Pluto: Still a planet, always a planet.

Poor Pluto. I wrote a detailed essay about my feelings back in 2014, before New Horizons had gotten close enough to reveal the stunning images of Pluto and Charon that it painstakingly sent back at 38 kbps.

nh-pluto-charon-v2-10-1-15 (1)

Pluto and Charon. ©2015 NASA

Yeah yeah, I get it. Science moves on. Clyde Tombaugh discovered the Kuiper Belt; Pluto is just another trans-Neptunian object that happened to get captured, and not even the biggest. There are doubtless many more large ones yet to be discovered.

large_kbos

But Pluto was a part of the public’s consciousness as a planet for 76 years – from 1930 when Dr. Tombaugh discovered it, until it was reclassified by the IAU, a move that was opposed by many scientists and astronomers.

I even wrote to Mike Brown, who has referred to himself as “the man who killed Pluto,” and expressed my feelings that for historical reasons, Pluto should have been “grandfathered in” as a planet; he was kind enough to reply, and explained that while he understands why I and others feel emotionally attached to Pluto, the IAU took an opportunity to make planetary classification meaningful instead of arbitrary, which is scientifically more important than nostalgia.

But I’m still sad. And I’m not the only one. Dr. Maggie Lieu, a research fellow at the ESA (European Space Agency) recently posted on Twitter,

esa

The cleaners took Pluto down, but he was quickly replaced:

thug

And the current status is this: (If you can’t read the text, it says

  • Don’t worry, Pluto! We dwarf planets will be your friends.
  • Yes, those stuck-up full planets are the 1% living in their “cleared neighbourhoods” and oppressing the rest of us with their unequal distribution of mass.

Thug 2

I accept the science, but the IAU’s designation is, after all, just academic nomenclature – and whatever the scientists of today or the future choose to call Pluto, for me it will be the 9th planet in our solar system, Sol IX, forever.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

PS: One of my all-time favorite Woot! shirts, “Gardening at Night.” (Pluto is peeking out at the bottom)gardening

Edit: A couple of comments over at Facebook’s “Unapologetic Society of Pluto Huggers” adds a bit more Tabasco™ to this ongoing debate, and I quote them here with gratitude, although without attribution:

It wasn’t consensus. It was a vote of a tiny minority of the IAU membership that manipulated the situation to ram their flawed definition through toward the end of the conference when most of the members had left to go home. This definition was not arrived at by peer review and consensus of a majority of astronomers the way scientific opinion normally changes; it was essentially imposed by fiat and it’s been controversial since Day One. The IAU is dominated by astrophysicists who seem to find the definition more acceptable than planetary scientists (astronomers who study planets) do, and feelings were raw so they didn’t want to bring the subject up again anyway. Several hundred planetary scientists immediately signed a declaration saying they weren’t going to use this definition and to this day most planetary scientists continue to reject it.

There never was any such consensus. Mike Brown is not an IAU member and had no say in the vote, despite his claims otherwise. He appears to have a personal, unscientific interest in being known as the person who “killed” Pluto.
Just four percent of the IAU voted on the controversial planet definition, and most were not planetary scientists but other types of astronomers. The vote was conducted in vi8olation of the IAU bylaws, which prohibit placement of a resolution on the floor of the General Assembly without it first being vetted by the proper committee. This resolution was literally thrown together the night before the vote. After it was adopted by a vote of 333-91, several hundred planetary scientists signed a formal petition rejecting it.

So there’s a bit more information to add to the mix. Clearly, the debate in the scientific community is far from settled. Which is a good thing.

One response to “Pluto: Still a planet, always a planet.

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