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Thursday, August 24, 2017

Eclipsing the IAU

This year, the anniversary of the disastrous IAU planet definition vote that continues to cause confusion and misconceptions among the public has gone largely unnoticed—probably because three days ago, a total solar eclipse mesmerized thousands if not millions across the North American continent, and both pictures and accounts of that event are still being actively shared online.

The fact that so many people viewed the solar eclipse, whether in person or online, illustrates that the general public can, under the right circumstances, become excited about astronomy. Though not to the same extent, space missions such as Cassini at Saturn and Juno at Jupiter or the various rovers on Mars generate similar enthusiasm and attention if they are given appropriate media attention.

Two years ago, the New Horizons flyby generated the same kind of fascination with Pluto. People are naturally inspired by the solar system and exploration of its many worlds.

Astronomers, both amateur and professional, should be encouraging this kind of excitement, should want to share the wonders of the sky with the public.

In 2006, four percent of the IAU did the exact opposite. They decreed that they and only they can determine the identity of celestial objects, as if they somehow own these objects. Reaction to their decision was justifiably negative because that decision amounted to rejection of any cultural or popular conception of the solar system. Inherent in the message of the vote was the statement, the solar system is not yours. An object that looks and acts like a planet isn’t really a planet for some obscure reason no one really understands.

Keep things simple; keep the number of planets small. That was the real motivation behind the decision of August 24, 2006. And its message to the public was, when it comes to science, your views and understanding of the solar system mean nothing.

In his book Century’s End, author Hillel Schwartz discusses a controversy that has reared its head at the end of every century for 500-1,000 years. Does the new century start in the year 00 or 01?

There can actually be no correct answer to this question because the dating system we use is based on a mathematical error. It is a number line with numbers going from negative to positive but without the zero such a number line requires. The concept of the zero was unknown to the sixth-century monk who created the system.

Ordinarily, the first century would be the years 0-99, the second century the years 100-199, etc. But because the system has no zero, the first century, to have a total of 100 years, is actually the years 1-100, the second 101-200, etc. That is counterintuitive, as it tells us that the year 2000 is actually part of the old rather than the new century.

An interesting pattern developed over the last few hundred years. “Elites” such as scholars and intellectuals, advocated the counterintuitive method, the one viewed as requiring complex thinking rather than the popular conception. These people always insisted on centuries starting in the 01 year. In Boston, they refused to celebrate the beginning of the 20th century in 1900, then threw a grand public celebration in 1901.

In contrast, the general public went with the view that inherently sounded correct. They considered 1900 the beginning of the 20th century and 2000 the beginning of the 21st century.

The point here is a cultural one. The real issue at hand was the division between the “elites” and the common people. Anyone who wanted to sound educated or intellectual usually went with the counterintuitive 01 option, which supposedly showed they understood the complexity of the situation.

In reality, there can be no answer to this dilemma because the dating system is based on a mathematical error. Neither view is correct. This is why NASA, in its pages listing 5,000 years of solar and lunar eclipses, adds a zero to the count, assigning zero to the year 1 BCE, 1 to the year 2 BCE, etc. Predicting eclipses could not be done using an incorrect number line.

A similar phenomenon has happened regarding Pluto. Most members of the public grew up with Pluto being classed as a planet, and in the absence of a logical reason to change that, continue to consider it one. In contrast, those who want to seem intellectual or professional often adopt the other view, supposedly counterintuitive one. To them, “simple” people view Pluto as a planet while those who are more educated and intellectual understand the complexity of the issue and agree with the “experts” after understanding their line of thinking.

In other words, rejecting the “common” view supporting Pluto’s planethood has for some become a status symbol, a way of supposedly distinguishing themselves from the masses and showing they know more than the average person.

This is a psychological and cultural issue. It is not science, and it is bunk.

Eleven years after the vote on what the IAU has turned into a dogma they refuse to ever reconsider, the reality is many top planetary scientists in the world view Pluto as a planet. New Horizons sent back data showing Pluto to be a world that looks and acts like a planet. “Science” does not in any way support designating Pluto as anything else.

The August 21 solar eclipse showed the public enjoys engaging in astronomy and can be motivated to do so with appropriate outreach and education that brings people in rather than keeps them out.

In terms of media coverage and public attention, the eclipse also eclipsed the anniversary of the IAU vote.

One event involved embracing the public while the other centered on excluding them. We can only hope that renewed public engagement with astronomy continues to eclipse a bad decision by 424 non-experts 11 years ago.

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

The Great American Eclipse, August 21, 2017

This blog is mostly but not exclusively devoted to the issues of Pluto, dwarf planets, and planet definition. However, no planet or celestial body exists in isolation, and on various occasions, I have chosen to discuss other issues relating to planetary science and astronomy.

By now, most people are probably aware of the fact that a total solar eclipse will traverse the continental US on Monday, August 21. Locations outside the 70-mile path of totality, which crosses the country from northwest to southeast, as well as Canada, Central America, and the top of South America, will be treated to a partial solar eclipse.

Monday’s spectacle is a momentous occasion, a rare opportunity that should not be missed. While those who get to see the Sun completely covered by the Moon will hit the jackpot, the many more who will get to see a partial eclipse should not pass up the chance to do so—safely, of course, with eclipse glasses or indirectly using the pinhole projection method.

For anyone either clouded out or in other parts of the world, there will be numerous live online broadcasts in real time showing the stunning spectacle accompanied by educational commentary.

Unfortunately, some schools, both in and beyond the path of totality, are choosing to either do nothing for the eclipse or worse, keep students in rooms with drawn shades or no windows at all to prevent them from seeing it. Some are not even showing their students the online broadcasts.

These decisions rob children of a rare opportunity to see an unusual spectacle that can be watched safely. They reflect the way educational systems too often get things wrong, focusing on teaching to standardized tests rather than giving students an authentic learning experience.

In New Jersey, where I live, most schools don’t start until September, so this is not an issue. But in any state where schools are open, and bureaucrats make this indefensible choice, parents should either urge a policy change or keep their children home and watch the eclipse with them—even if that means watching online.

That’s right—Plutogirl is telling parents, even those not in the path of totality, in districts choosing to ignore the eclipse, to keep their kids home on August 21 and give them a better, firsthand educational experience than they would have received that day in school.

Such opportunities do not come around frequently. The US mainland has not seen a total solar eclipse since 1979. I would have loved to see one as a child, but there just weren’t any good ones during that time.

For people of all ages, this is a chance to take a break from disturbing national and world events and instead focus on the beauty of nature and a firsthand display of the motions of the Sun, Moon, and Earth. Seeing the results of these motions firsthand transforms our understanding of the solar system from abstract to experiential.

While I have personally seen several lunar eclipses, both total and partial, the only solar eclipse I’ve ever viewed personally was a very partial one in which, through telescopes made specifically for solar observing, one could see the Sun appear to have a small bite taken out of it.

I’ve known about this year’s total solar eclipse for at least ten years and probably longer. This one did not require traveling halfway around the world or to extreme climates. A decade ago, the first websites about this eclipse first went live online, emphasizing the goal of getting all Americans into the path of totality. I knew I wanted to go, and now it is actually happening.

Unfortunately, there are unscrupulous vendors who are selling counterfeit eclipse glasses that cannot be used to safely view the Sun. The American Astronomical Society has a list of reputable vendors of glasses and filters, which is posted at

The website EarthSky has information on watching the eclipse safely, which everyone should read, at

Watch online through any of the live video streams listed at

The Toshiba Vision screen in New York's Times Square will broadcast the program live in its entirety to give the public a big-screen view of the eclipse. Viewers in Times Square can listen to NASA coverage while observing it on the big screen by downloading the NASA app or going to

SLOOH, a remote observatory with live feeds from telescopes around the world, will also broadcast the eclipse free online at

Catch NASA’s live coverage using any of the following:

· NASA App for iOS --
· NASA App for Android --
· NASA App for Amazon Fire and Fire TV --
· The NASA App also is available to Apple TV users.

A list of additional smartphone eclipse apps can be found at

Happy and Safe Viewing!