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Sunday, April 28, 2019

LIVE! PSW 2409 A Planet Definition Debate

Tomorrow night, Monday, April 29, at 8 PM EDT, the Philosophical Society of Washington will livestream A Planet Definition Debate between New Horizons Principal Investigator Alan Stern and former IAU president Ron Ekers. For those who cannot watch live, a recording will be placed online at this site for later viewing. Don't miss this chance to hear the major points of this debate from two people who have played and continue to play leading roles in both sides of the controversy. Viewers watching live will also be able to post comments and questions in the chat section during the event.

Tuesday, April 9, 2019

The Naming Process for 2007 OR 10 Should Not Be Biased

Today, the Planetary Society opened a naming contest for dwarf planet 2007 OR10, a worthy endeavor. Unfortunately, what should have been a welcoming, uncontroversial invitation has instead been presented in a biased manner that unfairly presents one side of the planet debate as fact without acknowledging the existence of the debate and even goes as far as attempting to help Mike Brown sell his book of errors.

The solicitation of names for this distant object, which is almost certainly large enough to be in hydrostatic equilibrium and therefore classed as a dwarf planet, could easily be done using completely neutral language and sidestepping the planet debate entirely. Instead, the Planetary Society unfortunately allowed itself to be used as an advertising platform for one view and one outspoken proponent of that view.

On the main page, “OR 10 Needs A Name,” 2007 OR 10 is described as a “planetoid,” a term that is a synonym for asteroid and therefore not appropriate for a dwarf planet. Planetoids are objects not large enough to be rounded by their own gravity. The page goes on to support one of the most controversial, offensive, and wrong aspects of the 2006 IAU vote—the placement of dwarf planets under the auspices of the IAU’s Minor Planet Center. This was done solely to placate the late Brian Marsden, who had a long term grudge against Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh and spent decades obsessed with bringing Pluto under the Minor Planet Center’s auspices. Marsden was so fixated on this goal that he publicly stated it at a 1980 celebration of the 50th anniversary of Pluto’s discovery, in the presence of Tombaugh and his family members.

Dwarf planets are not minor planets, at least according to the use of the latter term for the last 150 years, as a synonym for tiny, shapeless objects now labeled by the IAU as “Small Solar System Bodies.”

Interestingly, under the subheading, “Naming A Distant World,” the site, in an effort to highlight the significance of dwarf planets, notes that Eris is the most massive object in the Kuiper Belt but fails to provide any information about Pluto, including the fact that it is the largest object in the region, the one with the most moons, and the solar system’s only known binary planet system. The New Horizons mission is not mentioned anywhere on the site even once.

The most biased information on the site comes under the “Who Are We” section. There, Mike Brown’s biography is nothing less than a platform to promote and sell his book and present solely his view of the planet debate. One particular sentence goes out of its way to state that dwarf planets are not “real planets,” then uses the controversial term “Planet 9” to promote an undiscovered world which many in the Lunar and Planetary Science Institutelast summer requested be referred to by the more appropriate appellation “Planet X,” the term traditionally used for a hypothesized but undiscovered world.

“Among his numerous scientific accomplishments, he is best known for his discovery of Eris, the most massive object found in the solar system in 150 years, and the object which led to the debate and eventual demotion of Pluto from a real planet to a dwarf planet. He is also one of the first proponents of Planet 9, a proposed Neptune-sized body lurking in the outer Solar System beyond Neptune.”

Neither are genuinely fair and balanced; at times both are worthy of the terms “Fake News” and “alternative facts,” as is some of the writing on this website.

The discovery of Eris is not about “killing” Pluto. It is about the finding of a whole new category of planets in the outer solar system. For some reason, Brown cannot appreciate this.

His biography devolves into an outright sales pitch with the words, “Mike is also author of "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming", an award winning best-selling memoir of the discoveries leading to the demotion of Pluto.”

Brown’s book is neither award-winning nor best-selling. Even if it were, why is the Planetary Society allowing him to use its site to sell books?

Interestingly, David Rabinowitz’s biography is also on the site, as he too was a co-discoverer of 2007 OR 10. Rabinowitz also co-discovered Eris and significantly, signed the petition of 300 planetary scientists who rejected the IAU planet definition. Somehow, the latter fact is never mentioned in the paragraph about him.

Unlike the New Horizons-sponsored naming contests for features on Pluto and its moons and for 2014 MU69,  the object that became known as Ultima Thule, this contest does not allow entrants to provide name suggestions of their own. Only three names are presented, and voters must choose one of the three. Why not open the contest up to more suggestions as a means of further engaging the public in this exciting discovery?

The site notes that ultimately, 2007 OR 10’s name will be selected by the IAU Committee for Small Body Nomenclature, raising yet another error created by the 2006 IAU vote. This committee is for naming small solar system bodies—objects not large enough or massive enough to be spherical. In contrast, dwarf planets are planets, and their naming should fall under the IAU Working Group for Public Naming of Planets and Planetary Satellites.

By all means, go ahead and vote in this contest. The goal is worthy but the means to it, namely this website and the choices made in creating it, represent a lost opportunity to introduce the public to the wonders of Kuiper Belt planets without promoting someone’s agenda and pretending that one side of an ongoing debate is fact. The Planetary Society knows better than this. We don’t need fake news and alternative facts when the reality is so much more wondrous.