The PI's Perspective
Unabashedly Onward to the Ninth Planet
September 6, 2006
New Horizons continues on course and in good health. In a couple of
weeks, I'll update you on a wide range of mission news items. But I
want to devote this "PI Perspective" to a different topic: Pluto's
Last month, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) held its first
general assembly since 2003. The meeting was in Prague, and about a
quarter of the IAU's 10,000 members attended. At the end of the
meeting, on Aug. 24, a session was held to vote on proposals to define the word
"planet." Just over 400 astronomers attended that session and voted.
Although I am an IAU member, I could not attend the meeting because my
oldest daughter was starting her freshman year of college during the
week of Aug. 20 back in the States.
The discovery of large numbers of dwarf planets orbiting far from the
Sun may be the most exciting and revolutionary discovery in
understanding the architecture and content of our home planetary system
since it was realized that the Sun is at the solar system's center.
(Credit: NASA, ESA, and A. Feild [STScI])
The now widely known result of the final IAU session was a planet
<http://www.iau2006.org/mirror/www.iau.org/iau0603/index.html> that has
created a pubic and professional uproar unlike anything I can ever
remember resulting from IAU resolutions (after all, they are usually
about dry subjects like how to designate comets or the utility of leap
The IAU's planet definition ejects Pluto and the other dwarf planets of
the solar system from the list of worlds that the IAU considers to be
planets - this despite the IAU confusingly adopting the term "dwarf
planet" for these worlds. Linguists, scientists and the lay public have
barraged the media and the IAU with complaints about numerous aspects
the IAU planet definition. I have been involved in the debate. My
conclusion is that the IAU definition is not only unworkable and
unteachable, but so scientifically flawed and internally contradictory
that it cannot be strongly defended against claims of scientific
sloppiness, "ir-rigor," and cogent classification.
The New Horizons project, like a growing number of the public, and many
hundreds if now thousands of professional research astronomers and
planetary scientists, will not recognize the IAU's planet definition
resolution of Aug. 24, 2006.
As the leader of New Horizons, I believe this is the right course for
to take, for a number of reasons. One is that the IAU definition is too
controversial. Another is that it is losing, rather than gaining,
support, and is likely to be largely irrelevant in the long term. A
third is, despite the fact that the IAU has put its reputation behind
such words, we should not support a technically and linguistically
flawed planet definition: doing so would only further the damage to
astronomy already done by this definition.
So on this Web site and in documents, discussions and other aspects of
the New Horizons mission, we will continue to refer to Pluto as the
ninth planet. I think most of you will agree with that decision and
cheer us on.
I'll close this PI Perspective now with a very brief editorial
on this matter: One of the aspects of science that is most exciting to
me personally is its adaptability to new facts, even if they dictate
paradigm shifts that dethrone comfortable old perceptions. The dawning
realization that our solar system contains vast numbers of dwarf
planets, which outnumber their larger cousins like the four terrestrial
planets and the four giant planets, is a dramatic demonstration of just
such a paradigm-shifting discovery.
Some IAU astronomers are challenged by the implications of this recent
realization, which portends that the Earth is more a misfit object in
the solar system than is Pluto, and that dwarf planets, like dwarf
and dwarf galaxies, are the most representative members of their
Some other IAU astronomers are challenged by the notion that the list
planets, like the lists of stars, states, rivers, galaxies and mountain
ranges, will be too long to easily memorize.
I'm not bothered by either of these concerns, but I am disappointed to
find scientists afraid of changes in dogma when they are presented with
new facts. Of course, some of my colleagues would say I haven't
to the fact that Pluto and other dwarf worlds of the deep outer solar
system orbit in a swarm, making them something else other than a
Well, to my mind, planets (like stars and galaxies, I note) are what
they are, independent of what they orbit near. As I've said before in
print, were location and context valid in biology the way that some
it to matter in planet definitions, a cowboy would become a cow when he
herds his cattle.
What is not controversial is that the subject of planet definition
remains one of debate. Textbooks and teachers are going to have to
recognize that the astronomical community is still adjusting to new
facts and no final consensus is yet available.
As I have said to the daughter we put in college last week many times,
as you grow up, you realize more and more that life isn't all black and
white, but endless shades of gray; it's complicated, and there's no
getting around the fact that you just have to get over the untidiness
the real world and move on.
I believe that planetary science is just now grappling with just such a
realization that our tidier youth, before the discovery of extra-solar
planets and Kuiper Belt dwarfs, never belied.
If you want to read more about my own thoughts on planet definition and
the dawning realization of the dominance of dwarf planets, just check
out an article I wrote last year:http://www.thespacereview.com/article/450/1
That's all for now; so until next time, keep exploring!