Saturday, August 24, 2013

Can't Keep A Good Planet Down

Seven years ago today, in a harried, last-minute highly political act, four percent of the IAU decided Pluto should be stripped of its designation as a planet and should instead be classified as part of a new group of objects, the dwarf planets—which, they said, are not planets at all even though the word “planet” is part of the category name.

It’s hard to believe seven years have passed since that ignominious day. And while some astronomers determined to keep planet Pluto “dead” are likely to gloat about the “new solar system” and brag about how this definition will last for another 80 or so years, what is even more incredible is the way Pluto’s status has remained an active topic of debate over the better part of a decade, at a time when members of the public are decried for their short attention spans.

In just the last year, we have celebrated the 35th anniversary of the discovery of Charon, Pluto’s large moon/binary planet companion, with New Horizons taking its first image of Charon. With its entourage of five moons and counting (four if you count Pluto-Charon as a binary system), this little planet never fails to generate intense interest and long discussions, both online and offline.

Meanwhile, the IAU has managed to stir public ire twice in 2013 alone, first by rejecting the name Vulcan, which received the highest number of votes in a contest sponsored by the SETI Institute that asked the public to suggest names for Pluto’s fourth and fifth moons, and then by condemning the private company Uwingu for launching a fundraiser through which people were asked to submit names for the exoplanet Alpha Centauri Bb and for the larger effort of creating a “Baby Book” of exoplanet names.

Each of these incidents brought people’s attention back to the IAU’s worst debacle seven years ago and reinforced the image of an elitist group out of touch with the general public.

That is likely the reason that earlier this month, the IAU reversed itself on the naming of exoplanets.

This reversal appears to be part of a slow, but inexorable change on the organization’s part, a recognition that its mission to “safeguard the science of astronomy” requires a respectful relationship with the public rather than a dictatorship.

One year ago, at its Beijing General Assembly, the IAU finally approved electronic voting, which will enable members who cannot attend future General Assemblies to have a voice in important decisions by voting remotely.

That rule change is laid out here: .

“15.a. To enable the widest possible participation of Individual Members the Executive Committee may decide that voting on certain issues of a primarily scientific nature, as determined by the Executive Committee, shall be open for electronic voting for not more than 31 days counting from the close of the General Assembly at which the issue was raised.

15.b. The Executive Committee shall give Members not less than 3 months notice before the opening of the General Assembly of the intention to open certain issues to electronic voting after the General Assembly.”

At this site, , Nancy Atkinson describes the change in policy regarding the assigning of popular names to exoplanets and on allowing members of the public to take part in that process.

The new IAU position, published online only ten days ago, states: “It is therefore in line with a long-established global tradition and experience that the IAU fully supports the involvement of the general public, whether directly or through an independent organized vote, in the naming of planetary satellites, newly discovered planets and their host stars.”

The announcement outlined a set of rules for public submission of exoplanet names that can be found in Atkinson’s article above.

Dr. Alan Stern remains skeptical of the decision, noting it still preserves IAU authority by requiring members of the public to submit exoplanet names to the organization. “Why should the IAU be a traffic cop?” he legitimately asks.

Stern points out that this statement contradicts an earlier one made by the IAU in April. In that statement, the IAU said: “These [naming] campaigns have no bearing on the official naming process — they will not lead to an officially-recognized exoplanet name, despite the price paid or the number of votes accrued.”

Readers of this blog may at this point see where I am going.

As the popular 1960s song goes, “The Times, They Are A’Changing.” The days of authoritarian decrees by a tiny unelected group are numbered. People interested in and involved in astronomy want to have a say in astronomical matters. They want to have input into names and yes, designations, of new discoveries. Chances are, the IAU leadership is making these concessions not because they want to, but because they see the way the wind is blowing and desperately don’t want their organization to become irrelevant and obsolete.

I may be overly optimistic here, but if the public and media can get the IAU to change its stance on naming exoplanets, maybe, just maybe, we can get them to reconsider the issues of planet definition and the status of all dwarf planets, including Pluto.

And if such efforts go unanswered, the IAU is not the only game in town. Astronomy today needs inclusive workshops and consensus building, not a “traffic cop.” As the late Patrick Moore often urged, the field needs an organization that includes amateur astronomers and both respects and welcomes their input.

Back in January, when I first learned of the new policy allowing electronic voting, I wrote to IAU Secretary General Dr. Thierry Montmerle asking for the IAU to reopen discussion on 2006 Resolutions 5a and 5b at its 2015 General Assembly, so that the 96 percent of members who were not in that room in Prague could have a say in the matter.

While noting that a group of IAU members would have to submit a draft resolution several months in advance of the 2015 General Assembly and specifically request it be subjected to electronic voting, as per IAU rules here , Montmerle went on to say,

“To be honest, I doubt that any group of astronomers will do what you suggest. There is no indication among the professional community of any will to reconsider the Prague Resolution, and now two GAs have passed without reaction. So personally I would see absolutely no justification (especially taking into account the progress made since then) in bringing up the same issue once again nine years later.”

It is disturbing to hear a high level IAU official dismiss reopening a relevant discussion three years in advance of the General Assembly. One gets the sense that the IAU leadership has made up its mind and does not want to be confused with the facts.

Then again, the events of 2013 illustrate that the IAU is capable of reversing its position if momentum in the astronomy community is clearly moving in a different direction.

Here are the points I noted in response to his message, in favor of a re-vote in 2015:

“I respectfully disagree with you regarding reason to bring up this issue nine years after the Prague decision. As I'm sure you understand, all understanding in science is subject to change based on our discovery of new information. At one time, astronomers thought all solar systems formed and are organized just like ours. Today, we know from exopanet discoveries that this is not the case. Similarly, several developments have occurred since 2006 or will occur by 2015 that could be regarded as compelling a reconsideration of the definition of planet.

1. The New Horizons flyby of Pluto and the Dawn flyby of Ceres will both take place in 2015, and the data these missions will provide will give scientists unprecedented understanding of the composition of small worlds that are large enough to be in hydrostatic equilibrium. These missions will show us two dwarf planets up close and personal, and their findings will likely trump all previous knowledge about such worlds. How could this new knowledge not compel a reconsideration of the concept of planet, including the question of whether dwarf planets should be classified as planets?

2. A huge number and variety of exoplanets have been discovered since 2006. Initially, the goal of creating a definition for the term planet was intended to include both planets in our solar system and in others. As Dr. Jocelyn Bell Burnell said at the 2006 GA, ‘You will notice that the heading of the resolution is definition of a planet in the solar system. We originally hoped to be able to define planet more widely, but we found it too difficult to manage appropriate wording on the timescale that we had. So today, we are talking only about objects in the solar system. We do know that there are other planets beyond our solar system. We are just not looking at them today.’

The IAU may not have had time to consider exoplanets in 2006, but the intention was never to not include exoplanets at some point in the future. Many giant exoplanets discovered today would not meet the criteria of ‘clearing their orbits.’ Only days ago, Formalhaut b was confirmed to have an extremely elliptical orbit that takes it through a disk of debris. Formalhaut b does not remove that debris when it crosses it nor does it capture the debris into its orbit. Therefore, Formalhaut b can be viewed as a world that does not ‘clear the neighborhood of its orbit.’

It is understandable that at first, a definition was created only for planets in our solar system. However, the Copernican principle reminds us that Earth and its solar system are not ‘special’ or at the center of anything. They are just one of many stellar systems with planets. Therefore, it behooves astronomers to standardize a planet definition that fits both our solar system and others rather than hold on to one that somehow gives a ‘unique’ or ‘privileged’ status to Earth's sun and planets.

3. Six years after the IAU vote, the planet definition adopted remains a matter of ongoing controversy and debate. Given the fact that only 424 IAU members voted on that definition, doesn't it make sense to revisit the issue now that electronic voting has been enabled? Many IAU members expressed dismay at having not had a voice in the 2006 debate because they were not present in Prague on the day of the vote. A group of professional astronomers, many of whom are IAU members, signed a formal petition rejecting the IAU definition and in 2009, asked the IAU GA to reopen the issue, only to be rebuffed. Why not include more voices and gain the type of strong consensus that will only strengthen a new planet definition? More voices, including more planetary scientists, can only enrich the discussion.

Nothing in science is set in stone or decreed ‘forever.’ I ask you to take into account the above factors as compelling arguments in favor of revisiting this subject with much more data and significantly more input, nine years after 2006.”

In response, Montmerle said he saw no purpose in continuing this discussion.

What Montmerle didn’t acknowledge in his email to me is that the lack of motivation among the professional astronomy community to reconsider the Prague resolution largely stems from the fact that many astronomers are simply ignoring it altogether. One could argue that that is a much easier route than spending time wrestling with an entrenched bureaucracy, allowing professional astronomers to devote precious time to research rather than politics and procedure.

Dr. Stern confirms this in his most recent report on the New Horizons mission, which can be found here: . He noted that during the Pluto Science Conference last month, many of the speakers, including some who do not view dwarf planets as planets, continually used the word “planet” in discussing both Pluto and Charon.

He writes, “Throughout the proceedings, scientists of all stripes, including some who don’t regard dwarf planets as planets, repeatedly referred to both Pluto and Charon (though never their small moons) as ‘planets.’ I wasn’t very surprised by this, since I hear it a lot at other conferences too, until one colleague asked me, ‘Why do you think [names withheld] referred to Pluto and Charon as planets when they didn’t sign the petition rejecting the IAU’s planet definition that excludes dwarf planets?’ I was surprised by her answer to her own question: ‘I think it’s because they subconsciously think of Pluto and Charon as planets, and they can't help but say it in when referring to them.’”

On the occasions when the 2006 IAU decision was mentioned at the conference, I couldn’t help but notice that it triggered amused laughter among many in the room.

With less than a year and a half to go until New Horizons begins transmitting its first close-up observations of Pluto in January 2015, Pluto is bound to be a hot topic of discussion in the near future.

That means two parallel discussions loom large on the public radar when it comes to astronomy. One is the role of the IAU in decision making while the other is New Horizons’ reconnaissance of Pluto. This is a good thing because ultimately the two topics are intertwined with one another.

So when a particular astronomer walks around saying that it takes a lot of work to keep Pluto “dead,” the reason for that should be obvious. Seven years after a decision the IAU, or at least four percent of it, desperately wanted to be the final word on the matter, the debate continues. Planet Pluto is very much alive and kicking. You just can’t keep a good planet down.


Sowff said...

Nicely done!

Sowff said...

Nicely done!

Charles Irving said...

Very nice! I'm writing a research paper on why I think Pluto as well as the other Dwarf planets should be given the planet status I just wish I could write as well as you do.

Laurel Kornfeld said...

@Charles Thank you! I'm sure you'll do a great job! If you need any help finding good information sources, please let me know!

Plutonian said...

The only thing sexier than Pluto is you.
That's right, sexy. I went there.
I want to be like Charon, orbiting you.
I am a satellite of Laurel living in an insane world
where people try to dismiss Pluto
of its rightful status of planethood.

What is wrong with the world today when some self
proclaimed Pluto killers can lead a campaign
of disinformation to pull the wool over the eyes
of the public? I applaud your efforts
to keep this "stellar blog" (excuse the pun)
and I will NEVER accept this travesty,
it is an affront to my sensibility.

I am grateful there is such a pretty,
energetic defender of the PLANET
that is courageous enough to shed light on this issue.
Don't give me any nonsense about its size either, cause
any real woman will tell you it's not the size that matters
, it's the motion through the solar system that counts.


Laurel Kornfeld said...

Plutonian, that is so sweet! You're a great writer! Thank you so much for all of your support! We WILL do this! We WILL see planet Pluto reinstated! :)