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Thursday, February 25, 2010

Monday, February 22, 2010

Hear Dr. Ken Croswell Talk about Pluto This Week

Those who missed Dr. Ken Croswell's two radio interviews about Pluto last week have three more chances this week to not just listen but call in and voice your opinions. I am happy to report that Dr. Croswell will be speaking on the following stations and dates (please note that times and dates are subject to change; I will try to post notices of any last-minute changes):

Tuesday, February 23, 1 pm to 2 pm Eastern time:  KERA in Dallas: .  Program:  "Think."  Live call-in show.
Wednesday, February 24, 1 pm to 1:30 or possibly 2 pm Eastern time:  WLRN in Miami:  Program:  "Topical Currents."  Live call-in show.
Friday, February 26, 12 noon to 1 pm Eastern time:  WXXI in Rochester, New York: .  Program:  "1370 Connection."  Live call-in show.
For more information about Dr. Croswell's books, interviews, and astronomy activities, please visit his site at

A Plea to Save Sperry Observatory

What I write below concerns the astronomy club to which I belong, Amateur Astronomers, Inc., and its home of over 40 years, Sperry Observatory. However, I emphasize that I am not writing this on behalf of the organization or in any official capacity, but as a member who has benefitted from this group and its home and is seriously concerned about its future.

Two-and-a-half years ago, I had the good fortune to find and join a local astronomy club here in central New Jersey, Amateur Astronomers, Incorporated (AAI) whose home is Sperry Observatory, at Union County College. AAI quickly became far more than a place to learn about astronomy. This group, which just celebrated its 60th anniversary in November 2009, welcomed me to a close-knit group that is like an extended family. All newcomers are welcomed, regardless of their familiarity with astronomy, and quickly integrated into this friendly community.

This welcome was particularly meaningful to me in September 2007, after having been heavily demonized in a nasty local political campaign in my hometown since 1969. Finding people who accepted not just newcomers, but me, with all my quirks, without judgment, people who look toward everyone's strengths rather than jump on their weaknesses, was like winning the lottery. It literally made my year.

For over 40 years, AAI has made its home at Sperry Observatory, whose construction was funded by a $150,000 endowment in honor of William Miller Sperry, a local philanthropist and amateur astronomer. The observatory houses two of the largest telescopes used by amateur astronomers on the east coast--a 24-inch f/11 Cassegrain reflector, and a 10-inch f/15 refractor, the latter a gift built by AAI members and donated to Union County College.

In mid-December 2009, the last month of the International Year of Astronomy, AAI was sent a letter by the then-president of Union County College announcing the school planned to terminate its 40+ year agreement with AAI and evicting AAI from Sperry Observatory as of July 21, 2010.

It is understandable that in the midst of "The Great Recession," county colleges are short on funds and narrowly focusing on the "bottom line." However, in doing so regarding Sperry, Union County College is discounting the value of just how much AAI contributes to the school and community. Astronomy classes are held in the observatory building, and students in these classes regularly complete extra credit projects by attending AAI's weekly open public nights. These open public nights are free to all, members and non-members alike. Weather permitting, they provide an opportunity for visitors ranging from children to senior citizens to view planets, stars, star clusters, nebulae, galaxies, etc., often for the first time. A special event in 1986 to view Halley's Comet attracted thousands.

Countless children have had the chance to learn about various aspects of astronomy and observe celestial objects personally at Sperry. These include Girl and Boy Scouts, classes from local schools, and members of various other youth groups. Once a month, a professional astronomer is hosted at the college, each time speaking on a different cutting-edge astronomy-related subject. These lectures have filled the entire college auditorium on many occasions. How could anyone put a price on these opportunities? The town of Cranford, where Sperry is located, recognized the priceless contributions of AAI when its mayor and council awarded the group a commendation in 2007.

If the college needs more space, Sperry Observatory, a small building, will not provide much in that area. No new building can be constructed on the site, as it is wetlands (laws against building on wetlands were not yet in effect when the observatory was built during the 1960s). The sad reality is that this group that has done so much for the community is being targeted largely for internal political reasons in a conflict that can have no winners.

Tomorrow evening, two AAI representatives will be meeting with the college's Board of Trustees to try to convince them to rescind the eviction and renew the college's agreement with AAI. That is why I, as an individual, representing no one but myself, am asking friends, fellow lovers of astronomy, club members, non-members who have taken part in AAI programs, and anyone who recognizes the benefits of an astronomical observatory in an urban setting, to contact the public officials who can make a difference in this matter. Community colleges are publicly funded, and their Boards of Trustees are appointed by elected county Freeholders, so a strong message from the public could lead these officials to reconsider and save Sperry Observatory.

Please contact the following individuals and urge them to use their influence with Union County College's Board of Trustees in support of Sperry and a reinstating of the college's four decades-long agreement with AAI.

Dr. Jack Farrell, College President, UCC Cranford Campus, 1033 Springfield Avenue, Cranford, NJ, 07016, email address

Dr. Victor Richel, Chairman of the Board of Trustees, same address as above. Email him through Susan Matika at

Union County College Web Site

Members of the Union County Board of Chosen Freeholders:
Angel G. Estrada
Mohamed S. Jalloh
Bette Jane Kowalksi
Alexander Mirabella
Rick Proctor
Deborah P. Scanlon
Daniel P. Sullivan, Freeholder Director,
Rayland Van Blake
Nancy Ward

Dr. Ed Davis, Union County, NJ Superintendent of Schools
Dr. Gayle Carrick, Cranford, NJ Superintendent of Schools
Dr. Margaret Dolan, Westfield, NJ Superintendent of Schools

Thank you in advance to anyone who takes the time to lend AAI support. Our observatory is a second home to many, with some members having been around for decades. We hope it can remain our home and a welcoming place for people of all ages to learn astronomy for many years to come.

Thursday, February 18, 2010

Dr. Ken Croswell to Discuss Pluto on WABC

Sorry for the short notice, but Dr. Ken Croswell will discuss Pluto tonight at 11:30 PM EST on WABC's John Batchelor show. You can listen at the link below:

Pluto: 80 Years of "The Little Planet That Could"

“It was Flagstaff, Arizona. The stars were shining bright. Clyde was gazing at the heavens on that fateful winter night.” So begins Elias Fey’s “New Horizons: A Tribute to Clyde Tombaugh and the New Horizons Mission,” an inspiring tribute to planet Pluto, its discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, and NASA’s New Horizons mission currently speeding to Pluto. The CD can be purchased from .

As with many works of art, there is a bit of dramatization in the song. Eighty years ago today, 24-year-old Clyde Tombaugh did in fact discover Pluto, but it was not via direct observation on February 18, 1930, a cloudy night in Flagstaff, Arizona. On that afternoon, Tombaugh was blinking photographic plates taken on January 23 and 29 of that year, centered on the star Delta Geminorum, as part of the Lowell Observatory’s search for a trans-Neptunian planet, when he discovered a tiny dot that moved during the six-day interval.

Ironically, the astronomer who initiated the search, Percival Lowell, died in 1916 without realizing that he had in fact found the planet for which he was looking. He never recognized it because it was much fainter than the giant planet he believed was out there. Yet images of Pluto appear on photographic plates taken by Lowell in 1915 and 1916. And his search bequeathed us the Lowell Observatory, still a major research and public outreach center after 116 years.

So began the history of iconic Pluto, whose planet status was in doubt not since 2006 but since day one of its discovery. It wasn’t the giant planet expected. It wasn’t anything expected.

Yet that is the story with most discoveries, from Galileo’s finding of four “planets” circling Jupiter to William Herschel’s belief that he had discovered a comet in 1781. That object turned out to be the planet Uranus. When new objects are discovered, they are analyzed, studied, and labeled in terms of what we know. Before Galileo, no one “knew” of objects orbiting any planet other than Earth. Prior to 1781, no one could conceive of planets beyond Saturn. There was always a limit: here and no further.

And each time, new discoveries shattered that limit. Pluto, it turns out, is different from the solar system’s bigger planets, but it is equally different from tiny asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects. It has an elliptical orbit, but it is not a comet, as comets are mostly composed of ice, and Pluto is 75 percent rock. It has features in common with Earth—a large moon formed by an impact; nitrogen in its atmosphere; geological differentiation into core, mantle, and crust.

For 80 years, astronomers have struggled to figure out where this little world belongs. Not a comet, not an asteroid, much bigger than most Kuiper Belt Objects—mysterious Pluto seemed to defy all attempts to classify it. Those who placed primacy on orbital dominance judged it to be not a planet at all.

Two major areas of discovery strongly suggest our classification schemes are based more on what we don’t know than on what we do know. One is the discovery of objects similar to Pluto—small planets in the Kuiper Belt like Haumea, Makemake, and Eris, and better understanding of Neptune’s moon Triton, which has proven very similar to these small outer planets. The other is the exciting and rapid discovery of exoplanets, planets orbiting other stars. If Pluto’s features and numbers are strange, they don’t even come close to those of these strange bodies, which include systems with two giant planets in a 3:2 orbital resonance, “hot Jupiters” orbiting extremely close to their parent stars, a giant planet with an orbit far more comet-like than Pluto, planets that orbit their stars backwards—and this is just the beginning.

All of this indicates we may need to rethink a good deal of what we previously understood regarding planets. Pluto was and is the tip of the iceberg, the first to indicate that there is far more diversity and strangeness among planets than anyone ever thought. No wonder some, who wanted to keep the number and concept of planet manageable, thought they needed to narrow the definition to one specific type of object, the type that is both spherical and gravitationally dominates its orbit.

Pluto, which Alan Boyle accurately describes as a “survivor,” has refused to go quietly or fit neatly into some lesser category that glosses over its similarities with the larger planets in favor of emphasizing its differences. Pluto makes some uncomfortable because we cannot quite understand it; we cannot fit it into any of the “boxes” we have set aside for understanding “planets.” Things that are poorly understood often end up in wastebasket categories or in some sort of scientific limbo. It is hard to admit that “we just don’t know.”

In his beautiful book Ten Worlds, astronomer Dr. Ken Croswell provides the most “fair and balanced” description of the solar system along with stunning photographs and data tables that include the largest moons of the solar system’s planets as well as Ceres, Vesta, Juno, and Pallas. Croswell, who discussed Pluto on KPFA ( ) this past Sunday, favors a compromise in which any spherical object orbiting the Sun and Pluto-sized or larger is deemed a planet.

The language in the book is appropriate for children and adults; it does not “dumb down” descriptions of the solar system’s worlds, yet is filled with scientific data and explanation that is accessible to all ages. Significantly, Dr. Croswell chooses to use the word “worlds” rather than planets to avoid the planet definition debate entirely.

In spite of its title, the book covers far more than the ten largest bodies orbiting the Sun. The large moons of the planets, asteroids, comets, meteors, even the solar system’s birth, all are presented alongside the most up-to-date photos of these objects. This is not an older generation’s simple eight or nine planet solar system; it is one with multiple, complex objects that don’t fit neatly into categories. For example, Triton is a moon of Neptune; Pluto and Eris are either planets or dwarf planets or both, yet these three objects are strikingly similar.

Dr. Croswell also distinguishes between gas giants Jupiter and Saturn and ice giants Uranus and Neptune, in contrast to others who blur the distinction between the two subclasses and simply list all four as gas giants.

Croswell commemorates the 80th anniversary of Pluto’s discovery with an article in the February 2010 issue of Highlights for Children titled “How Cool Is Pluto?” Here again, he admirably gives equal credence to both sides of the debate. Children and adults can weigh in by casting their own votes here during the month of February.

Significantly, the back cover of Ten Worlds notes that Croswell became interested in astronomy when his first grade teacher taught his class about the planets of the solar system. Can there be any better illustration of how much the way we teach the solar system to children matters? At the end of his discussion of Eris, which he views as the tenth planet, he shows his respect for students of all ages by writing, “You decide!”

Alan Boyle, author of The Case for Pluto, quotes several astronomers in his column here commemorating the 80th anniversary of Pluto’s discovery. In a pleasant surprise, Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson, whose NOVA documentary on Pluto will air on PBS stations on March 2, departs from Dr. Mike Brown’s position by saying, “I exist nowhere saying there are eight planets in the solar system.” Instead, he favors grouping objects by similar properties, which can be done in a multitude of ways and leaves open the possibility of a larger number and diversity of planets.

Naturally, Mike Brown says he cannot imagine another major reclassification of dwarf planets unless a big planet is found in the outer reaches of the solar system beyond Pluto. He states his “suspicion” that the current definition will stick not just for the next five years, but for the next 80.

But in astronomy, those things we can barely imagine do happen and are happening more and more frequently. My personal prediction is that the IAU definition, which is hardly “sticking” even now, will not survive the next decade except as possibly one of several classification systems existing side by side with equal credibility.

Ninety-seven-year-old Patricia Tombaugh, Clyde’s widow, wouldn’t be surprised if the debate continues for another 80 years. My wish for her is that she stick around for many of those years, especially to see the close up photos of Pluto New Horizons will give us in 2015.

Of course, I’m betting on the assessment of Dr. Alan Stern, who sees the tide turning “dramatically” in Pluto’s favor.

Several commemorations of this special anniversary are taking place today. At 1 PM EST, Alan Boyle will discuss Pluto on WKXL 1450 radio in Concord, New Hampshire, on the program “Looking Up with Mal and Dave.” You can listen online at .

Gresham, Oregon, is celebrating the anniversary officially as “Pluto Day.” Read more about this celebration plus see one of the latest Hubble photos of Pluto here: . Had I won my town council race several years ago, I might have been able to get a similar declaration in my hometown of Highland Park, NJ. Maybe we’ll make it for the 85th anniversary!

In New Mexico, once again, legislation has been introduced in support of Pluto’s planet status. Rep. Joni Marie Gutierrez introduced a House Memorial declaring February 18, 2010 as “Pluto Is A Planet In New Mexico Day.” Read more about it here:

Croswell has an op-ed column in The Wall Street Journal supporting Pluto’s planetary reinstatement, which, in a pleasant surprise to me, actually makes mention of this blog. That letter can be found here: . The column can also be found in today's (February 18, 2010) print edition of the paper.

It’s quite clear that rumors of the “fall” or “death” of the little planet discovered 80 years ago today have been greatly exaggerated. Dr. Stern says it best when he predicts that New Horizons data will have us “surprised,” and “shocked,” with “something wonderful.”

We should expect no less from the little planet that could. Happy 80th anniversary, Planet Pluto!

Monday, February 15, 2010

This week commemorates the 80th anniversary of Pluto's discovery! Celebratory blog entry coming soon.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

New Hubble Maps of Pluto Show Surface Changes

New Hubble Maps of Pluto Show Surface Changes

Shared via AddThis

 "The Hubble pictures underscore that Pluto is not simply a ball of ice and rock but a dynamic world that undergoes dramatic atmospheric changes. These are driven by seasonal changes that are as much propelled by the planet's 248-year elliptical orbit as its axial tilt, unlike Earth where the tilt alone drives seasons."

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

Book Review: Pluto Confidential

Books on controversial issues are usually written by writers representing one side of the issue in question. What sets Pluto Confidential apart is that it is co-authored by two astronomers representing opposing views in the Pluto debate. This makes it an ideal teaching tool and overview of the debate for those seeking a solid, un-biased background on this issue.

The two astronomers who wrote this book have been and still are insiders in the planet definition debate. Dr. Laurence Marschall, the W.K.T. Sahm Professor of Physics at Gettysburg College, is one of the 424 IAU members who voted in Prague, where he supported the current IAU definition. Dr. Stephen P. Maran, who spent 35 years working for NASA, worked on the Hubble Space Telescope, and is now press officer for the American Astronomical Society, opposes the IAU definition and supports planetary status for Pluto specifically and dwarf planets in general.

Thus the word “confidential” in the title refers to the authors’ actual participation in the planet definition controversy, with firsthand experience of the political and scientific exchanges that took place in the inner circles of the astronomy community.

For newcomers to this issue and for those already interested in it and seeking to navigate the intricacies of the debate, Pluto Confidential puts the issue in historical context, with discussions of each planet discovery, beginning with Galileo’s finding of Jupiter’s four largest moons, and the subsequent controversies and wrangling over everything from confirming the new bodies’ existence to naming those bodies.

In each case, both astronomers and lay people were confronted with a discovery much more profound than simply the existence of a new celestial body. Each discovery challenged long held understandings of the universe. In many cases, no words existed to describe the discovery. Galileo, as Marschall and Maran point out, referred to the four jovian moons he discovered as “planets.” In 1781, William Herschel discovered an object not on any star charts, one that showed a “fuzzy disk” and moved against the background stars. He assumed his discovery was a comet, as there was no conception of the existence of any planets beyond Saturn, viewed for millennia as the outer limit of the solar system.

Eventually, studies of this object’s orbit made it clear it was a planet, and it was named Uranus. When Ceres was discovered in 1801, the opposite happened—discoverer Giuseppe Piazzi and other astronomers assumed it to be a planet even though it could not be resolved into a disk. William Herschel proposed the word asteroid for this object and similar ones found between Mars and Jupiter because they appeared “star-like” as points of light when viewed in telescopes.

But were Herschel’s motives in creating this term purely scientific? On page 63, the authors raise the valid point that sentiment may have played a role here as well, when they note Herschel also had a more self-centered motive in coining this term—specifically, assuring he remained the only person alive who had discovered a planet.

Nineteenth-century astronomers ended up being wrong about Ceres anyway. They could not resolve the tiny body into a disk, but 20th-century telescopes could and did, suggesting that its original designation as planet was likely correct after all.

The authors devote an entire chapter to the discovery of Neptune, a fascinating tale of political intrigue involving France and England as well as a series of miscommunications between young astronomer John Couch Adams and British Astronomer Royal George Airy that ended up costing England the coveted discovery.

As in David Weintraub’s Is Pluto A Planet? a non-existent planet, Vulcan, once believed to orbit the Sun closer than Mercury, gets its own chapter as well. Nineteenth-century astronomers noted that Mercury’s orbit deviated from what it should be according to their calculations and came to the logical but incorrect conclusion that the discrepancy resulted from the influence of a planet even closer to the Sun. The issue was not resolved until Albert Einstein published his theory of relativity. “Planets orbited in the distorted space time around the Sun,” the authors explain on page 106. “…when the orbit of Mercury was calculated using general relativity, its perihelion advance was in perfect agreement with the observations. No intra-mercurial planets were needed.”

The extensive background discussion is meant to illustrate several points. One is that the discovery process is “messy,” complete with false discoveries, personal rivalries, mixed motives on the part of scientists, and usually a significant political dimension. Often amateur astronomers and/or those just starting their careers find their discoveries dismissed by more “established” professionals who may not even themselves realize how jealously they are guarding access to their profession.

And new information is always interpreted in the context of what is already known. If a large piece of the puzzle is missing, such as in the case of Mercury, scientists will attempt to explain enigmas with existing knowledge, which might just be insufficient for what they are trying to accomplish.

Just as early 17th-century astronomers could not conceive of objects revolving around anything other than the Earth, 18th-century astronomers could not conceive of any planets beyond Saturn, and early 20th-century astronomers could not conceive of a universe with billions of galaxies, many 21st-century astronomers cannot conceive of our solar system possibly having hundreds of planets, of an entirely new class of planets, the dwarf planets, small bodies very much like the big planets but ones that so complicate our understanding of the solar system.

Marschall admits he could have accepted a number schematics other than the IAU definition for which he voted and acknowledges that the IAU definition has no power to influence scientific research and/or cause missions to dwarf planets to lose funding. He even notes in hindsight that the best course of action may have been for the IAU to avoid crafting definitions at all. Though he does not suggest the IAU revisit the issue and possibly suspend the definition, his statements indicate he might be open to such an action.

Unlike a few die-hards who seem to have a personal stake in “killing” Pluto, Marschall is thoughtful and reflective, even noting the positive effect of the IAU vote, specifically an increase in public interest in astronomy. That increase continues to this day.

Maran acknowledges the role of culture in the planet definition debate, but his support for Pluto’s planetary status is grounded in science. He accurately describes the objection to a solar system with hundreds of planets as a problem of “messiness.” “A lot of astronomers don’t want to deal with telling their students about a whole lot of planets in the solar system, and those who write textbooks would like to keep their tables of planetary orbits and physical data to a manageable size.”

He presents an apt analogy regarding Jupiter’s moons, noting that the giant planet had 11 known moons when he began studying astronomy but now has 62. While the small moons are acknowledged to be different from the large ones, “no one says they aren’t moons.” Similarly, he adds, “…it makes little sense to declare that a dwarf planet is not a planet.”

And he also recognizes the existence of a less than scientific motive by some astronomers at the 2006 IAU General Assembly, pointing out “It seems evident that some of those astronomers in the debate and voting at the IAU General Assembly at Prague were emphatic in their insistence that Pluto not only be reclassified as a dwarf planet but be excluded from the category of planets because they resented the public fuss over Pluto.”

Why such resentment? Maran attributes it at least in part to tension between professional astronomers on one side and amateur astronomers and lay people on the other. Pluto has always been a favorite of the latter group. “The lay world of amateur astronomers and the general public was treading on the hallowed ground so jealously guarded in order that only PhDs and professors of astronomy may enter.” When it comes to human motivations, not much has changed since the days of John Couch Adams and George Airy.

Perhaps the most telling statement in this book is Marschall’s quote of astronomer Dr. Marc Buie, who explains that scientists reach consensus on issues by exploring the details involved and using the scientific method as a guide for research. “Perhaps the lack of consensus really tells us that we don’t know enough yet to define what a planet is,” Buie is quoted saying.

The story of Pluto is still being written, and both authors acknowledge the 2015 New Horizons mission will very likely result in major changes to our understanding of this enigmatic celestial body. While we wait the remaining five-and-a-half years for this new data, Pluto Confidential provides a detailed, balanced, and fair must read for anyone seeking a thorough context for this ongoing saga.

Cast Your Vote for Planet Pluto

Dr. Ken Croswell, astronomer and author of Ten Worlds, a new book on the solar system packed with beautiful images and up-to-date information, has written an article in Highlights for Children commemorating the 80th anniversary of Pluto's discovery, which is coming up on February 18.

Until the end of February, Highlights for Children is conducting a poll on Pluto's planethood.  Anyone--child or adult--may vote (once only!) at . So cast your vote for Planet Pluto! Who needs the IAU anyway?

I will post a book review on Ten Worlds in an upcoming message.