Thursday, June 12, 2008

Pluto- Tell the IAU They Have It Wrong

While I realise that taking one astronomy class 20 years ago does not make me an astronomer, astronomy has always been a one of my interests. It's inevitable, having grown up and been a small boy during the Apollo programme. I can remember when people still crowded around the TV for every space launch. One of my favourite books as a child was this massive, oversized book about of solar system with this large, luxurious drawings of the planets.

Including Pluto.

Now two years ago the International Astronomical Union, in all its scientific geekery, declared Pluto did not meet 'the' (read their) requirements for a planet and it was demoted to-

Well, that was a question. They decided on the name plutons for these 'dwarf planets', which was summarily rejected all right-thinking scientists as inadequate. Apparently 'dwarf planet' couldn't be used.

Fast forward. While dunces like me continue to cling to the notion that Pluto snuck into the lexicon of solar system members as a planet and ought to be left alone by the IAU, they've decided on the name 'plutoid' for dwarf planets.

Now I understand why astronomers are particularly sensitive about correcting what they consider to be inaccuracies. First of all there's the fact that many people can't distinguish between astronomy (a science) and astrology (a collection of superstitions that divides the population into roughly the same number of subsets as the media has divided the US electorate during this election cycle).

Then there's the series of howlers that have come out of the field historical. The celestial heavens as fixed objects in the sky. The earth as the center of the universe. Flat earth. And of course, when astronomers started getting these things right, what was their reward ? Excommunication, jail, and in some cases, death.

So there's some real desire to correct mistakes, errors, and commonly held misconceptions. Nevertheless, I don't think that the Pluto is a planet people are recidivist inquisitors, anti-science whackos, or other assorted crazy goofballs. In fact, many are astronomers. The IAU's last pronouncement just reminds us that even when scientists operate a democracy (that's what the IAU is), the results aren't always sensible.

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