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Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Guest Blogger Thomas Wade: Pluto Lives

Thomas Wade is a high school physics teacher and a former construction engineer. Here is a terrific article he has written about Pluto's planet status and misstatements of science facts in Mike Brown's book. I hope his is the first of many guest blogs on this site:

Pluto Lives

It’s déjà vu all over again. The troglodytes at the International Astronomical Union (I.A.U.) have arrived at the Pluto party carrying their usual wet blanket and sharp stick. They threw the wet blanket over the fourth moon of Pluto, naming it Kerberos. The sharp stick went into the eyes of the 174,000 people worldwide who voted for Vulcan in a non-binding vote on names for Pluto’s newly discovered fourth and fifth moon. Cerberus, the second place finisher received less than 100,000 votes; and Styx, the third place finisher received less than 90,000 votes. The name Styx was given to the fifth moon, and the Greek version of Cerberus, Kerberos, was given to the fourth moon. Kerberos, of course, received almost no votes.

Despite having the second most logical person, William Shatner, to advocate for its name, Vulcan lost out on a technicality. Objects within the orbital radius of Mercury are called vulcanoids, so the IAU deemed it too confusing. Of course there already was an asteroid named Cerberus, but that did not deter the IAU from simply tweaking its name. Really!

This news came to me, almost to the day, of completing Mike Brown’s modestly named book How I Killed Pluto, and Why It Had It Coming. Easy reader, you don’t have to reach for the defib paddles. Pluto is still very much alive.

Brown is referring to the IAU’s Aug. 24, 2006, vote to reclassify Pluto. Brown had discovered another object, Eris, thought at that time to be somewhat larger than Pluto, orbiting farther out with comets and other objects in an area known as the Kuiper Belt. With all of the imagination of a warm grapefruit, the IAU chose to reclassify Pluto as a “dwarf planet”. Guys, if you haven’t noticed, you still have the word planet in your classification. They could have used an exciting acronym like K-BOMB; Kuiper Belt Object Moving Badly. As Dr. S. Alan Stern, head of the New Horizons Pluto project, pointed out in his 2006 interview, there were only 424 votes (about 4%) cast of approximately 10,000 astronomers worldwide. That 424 also includes the 91 astronomers who did not want to deplanetize Pluto.

You see, the 9th planet of our solar system is a little quirky. Its orbit is so elliptical that it comes inside the orbit of Neptune twice as it orbits the Sun. It is smaller than Mercury, the next smallest planet, and its orbit is also about 20 degrees tilted from the plane in which the other planets orbit. It was booted out, however, because it has too much “clutter” in its neighborhood that it has not cleared out.

But quirkiness is O.K. . Everybody loves quirky. In fact, our solar system is full of “quirk”. The Sun radiates small particles called neutrinos, trillions of which penetrate our bodies every second at nearly the speed of light. Because general relativity tells us that time is gravity- dependent, time proceeds at different rates on the Earth, moon, Mars, and yes, Pluto. You would age faster on Pluto than you would compared to someone on Earth. My favorite, however, comes from Dr. Gabrielle Walker’s excellent book Antarctica. It turns out that not only is there a non-zero probability that the person sitting next to you is a Martian; there is a non-zero probability that You are a Martian. How is that for quirky?

Brown’s egotistical contention that HE killed Pluto comes from his aforementioned discovery of Eris. He had always thought Kuiper Belt objects should not be called planets. Finding an object bigger than Pluto, although much farther out, was enough for Brown and the IAU to get Pluto scraped. As a former engineer and physics instructor for the last 26 years, what bothered me about Brown’s book was his misstatement of scientific facts to convince the reader that the solar system needed deplutoing. See, I just made up a word, much like Brown makes up facts. On page 12 of his book, he states that planets go around the Sun in perfect circles, unlike Pluto’s elongated orbit. This would come as a surprise to the editors of Astronomy magazine and the students of any high school physics class. In Astronomy’s recent August 2013 edition, they named the 40 greatest astronomical discoveries of all time. Johannes Kepler’s discovery that all planets move in elliptical orbits ranked third on that list. In fact, the video series “Mechanical Universe” states that the only reason Kepler made this discovery with the naked eye observations of Tycho Brahe, was that the Mars orbit was elongated as much as it was. Pluto’s orbit, to be sure, is even more elongated than Mars. It is just quirky that way.

What kind of skullduggery would have a well-known astronomer stretching the truth to make a scientific point. It happens all of the time. Even the greatest physicist of all time, Issac Newton, bent facts to try to make his speed of sound formula, based on air density, match the best contemporary measurement for the speed of sound. Although it is done all the time, it is just not right.

Why the bullying of Pluto? I believe it comes from a dismissal of lay populations as uneducated rabble in need of constant guidance. “We IAU astronomers know better. Just follow our lead.” To be sure, there is a use for an IAU naming process. You don’t want to wake up to the news that Mars has been renamed Justin Bieber or Lima Bean. However, in the case of Pluto’s reclassification, and the veto of Vulcan, the IAU has used technicalities to thumb its nose at the regular folk.

The case for Pluto’s continuation as a planet remains strong. Although only about half the diameter of Mercury, Pluto has five moons; three more than the four closest planets to the Sun have combined. Its moon Charon is the eighth largest known moon in the solar system. If something happens to Earth, Pluto is one of only two planetary lifeboats available to humankind, Mars being the other (some moons like Europa, would probably work also). Whether it is runaway global warming in the near future, a possible asteroid impact, or the swelling of the Sun in a few billion years that will eventually incinerate Earth; Pluto may at some time become our most important neighbor. And then there is Pluto’s discovery….

In his metaphysical masterpiece Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, Robert Pirsig resurrected a word that sums up the American spirit; “gumption”. In 1930, after excruciatingly tedious comparisons of millions of star images by hand, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto. Brimming with the patience and gumption of a champion, Clyde Tombaugh was the only American (born in Streator, Illinois) to have ever discovered a planet. In fact, in Astronomy’s top 40 list, Tombaugh’s discovery came in at #14, beating out Einstein’s general relativity (#34) and coming in only three places behind Newton’s Principia, the bible of physics and calculus. As a true American hero, a portion of Tombaugh’s ashes are being carried to Pluto by NASA’s 2006 Pluto mission New Horizons, due to rendezvous with Pluto in 2015.

The most galling aspect of the Pluto-Vulcan bashing is the arrogance. At the end of Brown’s book, he actually creates a fictional conversation with his daughter when she will be in third grade.

Brown-“Lilah, did you know that when you were born we thought there were nine or ten planets?”

Lilah-“You know, adults are so stupid.” (the italics were in the original)

The hubris required to put those fake words in the mouth of his small daughter is almost unimaginable. Pluto advocates, like myself, not to mention all of the IAU members who tried to keep Pluto in the planet club, are just plain stupid. We are just not smart enough to know better. As for Vulcan, your 174,000 votes are nice, but we would rather give it a name that got virtually no votes because we know better.

Wait a minute, timeout! It now appears that Brown’s Eris is suffering from that terrible malady that affected George Costanza in that infamous Seinfeld episode; shrinkage. It turns out that the early estimate of Eris’s size has continued to decline since 2006 and it now looks like it is about the same size as Pluto, not bigger as was advertised at the IAU meeting when Pluto was demoted. Mr. Brown wanted to replace the old planet memorization acronym with: Mean, Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nature. After the Eris SNAFU, I would suggest: Many Vile Envious Meglomaniacs Just Screwed Up Nice Pluto.

Did I mention that the original press release by Brown and Caltech about the discovery of Eris referred to Eris as the tenth planet. In his book, Brown actually blames this statement on his wife. She had advocated for keeping Pluto as the ninth planet and simply acknowledging Eris as the tenth. Mr. Brown, should have, as I have learned in 20 years of marriage, listened to his wife.

I have no animus towards Dr. Brown. His book does a good job of demonstrating the gumption needed by the serious astronomer. Astronomy is a very demanding profession. The tone of the book is downbeat, however. Brown starts out chapter thirteen with the phrase “Keeping Pluto dead has taken a lot of work.” No reader, Pluto is not dead. I, and other science educators around the world, teach Pluto and the controversy every year. I would suggest that Dr. Brown take his Schmidt-48 (a telescope, not a gun) and point it slightly past star SAO187108 . He will see a dim object , not a corpse, with five even dimmer objects orbiting it. The people of the world have named one of those objects, Vulcan; Spock-like in its cold remoteness. As for Pluto, it is, and always will be, alive in our hearts, minds, and imaginations.