The Great Pluto War Revisited

a-pluto.jpgA reprint from the publication Ad Astra appeared today on the site which details some of the dissatisfaction over the demotion of Pluto from planethood at this past summer’s IAU meeting. This puppy remains as controversial as the pro multis or pax issues ever were for Catholic liturgists.

This from Robert Roy Britt:

The controversial planet-definition resolution, passed Aug. 24 in a vote of just 424 IAU members, will not stand as worded. Some 300 astronomers have pledged not to use it, and many others say it must be redone to eliminate contradictions. It will be reworked, at the least, and possibly overturned at the 2009 IAU General Assembly in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.

Meanwhile, the debate—which the IAU limited to defining round things in our solar system—was a neighborhood nomenclature brawl amid a universal war of words. Any terminology that might be relevant to our little solar system will be laughably inadequate if applied across the galaxy.

His editorial links numerous news sites and blogs, so if you want to get up to speed, check the link.
Britt makes some good points, including some glaring loopholes in the current definition of “planet” that might not work for planet-sized bodies discovered orbiting other stars or floating freely in space without benefit of a home star. The astronomical community virtually ignores the three pulsar planets–discovered before Geoff Marcy and the other planet hunters started detecting Jupiter-sized globes orbiting “real” stars in 1995. There’s good reason to suspect that the formation process ejects some planets from their solar systems. Do you need a star to be a planet?

Me, I don’t care what you call them. I just want to go visit one.

More from the Britt piece:

The Great Pluto War alienated many of the roughly 10,000 professional astronomers around the world who did not have a chance to cast a vote. It also created “two major rifts” among astronomers, said David Morrison, an astronomer at NASA’s Ames Research Center who was among the few who did vote.

“Most important was a rift between astronomers who study physical properties of objects and those who study orbits (dynamics),” Morrison told me. “The dynamicists dominated at the IAU, and many of them would not accept any definition that was based solely on physical properties such as size.”

“The second division was along national lines,” Morrison explained. “Some astronomers seemed irritated by perceived American domination of the process. Some felt, with considerable justification in my opinion, that some Americans astronomers defended Pluto as a planet in large part because an American had discovered it. As in so many other international contexts, there can be reaction against perceived American arrogance.”

In an interview with published in September, IAU president Catherine Cesarsky said there is no reason to question the governing body’s authority. But when asked if that authority had been weakened, she also said: “It is too early to tell.”

Hey, I’ve been watching bishops closely the past several years. I know weakened authority when I see it. Thousands of crying school children can’t be wrong.

About catholicsensibility

Todd lives in Minnesota, serving a Catholic parish as a lay minister.
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1 Response to The Great Pluto War Revisited

  1. So Cesarsky believes that science involves no reason to question a self-appointed “authority” that made a lousy decision in a violation of its own bylaws? The resolution adopted was not vetted by an IAU committee before being placed on the General Assembly floor for a vote, as IAU bylaws require. No absentee voting was allowed, and most of the four percent who voted are not planetary scientists. Their definition makes no sense by saying that dwarf planets are not planets at all. That is like saying a grizzly bear is not a bear, and it is inconsistent with the use of the term “dwarf” in astronomy, where dwarf stars are still stars, and dwarf galaxies are still galaxies. Also, the definition classifies objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. If Earth were in Pluto’s orbit, according to the IAU definition, it would not be a planet either. A definition that takes the same object and makes it a planet in one location and not a planet in another is untenable and useless. That is why hundreds of professional astronomers, led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, rejected the IAU decision in a formal petition.

    If the IAU ever had any “authority” at all, it most certainly has very little after this debacle and is well on its way to becoming what Stern calls “the Irrelevant Astronomical Union.” It’s too bad Cesarsky doesn’t know the difference between science and dogma. No “authority” in the world can dictate what is reality and then expect the world to just blindly accept its decision.

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