The Lower Quote, As If You Didn't Know, Is By Richard Dawkins, Son.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

The Pluto Files!

Hey there, everyone (three people counts as grounds to use "everyone", ok? OK.) I've been, once again, incredibly lax in my posting due to an unforeseen illness and just damn life gettin' in the way of my internet life.

That being said, I just read (listened to, actually) Neil deGrasse-Tyson's new book, The Pluto Files. It was a fun book that tells all about Pluto's discovery and subsequent demotion plus all the furor that ensued after the Hayden Planetarium's display which ostensibly "forgot" Pluto. I found it slightly repetitive, but not necessarily in a bad way - there were a couple of times when I was listening when I thought, "did I hit back or something?" Apart from that, though, it was quite fun.

While listening to some of the feedback Tyson received, the main thought I had was, "Holy crap, it's amazing that people seriously have opinions that strong about a subject they have very little knowledge about and that has essentially zero effect on their lives." Much of it revolved around the subject of, "well, Pluto was a planet when I was young, that's how I was taught, and that's how I'm staying."

It was a window into how normal (read: non-scientific) people think. The majority of folks are told/taught something and then that's that. No more thought necessary because the ol' mind's made up. It shines a light on why many - most, likely - people think that the cornerstone of science, the fact that all knowledge is tentative, is a weakness. I believe educators call that a "teachable moment".

This is a good book, although I have to say that I enjoyed Death by Black Hole more. Check either out if you have the means.

16 Barbaric Yawps:

At 26/2/09 1:43 pm, Blogger Laurel Kornfeld said...

Some of us who have strong opinions about Pluto's status actually have spent time studying Pluto and the solar system because we are interested in the subject.

Tyson's book is fun, but it doesn't contain the whole story. The IAU demotion of Pluto was done by only four percent of its members, most of whom are not planetary scientists. It was immediately opposed in a petition of hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto.

Tyson contradicts himself in the book regarding the IAU decision. On the one hand, he disavows any connection to it and accurately describes it as "flawed." On the other hand, he cites it to vindicate his design of the Rose Center. Which one is it? He can't have it both ways.

He is also wrong about Pluto being a large comet, as any planet brought close enough to its parent star, including Earth, would develop a tail due to sublimation of its atmosphere. And he is wrong in attribuing public affinity for Pluto to the Disney dog and in claiming such affinity is limited to Americans. Most who care about Pluto are already people with a strong interest in astronomy and the solar system.

Pluto has not "fallen," as this debate is far from over, and even now, scientists and lay people, including myself, are working to overturn the demotion.

I plan to write a book about Pluto myself from the viewpoint that Pluto is a planet. Meanwhile, for the other side of this issue, feel free to visit my Pluto blog at

At 27/2/09 7:05 am, Blogger Fleegman said...

"Some of us who have strong opinions about Pluto's status actually have spent time studying Pluto and the solar system because we are interested in the subject"

That's great, but what difference does it make? You obviously have strong opinions on the subject; I'm just interested in why it makes a difference what status Pluto has.

In my mind, the main group of people who would actually care would be the astrologers. I can picture it now: All waiting to hear the final classification so they can update their charts. It's quite amazing to think how the future is changing as opinion swings one way or the other on whether or not Pluto is a planet.

Admittedly, it doesn't bother me what Pluto is classified as. And why would it? It's certainly not something I can ever imagine getting worked up about. It's like not being able to enjoy a golf match because you're worried if the flags are regulation length.

Personally, I could listen to Tyson talk all day. I saw him on The Universe on the discovery channel, and he made a big speech about how super novas expel the matter which makes up the building blocks of life, and how we're all stardust etc. Yes, I'd heard it all before (as fascinating as that subject is) but the way he delivered it was SO FREAKIN' AWESOME! The way his words were accented by the grandeur of the music was absolutely spot on, too. It remains one of my favourite moments out of any of the Discovery Channel documentaries.

Love that guy. Love him. I wish I had just a fraction of his eloquence.

At 27/2/09 2:46 pm, Blogger Laurel Kornfeld said...

Well I do have at least a fraction of his eloquence--and absolutely no humility--so I hope you decide to attend one of my presentations.
There is still a link online to a radio interview I did about Pluto on Centenary College's WNTI station, which I will find and send you.

To me, the golf match means nothing and has nothing to do with my life, while the status of Pluto matters a great deal. Some of us are fascinated by astronomy and view classifying Pluto in what we believe to be the wrong category the equivalent of your concern about golf regulation flags being incorrectly posted. The IAU's classification of Pluto makes no scientific or lingustic sense, and many people do care about that because there are schools, textbooks, and teachers who accept the IAU decree as gospel truth when it is just one opinion.

I have a huge problem with people blindly accepting the decree of a supposed authority when that decree makes no sense, is political, and arbitrarily excludes an object that in every way is a planet. I have a problem with narrowing the definition of planet at a time when we should be broadening it in anticipation of the many diverse exoplanets we are finding and almost certainly will continue to find.

If other people don't care about Pluto or find some other subject like golf more exciting, that's fine. But why belittle those of us who actually love astronomy and are bothered by the idea of an elitist organization trying to change facts by decree?

At 27/2/09 3:14 pm, Blogger Heathen Mike said...

Ok, I have a problem with your use of "gospel truth". Everything in science is tentative, able to be reviewed and changed based on new evidence. Sometimes textbooks have to be re-written, otherwise we'd still have Newtonian mechanics with no mention of general relativity.

When an object like Pluto so obviously fits better with the iceballs and comets in the Kuiper belt, why not include it there? Tyson's (and many others) view that there are five known groups to our solar system - terrestrial planets, asteroid belt, Jovian planets, Kuiper belt, and Oort cloud - is a much more elegant and workable way to organize the bodies we've found and are likely to find.

You said: I have a huge problem with people blindly accepting the decree of a supposed authority when that decree makes no sense, is political, and arbitrarily excludes an object that in every way is a planet. This is a statement that, in my opinion, makes no real sense. You and the people who insist that Pluto is a planet are the ones who are "blindly accepting" an authority, while Tyson and others are working to make the solar system a simpler and more education-friendly place. Pluto is not, "in every way" a planet because the word "planet" still has no real definition - so no one really knows what a planet is.

That said, thanks for taking the time to comment.

At 2/3/09 7:48 am, Blogger Fleegman said...

Well, what mike just said, plus that you seem to have missed my point about the golf. The sentence structure was a little bit convoluted, so apologies for that. What I meant was that worrying about how Pluto is classified is akin to worrying if the flags are regulation length. In other words, not really worth my time.

In fact, it's worse than that, since the length of the flag can actually have an impact on whether you can see it or not, and can have some impact on your game. It's more like arguing over whether the club you're using is called a lob-wedge, gap-wedge, or a pitching-wedge. While the definitions of what constitutes a lob-wedge can change, and there is some ambiguity there, the club itself remains the same. Does it matter if a committee somewhere decides it's actually a pitching-wedge? In short, no.

Also, you said:

"I have a problem with narrowing the definition of planet at a time when we should be broadening it in anticipation of the many diverse exoplanets we are finding and almost certainly will continue to find."

We should be broadening the definition of a planet so we can classify more objects as exoplanets? In essence, what you're saying here is that you don't have a problem with changing the definition of a planet, as long as it a) includes Pluto and, b) allows us to classify more extrasolar planets.

Can you see the floored (and biased) reasoning here?

You have obviously put a great deal of thought into this. I just wonder if you're coming at the issue from an open minded viewpoint. It sounds like you have your conclusion (Pluto is a planet), and are working from there. Have you considered that your premise might wrong (or, at least, as wrong as you can be with a definition which is, essentially, arbitrary)?

At 2/3/09 2:11 pm, Blogger Laurel Kornfeld said...

To Heathen Mike: I agree that in science, things can and should be reviewed, and if necessary, changed. However, there is also a crucial difference between facts and interpretation of those facts. Saying Pluto is round, and orbits the sun every 248 years is fact. Whether or not those features make it a planet is interpretation of fact. Since there are several competing interpretations currently out there, each with scientific reasoning behind them, what I object to is teachers taking one interpretation, that of the IAU, and treating it as fact rather than what it is, one of several interpretations of the facts.

Based on my research, I do not believe that Pluto fits better with ice balls and comets in the Kuiper Belt than with planets. This is an informed decision. I believe there are a small number of objects in the Kuiper Belt and at least one in the asteroid belt (Ceres) that make up a third class of planets. Pluto is both a Kuiper Belt Object and a planet, the latter due to its being spherical. I'm not basing my view on blind acceptance of any authority, and I do not believe that making the solar system "simpler" is necessarily a good thing if that glosses over crucial differences between objects.

To Fleegman: First of all, I admit I know nothing about golf. And I have no problem with you or anyone else saying they don't care about how Pluto is classified. However, some of us do care. It's not a matter of right or wrong; it's just having different interests.

I am coming from this from the position that an object that is spherical and orbits a star is a planet. We will undoubtedly find a wide variety of object orbiting other stars. As of now, that is the only meaning of the term "exoplanet." In time, as we discover more types of exoplanets, they will likely be further distinguished through use of multiple descriptive subcategories.

I see no reason at this time to change the definition of planet to anything other than a non-self luminous spherical object orbiting a star. It's not about Pluto; it's about a useful definition. To me, definitions do matter because they inform how we understand the world around us. Having some committee decree a change when that is based on the adoption of only one interpretation in a climate where many valid interpretations are accepted by scientists is dicatorship and is unacceptable.

At 2/3/09 3:43 pm, Blogger Heathen Mike said...


You said, "I am coming from this from the position that an object that is spherical and orbits a star is a planet."

You're missing part of the definition as noted by the IAU. Maybe you don't agree with the definition, but someone has to make it and the IAU is as good a body as any. The actual definition is:
A "planet" [1] is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.

A "dwarf planet" is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape [2], (c) has not cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit, and

(d) is not a satellite.

All other objects [3], except satellites, orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as "Small Solar-System Bodies".
(my bolding, taken from here.

So, as you can see, Pluto has not cleared the neighborhood around its orbit. That makes it a dwarf planet. You may not like it, but that's how it is.

At 2/3/09 4:07 pm, Blogger Laurel Kornfeld said...

No, that's not how it is. The IAU definition is only one interpretation, and it has been rejected by hundreds of professional astronomers. Only four percent of its membership even voted on this, and most are not planetary scientists. The IAU is not some sort of church that can dictate how things are. No one is obligated to follow their definitions, especially when those definitions are so poorly created, both in process and in outcome.

There is no requirement that "somebody" make a definition. Ideas in science rise or fall based on their being proven accurate over time. Nobody every voted on the theory of relativity, for example. There is a good case to make that we need more time and data before making any definition. And with the way the IAU bungled this job over the last two and a half years, there is no reason why they should be the ones to decide anything.

The resolution you cite, 5a, was followed by a second resolution, 5b, which would have established both classical planets and dwarf planets as subclasses of planets. That resolution failed by a much closer margin and resulted in the absurdity that dwarf planets are not considered planets at all.

For another perspective, visit and listen to the podcast by Dr. David Grinspoon.

At 2/3/09 5:39 pm, Blogger Heathen Mike said...

I see your (and Grinspoon's) point about the definition, but my view essentially is reflected in Phil Plait's writing:

This is all incredibly silly. We're not arguing science here. We're arguing semantics. For years people have tried to make a rigid definition of planet, but it simply won’t work. No matter what parameter you include in the list, I can come up with an example that screws the definition up. I've shown that already, and I'm just warming up.

The problem here is simple, really: we’re trying to wrap a scientific definition around a culturally-defined word that has no strict definition. Doing this will only lead to trouble. Why? For one thing, it's divisive and silly. How does a definition help us at all? And how does it make things less confusing than they already are?
(From an '06 entry on Phil's blog)

I get that people have an affinity for Pluto - sort of - but to take what scientists refer to Pluto as as some kind of affront to rationality seems odd to me. As Phil Plait said, not too much will change anyway; the scientists will think of Pluto as an icy body in the outer solar system, the public will think of it as a planet.

At 4/3/09 7:48 am, Blogger Fleegman said...

This comment has been removed by the author.

At 4/3/09 1:04 pm, Blogger Fleegman said...

Only four percent of its membership even voted on this

If it's such an important issue, how come only 4% voted? Is it because the other 96% don't give a crap? ;o)

At 4/3/09 3:15 pm, Blogger Laurel Kornfeld said...

To Heathen Mike: Semantics do matter. It is part of how we make meaning of the world around us, how we sort out things that are similar and different. Yes, I'm likely biased, being a writer, someone who works with words.

It seems like Plait is arguing against creating any definition for the term planet. That is a valid position suggested by many, including scientists, for the very reason you mentioned--the word planet has cultural as well as scientific connotations. However, I will add that not all scientists see Pluto as an icy body in the Kuiper Belt; many planetary scientists still view Pluto as a planet.

To Fleegman: The reason only four percent of the IAU voted is partly because the IAU has not yet entered the 21st century. No electronic or absentee voting of any kind was allowed. The vote was held on the last day of a two-week conference in violation of the IAU's own bylaws. Those who left earlier believed that the proposal that would be voted on was the one that had been crafted by the IAU's committee for this very purpose, over the previous two years. They had no way of knowing that a tiny group with its own agenda would violate the requirement that a resolution first be vetted by the appropriate committee and present a new, different resolution on the floor of the General Assembly on the last day of the conference.

At 6/3/09 4:53 am, Blogger Fleegman said...

a tiny group with its own agenda

Conspiracy theories now? Do you have any evidence to support your claim?

At 6/3/09 1:30 pm, Blogger Laurel Kornfeld said...

Planets are studied by two types of astronomers: dynamicists, who study the relationships among various bodies, and planetary scientists, who study the individual bodies themselves. At the IAU General Assembly, a small group of dynamicists, largely European pushed through a planet definition based solely on dynamics on the last day of the conference without first having it approved by the proper committee, as is standard procedure. It turns out that for whatever reason, most dynamicists are European while most planetary scientists are American. A very reliable source, a planetary scientist in the foreground of this controversy, reported that several of the dynamicists on several occasions attempted to intimidate the American participants at the General Assembly and openly acknowledged that their determination to "bring down Pluto" was based on anger over US policy in the Middle East. Pluto is (actually was, now that Eris, Haumea, and Makemake have been discovered) the only planet to date discovered by an American, which is why its demotion was viewed as an anti-American move.

At 9/3/09 7:03 am, Blogger Fleegman said...

So I ask for evidence, and you give me hearsay and conjecture?

I've been taking you seriously up to this point, but you're sounding more like a conspiracy theorist with each comment. Still, you obviously have plenty of material for your book, so good luck with spreading the paranoia.

You might want to look into Chemtrails. There's a lot of non-evidence for that too.

At 9/3/09 6:19 pm, Blogger Laurel Kornfeld said...

I am not a conspiracy theorist, and I am not giving you hearsay and conjecture. The information I have presented is based on two-and-a-half years of in depth research of this subject.

For a very thorough discussion of both sides of this issue, including the politics involved, I suggest you visit the site of The Great Planet Debate, held at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab in Laurel, MD in August 2008 here: You can watch a debate between Tyson and Dr. Mark Sykes and also listen to audio transcripts of all the very informative sessions of this two-and-a-half day conference. You will hear a multiplicity of opinions on the issue along with discussions on planet formation, brown dwarfs, large asteroids that could be considered planets, planetary migration, etc., from some very qualified astronomers.


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