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Tuesday, August 24, 2010

Pluto: "How Wrong They Were"

Four years ago today, a tiny contingent of the International Astronomical Union and a planet discoverer who would rather be known as a “planet killer” believed they had ended the tumultuous planet definition debate with a vote in a room in Prague.

In the beautifully apropos words of Alan Boyle, author of The Case for Pluto, “how wrong they were.”

During these four years, I have used this blog to advocate the overturning and/or ignoring of the highly flawed planet definition that resulted from that vote and to chronicle worldwide opposition to it.

What I have found is fascinating.

In an era with attention spans so short that many can barely remember a politician’s scandals after media coverage ends, the little planet at the epicenter of this debate has now held public attention for an unbelievable four years, with no sign of abating. Every time it is thought the dust has settled, and the debate is over, the topic resurfaces, and each time, it captivates people worldwide.

Just this past week, I circulated the hard copy petition supporting the petition of astronomers opposing the 2006 decision at a picnic, and people were clamoring not just to sign it, but also to get copies of their own to circulate. They remembered the demotion announcement as if it happened yesterday. They remembered a powerful sense of feeling “this is wrong” and wanting to do something in response.

The latest count on a Facebook petition, “Bring Pluto Back,” located at is 1,427 signatures. That may not sound like much, but it is 1,000 more than the number of astronomers who voted in Prague.

At , where members of the public can vote, the results are an overwhelming 28,408 for Pluto being a planet to 5,983 for Pluto not being a planet.

Dr. Alan Stern accurately referred to the IAU vote as “an embarrassment to astronomy.” The way the media has covered the planet debate issue, specifically regarding Pluto, can be described just as equally as an embarrassment to journalism.

Most of the mainstream media has, whether deliberately or inadvertently, deceived the public into believing the IAU decree is fact; the solar system has changed, and we now have only eight planets. With a few notable exceptions, they have completely failed to do the central work of journalism—convey both sides of a controversy and act as watchdogs over any institutions that claim to be an “authority.”

This is why we see articles, columns, book reviews, etc., referring to Pluto as a “former planet” and our solar system has having only eight planets instead of seeing what should be told—that the subject of what defines a planet remains a matter of debate with two legitimate sides, resulting in the planet count of our solar system remaining uncertain.

The fact that most of the media has blindly accepted and reported only one side of this ongoing debate as fact is the reason so many people remain confused about this entire topic.

Here is a review a few of the most common confusions:

The first is that “the experts” met and decided, and they are the ones who know best. This is false for several reasons. I often note that only 424 out of 10,000 IAU members took part in the 2006 vote. An overwhelming majority of those 424 did approve Resolution 5A, which established three classes of solar system objects: planets, dwarf planets, and small solar system bodies.

However, this resolution never claimed dwarf planets are not planets at all. That conclusion was put forward in Resolution 5B, which would have established two classes of planets—classical planets, referring to Mercury through Neptune, and dwarf planets, referring at that time to Ceres, Pluto, and Eris with more to come.

Significantly, that resolution was approved by 333 IAU members and rejected by 91. Resolution 6A, which determined “Pluto is a ‘dwarf planet’…and is recognized as the prototype of a new category of trans-Neptunian objects” was approved by 237 members and opposed by 157, with 17 abstaining.

This means that the so-called “new rules” defining what a planet is and the demotion of Pluto from planethood was done by an underwhelming number of somewhere between 237 and 333 astronomers—in a decision the IAU has since attempted to impose on a world of 6.8 billion people.

So few IAU members took part in the vote because it was held on the last day of a two-week conference when most participants had already left. More importantly, those who had left had been deceived. Why? Because the General Assembly violated the IAU’s own bylaws by rejecting the resolution of its own Planet Definition Committee, which was put together over many months, and at the last minute, threw together an alternate resolution without first following the proper procedure of vetting it by the appropriate committee.

In retrospect, several who left early have actually stated that had they known the vote would be on a different resolution, they would have held off on making their airline reservations to go home so they could take part. In many cases, reservations made cannot be changed due to other flights being fully booked.

No electronic or absentee voting is allowed at IAU General Assemblies. Many attendees have to pay their own way for the conference and cannot afford the expenses of the trip. That is how 96 percent of the group’s membership ended up not being allowed to vote on this important decision.

Even more importantly, there are thousands of professional astronomers who are not IAU members at all, for many reasons. Should their input not count?

Conclusion: Some experts met; a small number decided; a huge number did not.

Another confusion: Pluto is now an asteroid. This is not even true according to the IAU definition, which very specifically distinguishes dwarf planets, an intermediate category, from small solar system bodies, a term that refers to rocky and icy bodies not large enough to be rounded by their own gravity (asteroids, comets, and centaurs).

A third area of confusion: Opposition to Pluto’s demotion is based only or largely on sentiment rather than science, and only a few “fringe” astronomers continue to reject the IAU decision. Or, the corollary: it is only Americans, both astronomers and lay people, who oppose the demotion.

Again, not true. Stern’s petition of professional astronomers rejecting the IAU decision garnered 300 signatures in just a few days. Those who signed this petition, viewable here include representatives of the following institutions:

Subaru Telescope
National Astronomical Observatory of Japan
University of Southern Queensland, Australia
University of Oslo
Tel Aviv Uni.
University of Hong Kong
IASF INAF Roma Italy
Freie Universitaet Berlin, Germany
National Taiwan Normal University
Korea Astronomy and Space Science Institute
FU Berlin
INAF-Istituto di Fisica dello Spazio Interplanetario
Ho Koon Astronomical Center Hong Kong
Max-Planck-Institute fuer Sonnensystemforschung
FU Berlin (again)
Universidad de Chile, Astronomy Department

Fourth misconception: The IAU had to make a decision because of the discovery of Eris. The only decision the IAU had to make was which of its committees would get to name Eris—that dealing with major planets or that dealing with minor planets. Why not just adopt the easiest solution and have both committees address it together while allowing sufficient time to sort out the nature of the new discovery?

Fifth misconception: we can’t have too many planets in the solar system; we have to keep the number small or else the term “planet” will lose its value. Also, there is no way kids can memorize the names of hundreds of planets.

In this case, the argument has no scientific merit whatsoever. The solar system has whatever number of planets it has, whether or not that is convenient to us. We don’t restrict the number of rivers or mountains on Earth so kids can memorize them. Memorization was done when little was known about these worlds other than their names. Today, we know them firsthand from robotic missions, and there is so much more and so many more fascinating things to teach about these worlds that memorization is all but useless. More important is that kids understand the nature of different types of planets, such as the characteristics of gas giants, terrestrials, dwarf planets, etc.

The “losing value” argument is even sillier. Do terms like star or galaxy lose their value because there are billions of each one? If anything, the argument that planet is a term of value only if the number is small is based on sentiment—the exact accusation made by supporters of the demotion against those who oppose it.

As for argument based on sentiment, again, some of the worst have been made by supporters of demotion. Try this one by French astronomer Dr. Alain Maury: In reality, most of the astronomers do not consider planetology as a science, and don't want to hear about it. Have you every seen a planetologist receiving a nobel prize, so, you see... It is not real science. That's the main reason for which the debate is closed. Nobody in the community of astronomers, not only cares, but don't want to hear about it.

Well, if most astronomers do not consider planetology a science, why do they bother voting on it? Why not leave the planetology decisions to those who actually study and value the field?

Note: I do not believe Maury’s view is typical of even the majority who support the IAU decision.

The bottom line is, one doesn’t have to be a rocket scientist or a professional astronomer to understand that the 2006 IAU definition is flawed, problematic, and certainly not the last word on the matter. Or that an issue like this doesn’t have to have a right answer and a wrong one; instead, there can be multiple answers depending on the viewpoint from which one looks at the issue.

And that is the reason why books and articles continue to be published on the subject; conferences continue to be held on it, and lively discussion continues.

The latest book on the subject is Pluto: Sentinel of the Outer Solar System by Dr. Barrie Jones, a British astronomer who has stated he prefers that “dwarf planets” be considered a subclass of planets. And I am personally working on a book of my own, The Little Planet That Would Not Die: Pluto’s Story. Updates on its progress will be discussed here:

Even Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson has come around to recognizing that the debate is not over, and has placed a plaque in the Hayden Planetarium noting this. He has also said that he never publicly stated that our solar system has only eight planets.

When an issue is really settled, the only discussion left is its history. Early in the 20th century, there was a famous debate as to whether the entire universe has one galaxy, the Milky Way, or many galaxies. Once observation definitively proved the existence of many galaxies, the debate was over. No one continued to argue that the entire universe is contained within the Milky Way.

And this is where we are with Pluto. Among professional astronomers, amateur astronomers, and members of the public, support for the planet status of Pluto and all dwarf planets is gaining momentum.

That sure doesn’t look anything like “dead” to me.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Book Review: Percival's Planet, by Michael Byers

Writers of historical fiction face the challenge of capturing the essence, in both feeling and facts, of the times in which they set their stories. That challenge becomes even more difficult when the stories’ main characters are based on actual people, some of whom are either still living or were known well by people alive today. In Percival’s Planet, a fictional account of the search for Pluto, Michael Byers rises to this challenge with a stirring tale that envelops readers in the intricacies of the waning days of the “Roaring ‘20s” and their collapse into the Great Depression.

The novel is especially timely, coming as it does at the 80th anniversary of Pluto’s discovery in February 1930.

Byers spent five years researching his novel, and it shows. His writing is filled with detailed descriptions of subjects ranging from the hardships of farm life in the 1920s to the vapid lives of old money scions of Boston wealth. Byers knows his subjects and knows them well, whether he is discussing the specifications of telescopes, social issues of the time, principles of astronomy, dinosaur digs, or the culture of 1920s academia.

His depictions of the state of early 20th century astronomy illustrate at least one of the roots of the Pluto controversy. Alan Barber, a fictional character studying astronomy at Harvard, at one point complains about the bias against planetary science in the highest echelons of the field, noting that astronomy professors do not even want to hear mention of planets, instead preferring to study more abstract areas of the field such as galaxies, nebulae and cosmology.

This looking down on planetary science as some sort of second class area of astronomy is unfortunately still held by some today, in spite of the enormous amount we have learned about solar system bodies in 50 plus years of planetary exploration. Ironically, while reading the novel, I received email correspondence from an astronomer with the following statement: “In reality, most of the astronomers do not consider planetology as a science…That's the main reason for which the debate is closed. Nobody in the community of astronomers, not only cares, but don't want to hear about it.”

To be clear, I do not believe this view in any way reflects that of the majority of professional or amateur astronomers today. However, it is significant that anyone in the field today professes this at all.

Having my own interest in all things Pluto, I found myself, throughout the novel, constantly comparing what I know about the real Clyde Tombaugh and the actual events leading up to the discovery of Pluto with their portrayals in the novel. At times, it was difficult to realize that the fictional Clyde and the fictional events do not have to be identical to the real ones. This is a novel, not a biography.

Percival’s Planet, at least to this reader, is a tale shrouded with a prevailing sentiment of sadness. The term “X” refers to the unknown, and in this novel, Planet X, the term used to describe the as yet unknown ninth planet, represents more than just the object now known as Pluto. “Planet X” is but one representation of the never-ending chase or search for something undefined, unknown even to those who chase it, reflected in the sentiment of a skeptical Professor Harlow Shapley, that Lowell Observatory’s planet search amounted to “chasing ghosts.”

The novel encompasses a wide range of characters whose stories begin separately, yet whom the reader knows will somehow end up converging in Flagstaff, Arizona, the epicenter of the planet search. With so many characters in play, Planet X and Clyde Tombaugh are less the center than the strings that tie everyone and everything together.

And that is where the sense of sadness, even of despair, enters. Every one of these characters is searching for something, some clear about their quests but others far more murky. A wealthy heir with no interest in his father’s factories desperately looks for meaning, for a time pursuing spirituality, until he finally settles on digging up dinosaur remains. The boat carrying his supplies is lost along the way and never found. A retired boxer looks for love, his quest leading him to the trail of his ex-girlfriend Mary’s missing brother, another who is lost and never found. Mary, suffering from mental illness, fights unsuccessfully for her sanity and cannot quite let go of the search for her brother.

The Tombaugh in the novel comes off as somewhat angry, with a sense of being undeserving. His father is a defeated man who has come to accept that he will never leave his bleak farm life. In contrast, the real Tombaugh, as described in David Levy’s biography Clyde Tombaugh: Discoverer of the Planet Pluto and by people who knew him, seems to have been more upbeat, more hopeful, less confrontational. His father and entire family, according to Levy, strongly valued education, and this background helped fuel Tombaugh’s passion for astronomy and provided a moral support not present in the novel.

Similarly, whereas the Tombaugh of the novel reacts to the finding of Pluto with a combination of guilt for having possibly tricked the world into believing the object he discovered is Planet X, and frustration over being burdened for life by being in the position of its discoverer, the real Tombaugh, in spite of recognizing what he found was not the expected gas giant, was genuinely ecstatic over his discovery. Levy describes Tombaugh’s spending the evening of February 18, 1930 at the movies doing his best to hide his elation and keep the discovery a secret as Lowell Observatory Director Vesto Slipher required. Tombaugh’s subsequent reunion with his family and community were far more upbeat than they are in the novel.

The object discovered at Lowell Observatory was a question mark in real life as well, with its planet status questioned as early as 1931. It certainly was not the gas giant Percival Lowell had sought. However, Tombaugh was convinced it was a planet and maintained that belief to the day he died, unlike his fictional counterpart, who doubts the status of his find from the beginning and feels he was used to pull one over on the public.

And the residuals, or anomalies in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, which fictional character Alan Barber uses in a mathematical attempt to find the planet, ended up never existing either in fiction or fact. They didn’t exist because astronomers’ calculations of these planets’ orbits were faulty, but this was not realized until 1986 and 1989, when Voyager II flew by Uranus and Neptune respectively. By 1990, the point at which the novel starts and ends, this was known, and Byers’ would have done well to have the older Tombaugh note this in the story.

But doing so would have meant a definitive answer, and these are virtually non-existent in the world of Percival’s Planet. Whether the thing sought for is found is always ambiguous. For several characters, it is also tragic. Their plight mirrors the descent of the nation from the excesses of the 1920s into the prolonged, seemingly endless suffering and despair of the Great Depression.

With his eye for detail and interest in both historical fiction and astronomy, Byers might want to consider as his next subject the fascinating and convoluted drama surrounding the discovery of Neptune in 1846. In that story, there is a potential novel equally riveting just waiting to be written.

For those interested in Tombaugh’s own account of his discovery, there is his book Out of the Darkness: The Planet Pluto, published in 1980.

Wednesday, August 11, 2010