Inside the Capitol

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

8-22 Pluto Still Attracting Attention

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- The great Pluto debate has attracted much more international attention than most astronomical controversies usually garner these days.
That wasn't always true. Cosmologist Giordano Bruno was burned at the stake for his ideas about an infinite universe and Galileo, the father of modern astronomy, was forced by the church to recant his views and spend the last years of his life under house arrest.
Our world still has religious disagreement with scientific views but such harsh punishment no longer is in vogue. The Pluto debate is not about religion and to a large extent, it isn't much about Pluto either.
Two years ago this month, the International Astronomical Union decided that Pluto doesn't meet its new definition of a planet. Its leadership, being scientists and not diplomats, went about the process in a very ham-handed manner, thus making it look like a demotion rather than a reclassification.
This got all sorts of juices flowing. The human tendency to stand up for the little guy who is getting pushed around surfaced worldwide. Since Pluto was the only planet discovered by an American, some scientists from this country charged that the decision was made by people who disagreed with our politics.
Also affecting America is NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto, launched in 2006 and due to arrive at the planet in 2015. American scientists asked why a decision couldn't be postponed until we find out more about Pluto.
Science textbook publishers around the world groaned at having to republish, although that would have happened anyway since the impetus for reclassification came from the discovery of a bigger planet beyond Pluto and the anticipation that there are more such objects even farther out.
And then there is Disney, which renamed Mickey Mouse's dog, Rover, shortly after Pluto was discovered in 1930. Everyone loves Pluto.
There also is division in the IAU, with planetary scientists threatening to form a new organization. The reclassification of Pluto gives them further reason because the definition of a planet adopted by the IAU is very imprecise.
And there are those who just don't like change. But science is about new discoveries, which involve changing -- after considerable debate. And that is what we are having now, in public.
Last week, Johns Hopkins University hosted a planet definition conference, which included a debate between astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson, of NOVA fame, and planetary scientist Mark Sykes. Tyson took the IAU side. There were many fireworks and no agreement.
Besides conferences held by universities and observatories, songs, poems and essays have been written about Pluto's demotion. T-shirts are offered online. A festival was held in Streator, Illinois, birthplace of Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto's discoverer, who spent the last 50 years of his life in Las Cruces, NM.
Streator has been the hub of much Pluto activity. Former Councilor Siobhan Elias, who organized the festival, also has persuaded her congressman to introduce a resolution in the U.S. House supporting reinstatement of Pluto's planetary status. New Mexicans wanting to honor Professor Tombaugh can contact their member of Congress urging support of the resolution.
The most popular song to come out of the Pluto controversy was written and performed by Elias' husband, Kevin. The CD is called "New Horizons: A Tribute to Clyde Tombaugh and the New Horizons Mission." The mission is carrying some of Tombaugh's ashes to Pluto.
Pluto supporters weren't blindsided by the planet's reclassification. The debate already had started in 1999 when the New Mexico State University Astronomy Department began an effort to influence the IAU not to reclassify Pluto as one of the nearly 10,000 trans-Neptunian objects.
The IAU effort then was to make Pluto number 10,000 as an honor. The NMSU Astronomy Department said it preferred to remain planet number 9.
The debate will continue and let's hope it captures the imagination of some young students to pursue the field of astronomy.
FRI, 8-22-08

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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