Monday, January 19, 2015

Montmerle is wrong

A New York Times article commemorating New Horizons beginning its first approach phase (I will discuss New Horizons more in another entry) to Pluto is mostly fair but gets it wrong at the end with a quote from IAU General Secretary Thierry Montmerle.

The article appears here:

Montmerle arrogantly says, "The vast majority of the international planetary community has clearly accepted this (the IAU's) definition."

He is wrong.

First, the majority of the IAU is made up not of planetary scientists but of other types of astronomers. Planetary scientists have largely ignored the IAU and its definition over the past eight-and-a-half years, after a group of planetary scientists was rebuffed in 2009 when they asked the IAU leadership to reopen the discussion at that year's General Assembly.

The IAU leadership blatantly refused, and these planetary scientists boycotted the General Assembly that year. Many are choosing not to join the IAU at all, and a good number of those who choose to be members do not attend the General Assemblies.

Montmerle is mistaking their ignoring the IAU for silent assent. It is not.

Dawn's findings at Vesta, which show it to be more planet than asteroid; discoveries of unusual exoplanets with weird orbits; data that shows Pluto-Charon to be a binary planet system, and now conjecture that two "Super Earths" of two to 15 Earth masses may lurk unseen in the outer solar system all comprise compelling reasons to revisit the "What is a planet" discussion.

These developments have also led many astronomers to understand we need a rethinking of the concept of planet that takes all this data into account.

Montmerle is engaging in what is known as the first principle of propaganda--that a lie repeated a thousand times becomes the truth. He may believe what he is saying, but how much is he really in touch with the world of planetary science outside of the IAU?

Mike Brown is also quoted in the article as saying he rarely hears Pluto complaints these days. The fact is, people "complaining" or even asking about Pluto already know his position and are more likely to raise the issue with other planetary scientists than with him.

Interestingly, Neil de Grasse Tyson has been strangely silent on this issue of late.

Some scientists feel the status issue distracts from Pluto science, but that does not have to be the case. To interest members of the public in astronomy, it is important to meet them where they are. And "where they are" in terms of many people is awareness of the Pluto controversy and continued discomfort with the IAU definition.

When a member of the public asks about Pluto's status, that is an opening to discuss the science, to talk about Pluto's composition, atmosphere, geology, moon system, etc. It is a chance to talk about New Horizons and what each of its instruments will study. It is an opportunity to introduce people to a world and then let them think about what they learned and draw their own conclusion.

Anything unknown is hard to classify simply because we understand so little about it. These unknown objects constitute the frontier of planetary science, and frontiers are by nature exciting. Mysteries excite people. When someone asks whether Pluto is a planet, why not answer by presenting just what a scientific puzzle it is. Its being a puzzle means we don't have all the answers. That is why there is an ongoing debate--we know a few things about this little world, and those facts result in different interpretations by different people.

After introducing people to the world whose status interests them, why not ask them to consider all they learned and decide for themselves? That would constitute a good exercise in independent thinking.

This year is about seeing Pluto for the first time, about the data and the images. There will be plenty of time for analysis and integration of what we learn to invigorate this debate in coming years.

The discussion of the planet question isn't dying down. It's just beginning.


Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Monday, December 22, 2014

Dark of the Moon, Dark of the Sun, Pluto Eve

“Dark ruled the Earth, and death has reigned
But on the wheel does spin!
From out the womb of night is birthed the infant Light!
The Sun has come again!”

We have once again come to the Winter Solstice, one of the most powerful, most profound, most sacred moments of the year—one of the few times an astronomical event captures the attention of people who rarely pay attention to astronomy.

This year, the Winter Solstice falls on the same day as the new Moon. For about three days, the Moon disappears from the night sky as it seemingly wanes into nothingness; then it becomes “new” again as a thin crescent appears in the western sky.

Similarly, the Sun at its lowest point appears to stand still for about three days before reversing course and beginning its journey northward on the celestial sphere.

The dark of the Moon and the dark of the Sun occur on the same night in this, the year unofficially dubbed “Pluto Eve.”

For those of us who have waited nearly a decade to see the first up close pictures of Pluto, asking repeatedly, “Are we there yet?” it is not just another Solstice, not just another New Year. As the New Horizons mission team puts it, we are “On Pluto’s doorstep.”

The spacecraft’s first observations of Pluto will begin within weeks and progressively get better as New Horizons closes in on the small planet. By April or May, we will begin seeing images of Pluto better than any taken by the Hubble Space Telescope.

On Earth, the Winter Solstice is when darkness in the Northern Hemisphere reaches the peak of its power and subsequently begins to wane. For millennia, it has been celebrated around the world as the birthday or rebirth of the Sun, a metaphorical journey from death to new life.

Today, even though we know that the Sun doesn’t change, that only our perspective of it experiences an apparent cycle of birth, growth, death, and rebirth, many still find deep meaning in commemorating the occasion.

As someone who loves symbolism, I see this year’s Winter Solstice as symbolic of many people’s wishes for Pluto.

In August 2008, on the second anniversary of Pluto’s wrongful demotion by four percent of the IAU, I printed a poem here called “The Death of Pluto,” which writer Robert Croog adapted from the original, “The Death of Tammuz.” That entry can be found here: .

The poem, written a century ago, referred to the Babylonian vegetation god Tammuz, who was believed to die in the hot dry weather following the Summer Solstice, whose demise was mourned as the departure of summer.

Croog substituted the name “Pluto” for “Tammuz,” evoking that same sense of grief in response to a statement by Eris co-discoverer Mike Brown, who stated, “Pluto is dead.”

Significantly, Tammuz, being a solar deity, was seen as being annually reborn at the Winter Solstice.

To me, late August and September are a time tinged with sadness. It is always painful to see summer end. That is probably why I love the Winter Solstice so much—it comes to reverse the death and loss that began more than three months earlier.

Ironically, the IAU vote that demoted Pluto occurred just at the time of grief for the loss of summer, the time when, in many cultures, gods associated with the Sun and with vegetation, began to die.

Pluto symbolically “died” with summer, and this year, which starts as the Sun begins its apparent “ascent” from its nadir, is the year that will empower Pluto’s restoration to planetary new life. The images, the data, the revelation of this new world that New Horizons will send back to us will empower Pluto’s “rebirth” as a full-fledged solar system planet.

And just like our perspective of the Sun rather than the Sun itself is what changes throughout the year, in 2015, our perspective of Pluto will change. Already, people are looking at this complex world with five moons, an atmosphere, even a possible sub-surface ocean, as something that is obviously a planet. From scientists at Harvard to fifth graders in a Kansas classroom, the tide in favor of Planet Pluto and against the IAU vote, is growing.

Writer Philip Brown (no relation to Mike Brown), who in 2006 quoted Croog’s adaptation of “The Death of Tammuz” poem, wrote at the time, "I am inspired by this poem and its themes which are symbolic of Pluto: death, youth, hidden and mysterious places, occult energy and return to the Earth, decay and regeneration in nature, and a playful sense of foreboding. It is apropos of Pluto's recent demotion from planetary status, and the comments of Mike Brown."

Philip Brown discussed only the death aspect of the Tammuz mythology, not the rebirth. But half a story is just that—part of the whole, not the whole itself. Myths about death and rebirth, nearly universal, tell us all life is a cycle, that nothing ever is really lost, only transformed.

Like the Sun, Pluto never died and never changed. But just like we perceive the Sun to undergo transformation from a dying old man to a newborn baby (think Father Time and the Baby New Year), many perceive Pluto to have “died” as a planet.

This New Year begins the recognition of Pluto’s planetary rebirth. Tonight, at the dark of the Moon and the dark of the Sun, Pluto Eve gives way to the Year of Pluto. The light is about to shine on a very dark and mysterious world.

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

New Horizons Online Workshop Tomorrow, December 18

The New Horizons team will conduct an online workshop tomorrow, Thursday, December 18, from the fall meeting of the American Geophysical Union. Titled "On the Eve of Encounter: New Horizons at AGU, the workshop will be broadcast at 2:30 PM EST (11:30 AM PST).

Speakers include Alan Stern, New Horizons principal investigator, Southwest Research Institute, Boulder, Colo.; William McKinnon, New Horizons co-investigator, Washington University in St. Louis; Mark Holdridge, New Horizons encounter mission manager, Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, Laurel, Md.; and Cathy Olkin, New Horizons deputy project scientist, Southwest Research Institute.

Follow the webcast here:

More information is available at the New Horizons web site at

A similar workshop on the Dawn mission to Ceres will be broadcast from the AGU's fall meeting half an hour earlier, at 2 PM EST (11 AM PST). Follow that webcast here:

Monday, December 8, 2014

New Horizons Google+ Hangout, Wednesday, December 10

Don't miss this latest Google+ Hangout with the New Horizons team!

Wed, Dec 10, 4:00 PM - 5:00 PM EST (remember to adjust for time zone differences).
Hangouts On Air - Broadcast for free
New Horizons just woke up from its long nap, and now it's just a few months away from reaching Pluto.

Join New Horizons' Primary Investigator +Alan Stern, as well as other members of the science team to discuss the status of the mission so far and the next big events that will happen with New Horizons.

This will be your chance to hear directly from the New Horizons team, and we'll be glad to take any mission-related questions you might have.

Fraser Cain


Alan Stern, Primary Investigator
Jason Cook
Alex Parker
Simon Porter
Kelsi Singer
Amanda Zangari