine with that. If they ever want to go off on their own and be their own planets, we’ll wish them well. We won’t try to keep them in our shadows.

And, you’ve actually made another good point. Charon and I have a system of four. Mercury and Venus have no moons at all. Mars has two little asteroid moons who were rejected by Jupiter. Why should they be planets and Charon and I be some sort of second-class citizens?

Interviewer: You don’t clear your orbit of other Kuiper Belt Objects, and those planets do have clear orbits.

Pluto: Only because they were born in an advantaged location. Put them out here in the Kuiper Belt, and they wouldn’t clear anything.

Interviewer: Many astronomers consider you most like Triton, a moon of Neptune. Why should you be given the coveted title of planet, yet the larger Triton just be a moon?

Pluto: Again with this size issue. We keep coming back to that. Look, I know Triton, and once upon a time, he was a planet just like me, with his own orbit—until Neptune lured him in with all this rhetoric about how popular he’d be if he were associated with a giant planet. Unfortunately, Triton bought into this propaganda, against my advice by the way. And you know what? It’s all going to end in tragedy. His orbit around Neptune is unstable. One day, he’s going to crash into his big blue idol and completely self-destruct. Of course, Neptune never told him that in advance. All because Triton chose to give up his individuality and worship one of the so-called Big Guys. I, on the other hand, will still be here when he’s long gone.

Interviewer: So you really believe you’re as important to the solar system as giants like Jupiter and Saturn?

Pluto: Yes I do. And I’ll tell you something else they don’t want you to know. Those two, especially Jupiter, really wanted to be suns, but they just couldn’t do it. Hell, Jupiter tried and tried but couldn’t even fuse deuterium, much less hydrogen. These guys are wanna bes. That’s why they’ve got their own little solar systems going. And Uranus and Neptune just copied them. They’ve collected all those moons because they want to act like suns, but deep down, they know they’re not. And so they’re compensating. It’s the same thing with the rings. Saturn started the whole thing as one big show of ostentation. Then the other three gas giants copied him. Oh, they love to brag about how objects all over the solar system would kill just to be a tiny moonlet in their rings. So egotistic, so self-important. And they don’t even have surfaces. You can’t stand on them or land a rover on them, but you can do both of those with me.

Interviewer: Then what about Ceres and Vesta? They’re round, but they don’t mind being considered asteroids.

Pluto: Really? Did you ever ask them what they think? Or did you just take Jupiter’s word for it? Nobody even bothered to consult Ceres, Vesta, and a couple of others in that area who happen to be round. No, it’s just, you’re in the asteroid belt, so you’re automatically no better than any little rock floating around out there. Don’t you humans have words for that kind of discrimination on your planet?

Interviewer: I think we’ve pretty much covered everything. It’s clear you’re sticking to your guns on this one.

Pluto: You bet I am. We’re talking about my identity, who I am. And not just my identity, but the identity of every small object in the solar system, especially those of us who have worked hard to attain hydrostatic equilibrium. If it’s good enough for Jupiter, it’s good enough for all of us. I’m not just going to sit here in the Kuiper Belt and let these Big Guys call their reality the only reality. No, I’ve already started mobilizing the little guys here in the Kuiper Belt who are in the same spherical shape as Jupiter. And the asteroid belt is next. Then the Oort Cloud. Some of those over-inflated gas giant egos may start to see their moons suddenly floating away and establishing their own orbits as planets. There is a revolution underway in the solar system, and it starts here.

You know, if they hadn’t messed with me, I might have just left things the way they are and been content to do my own thing. But the humans and these big planets that follow their every dictate made a huge mistake. They picked a fight with me, so now they’re getting what they deserve. The new rallying cry among the solar system’s underdogs is, “let a thousand planets bloom!” And mark my words, they will.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

Laurel Kornfeld's Planets: Adventures in Studying Astronomy

Okay, I admit it. I ripped off the title of this entry, or at least its style, from Mike Brown’s blog.

One of the most frequent questions I am asked when I advocate Pluto’s reinstatement as a planet is, what difference does this make in my life or in anyone else’s life? In many entries, I have discussed the disservice being done to children and to those of all ages studying astronomy who are being taught about only eight planets in our solar system or are, as Dr. Mark Sykes reported, wrongly being told that Pluto is an asteroid.

Most people upset by the 2006 IAU decision expressed their displeasure and moved on to other concerns. I may be wrong, but my guess is very few felt motivated to make major changes in their lives, such as going back to school and studying astronomy with the goal of learning as much as possible about the subject in order to best advocate the decision be overturned.

But that is exactly what I did. I have always had many interests and activities, all of which I love, and all of which compete for my attention. Astronomy was not at the top of the list in August 2006. All of that changed when the IAU issued its infamous ruling. I knew, felt as strongly as possible, that this decision was wrong. And I set about doing whatever I could to counter it, which started with educating myself on the details of planetary science.

I knew then that arguments such as “Pluto should stay a planet because it has always been one” or “because that is how I was raised,” or because “the mnemonic won’t work without Pluto” were not scientifically valid. If a case were to be made for Pluto retaining its planet status, that case must be built on logical arguments stemming from a solid foundation of scientific knowledge.

After reading more web sites about the solar system than I can count, I joined an astronomy club and took a class for volunteers who become qualified observers on open public nights. I spent a lot of time at weekly meetings listening to lectures on every aspect of astronomy. Then I took an un-graded online course offered by Swinburne University, based in Melbourne, Australia, titled “From Planets to the Universe.” That six-week course offered interaction with students worldwide discussing a lot of material in a very short time.

The benefits of online education are that students from very different backgrounds have the opportunity to learn from one another, to exchange differing perspectives, to throw around ideas and bounce them off one another. I enjoyed this to the point that I applied to Swinburne Astronomy Online’s Graduate Certificate program and was accepted.

Unlike the other courses, the courses in this program are graded. And here I was, with no real math or science background, in a course with high school teachers of chemistry and physics and people who had actually worked professionally in planetariums and observatories. The course title was “Exploring the Solar System.” And the instructor as well as the program director are members of the IAU! Thankfully, they were always fair and never used my online criticism of the IAU against me academically.

There is no way to summarize everything learned in a 12-week semester, but suffice it to say that our exploration of the solar system was comprehensive and detailed. This is not the solar system many of us learned in grade school, which was mainly a list of nine objects revolving around the Sun. This was an in-depth look at a solar system far more diverse, hosting a multitude of different objects, no two of which are exactly alike.

Some supporters of Pluto’s demotion argue that Pluto unfairly gets more attention than the larger moons of the gas giant planets because it is deemed a planet, and they are not. That certainly was not the case in this class. At one time, we knew little about the planets themselves and even less about their moons. Today, 40 plus years of robotic explorations have given us so much data about these moons, which really should be classified as secondary planets, that classes like the one I took spend an entire two-week period just on the moons and rings of the jovian planets. We do not have to choose between Pluto and these other, fascinating worlds. We can teach and study both.

One important lesson from studying the planets is that the robotic missions have given us much of our current knowledge of the solar system, knowledge that dispelled many previously held notions. Only 50 years ago, many believed Venus hosted lush vegetation and that Mars may host intelligent life. Now we know that although it is sometimes called Earth’s “sister planet,” Venus’ heavy atmosphere of sulfur dioxide and its high temperature and pressure make it impossible for any life to exist on that planet. We have explored Mars from orbit and on the ground and now know that its tenuous atmosphere and lack of a magnetic field preclude anything other than microbial life.

We have learned that while the four jovian planets used to be lumped into one group, “gas giants,” Uranus and Neptune are actually different enough from Jupiter and Saturn to merit being placed in a separate category, the ice giants. While Jupiter and Saturn are composed mostly of hydrogen and helium, the two outermost jovians, Uranus and Neptune, are made up of hydrogen compounds such as methane, ammonia, and water plus small amounts of hydrogen, helium, and rock. Uranus and Neptune are believed to have liquid cores just as Jupiter and Saturn do, but their densities are akin to those of ices, likely a mixture of water, methane, and ammonia.

Mercury is now recognized as having a tenuous magnetic field and a very thin atmosphere, facts that contradict long-held views among astronomers that it had neither. The moons of the jovian planets are believed to have formed with those planets from the solar nebula, unlike Earth’s moon, which most scientists view as having been formed from a giant impact by a Mars-like body. Interestingly, Pluto’s moon Charon is believed to have been formed by a similar impact.

The point of all these facts is that in exploring the solar system through ground-based telescopes and robotic missions, we have come to learn that much of what was previously believed and even viewed as fact is wrong. Even though the largest planets are divided into the two categories of “terrestrials” and “jovians,” we have learned that no two planets in either category are exactly alike; in fact, each one is far more unique than its categorization would lead one to believe.

In astronomy, the more we learn, the more we find out we didn’t know and still don’t know. That is where the question of Pluto comes into the discussion. Pluto is estimated to be 70 percent rock and 30 percent ice. Uranus and Neptune are very icy, yet no one cites that fact to disqualify them from being considered planets. Earth in many ways is more similar to Pluto than to Jupiter, whose composition is similar to that of the Sun. Like Earth and the terrestrial planets, Pluto is differentiated geologically into core, mantle, and crust. The jovians are differentiated too, but they have inner cores of liquid molecular hydrogen, outer layers of hydrogen and helium (and several other gases in the case of Uranus and Neptune), and none has a solid surface.

With such a variety of characteristics and so much diversity, how can we possibly choose one factor and use that as the measuring stick for planethood? The answer is that we cannot because any characteristic chosen would be arbitrary. In the presence of so many factors and features, we need a planet definition that is broad enough to encompass all these objects. That leads us back to what it is they all have in common. And that answer is that they are all large enough to be shaped by their own gravity, which pulls them into a round shape, a condition known as hydrostatic equilibrium.

Among objects in hydrostatic equilibrium, we are likely to discover bodies with characteristics we cannot even imagine, both in this solar system and in others. Some may revolve around other planets. These differences do not mean the new objects are not planets, just that we may need to add new subcategories of planets as more is learned. As even Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson admits, planetary science is still very much in its infancy. And that is not a time to be establishing narrow definitions, especially when we know an infusion of data about Pluto and the Kuiper Belt is coming within the next decade.

One of the best things about studying astronomy is the opportunity to “meet” and converse with people all over the world. These conversations have continued beyond the online classroom. Having been in the political world and dealt with very negative people who loved to put me down, publicly demonize me, and repeat ad nauseam how I was not good enough, I appreciate all the more the very positive, supportive classmates I’ve had. When I was afraid of failing the class—and the subsequent online ridicule if “Pluto haters” ever found out that “Plutogirl” failed astronomy—fellow students offered much valued encouragement and moral support. Their message was always, “you can do this.” Outside the classroom, that has largely been my experience with friends and acquaintances in the astronomy community, people who, ironically, I would never have met had Pluto not been demoted.

In the end, I passed the course with an 83 and discovered that one does not have to receive a perfect grade to have learned a tremendous amount. I look forward to doing a lot of writing about astronomy, including, as previously announced, writing a book about Pluto. Yet the fact remains that while most people go back to school to further their careers, I plan to continue this program because I want to do all I can to get Pluto reinstated as a planet. And in that process, I have re-discovered a fascinating field and many wonderful people, all of which make this a most worthwhile, meaningful effort.