Pluto : My part in its downfall

OK. I confess. It was me. I killed Pluto. Well, it was me and about four hundred other random astronomers at the IAU General Assembly. As we sat there in the Grand Conference Hall, and slowly raised our pale yellow voting cards, Pluto’s fate was sealed.

I was reminded of that summer afternoon in Prague when I saw a recent news item about “plutoed” being the word of the year according to the American Dialect Society. Apparently to be pluto’ed means to be demoted in stature or value. The Pluto episode taught me two lessons; the first was about science and human culture; the second was about democracy.

But first, lets get one thing straight. Is Pluto’s change of status of scientific importance ? Nope. When Pluto stopped being a planet, did it fly out of its orbit ? Did its material composition suddenly change ? Did the known facts about the solar system alter ? Did theorists have to throw their pet models out the window ? Should we stop Pluto Express and bring it back ? Lift-off to PlutoNo, no, no, no and no. I find myself remembering the gag about how you tell the difference between a physicist and an astronomer. You show them both a scatterplot of random points. The physicist draws a curve through the points and claims that her model fits the data. The astronomer draws two vertical lines and labels the diagram Class I, Class II, Class III. (Where did I hear this joke ?)

Most of the two thousand astronomers at the meeting were not solar system types. Through the fortnight we were getting fed up with all this pointless stuff about Pluto, and worried that we would be looking foolish in the eyes of the world, debating how many angels fit on the head of a pin. By the time of the assembly on the last day, there were only 4-500 of us left, but again nearly all these were not planetary astronomers. Basically we looked at the resolutions and said right, does one of these look vaguely reasonable ? Yup, that one, ok right. Yes we agree. Next ? Can we do something serious now ?

Then something strange, magical, and twenty first century happened. The hall had wireless and many of us were on our laptops web browsing, checking email, etc as per normal. Within one minute of the vote, I heard somebody say “wow ! the news is on the BBC web site already !” To my left, Francoise Genova confirmed that the news had hit France too. I left the hall and spotted several colleagues on their mobiles to journalists. I got the subway back to my hotel, turned on the TV, and there was the story on CNN, complete with a grainy video of people voting with their yellow cards, that someone had taken inside the Hall on their mobile phone. A day later I was back in Edinburgh and my secretary was asking what Pluto had done to me and my daughter was frosting me for doing something so horrible.

I gradually realised this wasn’t just a big jokey thing. People actually cared. Furthermore, by and large the stories were fairly accurate. People were interested in the science – discovering lots of objects past Neptune, what this meant for the history of the solar system – but really it was a cultural thing. The planets are in movies, novels, school posters, TV quizzes, people’s dreams. Too often we take a patronising attitude to communicating science ; we know what is important, and try to explain it patiently to hoi polloi because it is good for them. But we are not priests holding sacred truth; we are technical experts. What matters and what does not is decided by human culture, owned by us all. Pluto belongs to the people.

Which brings me to Lesson B. The fateful vote on the last day was not the first Pluto vote. Some days earlier, a motion proposed by the Executive had been roundly rejected, partly because it was a daft idea, opening the floodgates to thousands of planets, and partly because it was felt to be foisted upon us by the Executive without adequate discussion. On the final day, Michael Rowan-Robinson, currently president of the RAS, made a beautiful speech. It had been necessary, he explained, to give the Executive a bloody nose; but now that open discussion had been had, and a reasonable proposition placed before us, the wise course of action was to close the issue. And so we did.

In the modern West, we are used to the idea that “democracy” means only picking a representative. The government makes all the decisions. At its root in fifth century Athens, it meant debate and decision by the Assembly of all citizens. (Not slaves of course…) Mostly, this ain’t workable. But every so often – the velvet revolution, the Pluto vote – the idea of mass democracy re-emerges. This is confusing for scientists. Truth cannot be decided by voting (whatever Paul Feyerabend says), but it cannot be decided by authority either. What is the right social organisation for science ?

7 Responses to Pluto : My part in its downfall

  1. Stephen says:

    Let’s say you have a couple hundred very smart people in a room. For the sake of argument, we’ll call it Congress. There is a decision that needs to be made. Now, only maybe five people in the group have really studied the subject properly. What happens? Does the vast majority of the group say, “well, i’m not one of those who really knows the subject – my vote would be counter productive.”, or do they all vote, and you get an answer that makes absolutely no bloody sense at all?

    It’s been said that the intelligence of a group goes down as the size goes up. Taken together, we’re one really stupid planet. No intelligent life here. We’re not even self-aware.

    According to the definition of ‘planet’, we only have one. Jupiter. And if it were out where Sedna is, we wouldn’t even have one.

    The committee spent something like a year and came up with a half way workable solution. Then, at the last minute, a really half baked idea was presented. No one had really thought about it. It wasn’t going to work.

    So, i’m going back to the last workable definition. These are the planets: The Sun, the Moon, Mars, Mercury, Jupiter, Venus and Saturn. And, the days of the week form a handy way to remember them. Sunday, Moonday, Marsday, Mercuryday, Jupiterday, Venusday, Saturnday.

    The Earth is really just dirt.

  2. Darmok says:

    Even before Eris was discovered, Pluto hasn’t really fit with the major planets. I think you did the right thing.

    Also, if I may, technically, Pluto Kuiper Express was canceled. New Horizons is similar and replaced it.

  3. andyxl says:

    “Pluto Kuiper Express was canceled. New Horizons is similar and replaced it.”

    oops, yes of course. Just proving I am an extragalactic astronomer and see planets as geoscience really …

  4. I believe you and the IAU made a huge mistake in holding this vote via a flawed process that allowed input from only a small minority of IAU members. People had laptops present, yet email voting was not allowed. The planet definition adopted was sloppy and makes no linguistic sense by stating that a “dwarf planet” is not a planet at all. Holding the vote under these conditions was not a “wise action” and made the IAU look far more foolish than the alternative of postponing any action would be. And what is wrong with “opening the floodgates to thousands of planets? Saying there cannot be thousands of planets because that is too much information for humans to handle is hardly a scientific argument. The fateful vote on August 24 may not have been the first vote on Pluto, but it very likely will not be the last either. Almost immediately following it, Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of New Horizons, circulated a petition among planetary scientists saying they refuse to use the new definition, describing it as “sloppy science that would never pass peer review.” Stern plans to hold a conference of over 1,000 astronomers this summer to address the issue because he feels it cannot wait until 2009. He does not believe Pluto “stopped being a planet” and neither do many other astronomers as well as lay people. This debate is not over.

  5. […] expert I is not, but I was at the infamous IAU vote in Prague, and wrote a post about it. This got discovered by Laurel Kornfeld, who spearheads the “Please Save […]

  6. […] about every day somebody finds my old blog posts on Pluto through a Google search. One describes being at the IAU vote; one was about the bizarre attempts at legislation in New Mexico and California; and another, a […]

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