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"Dwarf planet," my eye!

In http://polaris93.livejournal.com/984583.html, I blogged the URL of a site which discusses the Great Pluto Flap of 2008 (http://www.geocities.com/dwarf_planets_are_planets_too/
) and gives contact information for Ms. Catherine Cesarsky, president of the International Astronomical Union (catherine.cesarsky@cea.fr or catherine.cesarsky@cea.frheadlinenewscnn.comiauiap.frnewsonlinebbc.co.uk ; if those addresses doesn't work, send your email to dwarf_planets_are_planets_too@yahoo.com and ask them to pass it on to the IAU). Below is the text of the email I just sent her, the subject line of which was "Dwarf planet, my eye!":

Dear Ms. Cesarsky:

Your recent "declassification" of Pluto and other Kuyper Belt bodies to "dwarf planets" was one of the most ridiculous stunts in scientific history. The word "dwarf" should be dropped from any discussion of them *right now*, for reasons elucidated below:

First, defining a planet in terms of *where* it is rather than *what* it is -- e.g., defining Pluto, Eris, etc. as "dwarves" because they "haven't cleared their orbits/are in the 'nether reaches of the Solar System' " rather than in terms of their considerable size (enough such that gravitational forces cause them to be spheroidal rather than loose clumps of rock) -- makes no sense.

Second, rejecting their planetary status because they "aren't like the outer planets Uranus, Neptune, and Jupiter is just as foolish. Pluto is much more like Earth than Earth is like Jupiter, which resembles none of the inner, rocky planets nor the rocky Kuyper Belt planets. That criterion, such as it is, would have us referring to Earth, Mars, Venus, and Mercury as "dwarf" planets, as well.

Third, there is no need to restrict the number of planets in the Solar System to a single-digit number. If there are 200 of them, then that is what we have. People don't need to memorize them all, just look them up in any of hundreds of thousands of sources both on- and off-line. Or do you think that school children, older students, professors, and researchers are too stupid to be able to look things up? If so, at least have the integrity to say that publicly -- then start ducking, because I guarantee that will go over like a lead balloon!

Fourth, though this may seem a minor point, referring to the Kuyper Belt bodies as true planets will force us to look at them as objects worth study. Each of them has a geological and cosmological history, and working that out for each, and comparing that of each to all, will tell us a great deal about the formation of the Solar System and stellar systems in general. Lumping them together as "dwarves" is devolutionarily, psychologically speaking, making them seem less worthy of study. Not good.

Fifth, *not* a minor point, a lot of us suspect that Mike Brown and his accomplices in this matter have been promised kickbacks from scientific textbook manufacturers, because, if this change in planetary status of Pluto and the other Kuyper Belt bodies is made official, huge numbers of astronomical textbooks must be rewritten to reflect that change. You may not have noticed, but there is a hideous economic recession, one trending toward a true depression, going on right now. Even at the best of times, students are notoriously strapped for cash, as it is, and most professors and researchers aren't all that well-heeled, as it is. This move would put yet another heavy financial burden on everyone studying, working, or teaching astronomy even as their other burdens become almost too much to bear.

Sixth, there are the historical considerations. American Clyde Tombaugh is worth remembering because he was the first to discover a *planet* beyond Neptune. That discovery took endless patience and hard work, and he should continue to be honored for it. Nobody does all that work on behalf of a "dwarf" planet. Further, numerous workers in the field have since done a tremendous amount of research on Pluto. Among other things, Pluto's orbital characteristics show that an older theory of planetary formation, that having to do with the sizes of planetary orbits in the Solar System relative to one another, and, by extrapolation, those of planets in other stellar systems, is a product of the formation of those planets. Pluto's orbit does not continue the sequence shown by the orbits of planets Solward from Pluto, but rather falls into a half-period slot -- i.e., half the distance beyond Neptune than that predicted by the older theory. Given that, the relationships of orbital distance of the other Kuyper Belt planetary bodies to one another and to the planets Solward from Pluto will be of great interest to students of the formation of planets and stellar systems. For that reason alone, Pluto and other spheroidal Kuyper Belt bodies should be recognized as planets.

Seventh, there are the cultural aspects to consider. Since it was discovered -- and even, in the case of the work of Howard Phillips Lovecraft, one of the most learned men on the planet, before that discovery -- Pluto has featured strongly in literature, ranging from Lovecraft's "Yuggoth" to Robert A. Heinlein's descriptions of Pluto in his 1959 novel HAVE SPACESUIT, WILL TRAVEL, and Larry Niven's story "Wait It Out." Charles Stross's recent novel SATURN'S CHILDREN involves life, such as it is, on the various Kuyper Belt bodies. Western culture has been saturated with images of Pluto and descriptions of both Pluto and a human presence on that world for nearly 80 years, and the same promises to be true far into the indefinite future. And in all such mentions, *Pluto is referred to as a planet*! Since, in every way that counts, Pluto *is* a planet -- large enough to be spheroidal, too small to be a brown dwarf or true star -- for the sake of cultural continuity, there's no point in adding "dwarf" to Pluto's planetary status, and the same holds true for other spheroidal Kuyper Belt bodies.

Eighth, only *four percent* of the IAU voted on this matter, and did so secretly, giving the other 96% no chance at all to put their votes in. 4% ain't a quorum. In fact, it isn't even statistically significant in most cases, not when it comes to people. This is unfair, unjust, arrogant, and high-handed in the extreme. There is a video on Youtube of an interview with Mike Brown at Cal Tech that exemplifies that attitude to a disgusting degree. In that video it looks as if he, and by extension his accomplices, are thumbing their collective noses at four centuries of scientific accomplishment in the field of astronomy and those who have participated in those accomplishments, not to mention everyone who has ever described Pluto as a real planet. This is a gross example of hubris, in one of its ugliest manifestations. Today, we don't believe in the Gods, but we sure as hell believe in social feedback, and no matter what else happens now, I predict that Mike Brown & Co. are in for very rough rides from most astronomers as well as much of the public for this little stunt of theirs. Social ostracism can be deadly, and so can professional discreditation. It's quite possible both of those are in the offing for these scientific miscreants.

Ninth, Pluto, Eris, and many other bodies in the Kuyper Belt are spheroidal because they're large enough that gravity does that job for them. No more is required of Earth, Venus, Mars, and Mercury, so why require more for Pluto? Nobody ever bothered about asking whether the four rocky inner worlds have "cleared their orbits" -- the criterion Brown & Co. have demanded by attached to planetary status -- so why put that burden on the KBOs, anyway?

Tenth, Pluto is the flagship of the Kuyper Belt. As such, it deserves something better than to be called a "dwarf."

Eleventh, on top of everything else, this whole affair has been media-driven to a disgusting degree. The modern media are notoriously scientifically ignorant, yet, thanks to their meddling, this matter has been blown so far out of proportion that the lay public is totally confused about it. Worst of all, school children and older students are being bombarded by what amounts to scientistic propaganda about it from Mike Brown & Co. through the media rather than real scientific discussion and rational argument that could improve their understanding of science in general and astronomy in particular. That the media have gone along with the 4% of the IAU that voted to "demote" Pluto and other KBOs isn't surprising, given their utter ignorance of what is scientifically significant and the nature of science, as well as their air-headedness in general. But for scientists of any kind to milk the media for every last drop of attention and, by implication, profit accruing because of that attention, is unconscionable. And reputable scientists are not happy with it, not because they're "jealous of the attention Brown is getting," as some idiots have said, but rather because the media have no business being party to serious scientific discussion, research, and decision-making. The media's job is to report on results, not to try to incite mob support for something whose value is at best dubious and at worst fraudulent, as in the case of the "dwarf planets."

For all these reasons and more, the whole business of "dwarf planets" and "plutoids" should be dropped on its head and left for dead in a puddle of its own ectoplasm, which should have been the case right from the start.



( 4 comments — Leave a comment )
Apr. 10th, 2009 02:59 am (UTC)
Apr. 10th, 2009 03:02 am (UTC)
Glad you liked it. Here are two URLs which together cover 23 reasons (I didn't draft them with that number in mind; that's just how it worked out) for not demoting the Kuyper Belt bodies: 11 good reasons to not demote
the other Outer Gods: http://polaris93.livejournal.com/984977.html and 12 more: http://laurele.livejournal.com/8387.html. Please share widely.
Jul. 17th, 2009 03:52 pm (UTC)
Hear, hear!
Jul. 18th, 2009 12:06 am (UTC)
I wonder if she even read it -- or thought it over as she did. :-/
( 4 comments — Leave a comment )


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