Saturday, August 1, 2009

July 2009: A Great Month for Astronomy

The month that ended yesterday was simply terrific for astronomy and anyone with an interest in the subject. Specifically, the third week of July featured three major astronomical events--the 40th anniversary of the Apollo 11 moon landing, the discovery that a comet had impacted Jupiter, and the longest total solar eclipse of the century.

I was four at the time of the first moon landing but have no memory of it whatsoever. In fact, my first memory of an Apollo launch is likely Apollo 17, judging from my memory of where my family lived at the time and still live. Luckily, the History Channel actually showed the initial 1969 broadcast by CBS with Walter Cronkite, so I got to see it this time. With all the commemorations and the good fortune of all three Apollo 11 astronauts still living, the media and the Internet were filled with personal recollections of the special moment, what it meant then, and what it means now.

That translated into discussion of the question, should we go back to the moon or should we aim straight for Mars. It tied into the disappointment of so many who 40 years ago, believed space travel would be common in 2009. It turns out that the lack of money for NASA now stems from the same reason as the lack of funding to continue the Apollo program--too much money is being spent on war, then in Vietnam, now in Iraq and Afghanistan. The conflict is not between funding the space program and funding human needs but about the funding the space program versus funding questionable wars abroad, both for the US and for other nations.

Unlike Shoemaker-Levy 9, the comet that hit Jupiter was never seen in advance this time. Significantly, the discovery of its impact spot was made by an amateur astronomer in Australia, illustrating again the important role amateurs play in observation, discovery, and as ambassadors of astronomy to the public.

Unable to afford the expense of being an eclipse chaser, I had to settle for watching it online, where many broadcasts suddenly disconnected due to servers and web sites being overloaded. Viewing a montage of images from different locations was quite an experience, but it would have been nice to have watched one area continually as the eclipse progressed. I've been warned that solar eclipses are highly addictive, that the minute totality ends, those who traversed half the world to see it immediately plan the next trip. I'm hoping to make it to the one that will cross North America in 2017 in spite of the risk of addiction.

Again, for a brief time, international news focused on astronomy, and people around the world experienced the thrill, wonder, and beauty so many too often ignore. If only every week could be like that one in terms of media coverage!

Now, with August here, comes what I once referred to as "the moment of truth." The IAU will again hold its General Assembly, this year in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.  Although I was given approval to attend and cover this event as a journalist, something I never thought would happen, neither the newspaper for which I write nor I can financially afford the trip. It was genuinely heartbreaking to have to send an email to the IAU saying I would not be coming after all.

Much more significantly, many of the high profile advocates of Pluto's planet status are staying away, convinced that there are other, better arenas than the IAU to promote the view that dwarf planets are planets too. I understand the choice, but I still wish they had decided differently, that they went to the General Assembly and demanded the reopening of this issue. It is still possible one or more of the delegates will do this, and even if he/she/they do get the issue on the floor, it is unclear whether electronic voting would be allowed so that all members could vote even if they couldn't attend. The IAU does not pay fees or expenses for its members, and quite a few astronomers are in the same boat as I am, being financially unable to afford traveling to Rio.

One who is attending is Mike Brown, and it's just an instinct, but I have a bad feeling that his purpose in attending is specifically to squelch any effort to resurrect the planet debate. He has already stated publicly that he would vote against any reinstatement of Pluto or dwarf planets as planets.

Yet so many Plutophiles, children and adults alike, still cling to the hope that in 2009, the IAU will face up to the mistake made in 2006 and this time, do it right when it comes to planet definition. Doing this will not make the IAU look foolish or stupid or harm its reputation in any way. It is far better to admit to a mistake and do everything possible to set it right than to keep the mistake going. Only two weeks into his term, President Barack Obama showed the courage to admit that he messed up in his choice of nomination for one of the Cabinet positions. If President Obama can admit to a mistake, why can't the IAU?

I plan to send several pages of signatures from a hard copy petition I and others have been circulating for three years, which quotes the 300+ professional astronomers who signed Alan Stern's petition rejecting the IAU demotion, stating simply, "I believe Pluto is a planet, and a better definition is needed," to the conference in Rio. Never have I had such an easy time getting any petitions signed. So many are/were eager to put their names on paper in support of Pluto's planet status.

A "better definition" is needed, not just because of Pluto, but also for other spherical bodies like Ceres, Vesta, Haumea, Makemake, Eris, and Sedna.

One article on the upcoming General Assembly quoted a professor named Nick Lomb, of the Sidney Observatory in Australia, saying that we cannot have too many planets because memorizing their names is a crucial part of astronomy education, and children will be unable to memorize the names of up to 100 planets. He actually claims having too many planets will do harm to science! What a poor argument for a PhD to make! No one would suggest limiting the number of Jupiter's moons because 63 names are harder to memorize than four! No one suggests artificially restricting the number of stars and galaxies to a "memorizable" amount or cutting down the Periodic Table of the Elements to eight. As I and others have said many times, memorization is not that important. For stars, we learn the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, which delineates categories of stars by size, color, and stage in their lives. Why can't we do the same with planets, establishing multiple subcategories and learning the important features that define each individual category?

Even more ridiculous is Lomb's citing of the importance of everyone learning the name of the "classical planets." If he really means this, he should not expect anyone to learn the names of any objects beyond Saturn, as Uranus and Neptune were discovered relatively recently (1781 and 1846 respectively), and even the Galilean moons of Jupiter were only found around 1610.

2009 is not the only chance for Pluto to regain its planet status. Dr. Mark Sykes believes it will be the new discoveries, in this solar system and in others, that will compel astronomers to re-examine just what makes an object a planet. Then of course, there is New Horizons, which will give us a tremendous influx of data on Pluto at the same time Dawn gives us similar data on Ceres. Both encounters will take place in 2015. An up close view of these bodies will clearly show them to be geologically differentiated, tell us about their composition, and illustrate their difference from shapeless asteroids.

It may not be now or never, but I'm still holding out hope for 2009 even though there are venues other than the IAU and many opportunities for more knowledgable debate about this in the near future. To that end, I urge all who want to see dwarf planets made a subclass of planets, now more than ever, to email the IAU and its officials, especially the Executive Committee and the Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature.

The IAU web site can be found at . The chair of the Division III Working Group on Planetary System Nomenclature is Rita M. Schulz, who can be reached at . For Americans, the US representative to this Working Group is Edward Bowell of the Lowell Observatory, who can be reached at . The web page of this working group is . You can click on any member's name to get his/her web page and email address. The president of the IAU Executive Committee, Catherine Cesarsky, can be reached at  while the president-elect, who will take office at the General Assembly, is Robert Williams, who can be reached at . The Secretary General, Karel van der Hucht, can be reached at , and the Deputy Secretary General, Ian Corbett, can be reached at .

The web site of the 2009 General Assembly can be found and the Assembly's program book can be found here:

I believe the people of the world have spoken, and a majority want Pluto and the dwarf planets to be considered planets too. That is why I implore all who feel the same way to email the people above and as many IAU members as possible, and, using logical, informative, and civil arguments, implore them to reopen the issue of planet definition.

On a lighter note, I am reposting a limerick I wrote in November 2007 in response to one written for me by Stuart Lowe of Jodrell Bank, the author of Astronomy Blog at

There was a group called IAU
Who were mad no one knew what they do
Members said, we need press
Make a solar system mess
That should get us an article or two

On and on for two weeks they debated
'Til the brilliant plan was created
Pluto isn't a planet
From the other eight, ban it
And TV coverage will show that we've "made it!"

On the last day the scientists voted
And Pluto was formally demoted
But most people's reaction
Was not to the IAU's satisfaction
"It's sloppy," other scientists were quoted

It turned out most did not like the change
Found that "clearing its orbit" thing strange
So musicians and writers
Became Pluto's fighters
A backlash they began to arrange

The IAU learned its lesson in time
Don't mess with a system that's fine
And at last came admission
"We made a bad decision,
Reverse it in 2009!"

As Captain Picard would say, "Make it so!!!"

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