Screw Pluto Lets Bring Back Ceres

Edinburgh Students are just catching up with New Mexico Legislators…HST picture of Ceres as noted by the Bad Astronomer, the State of New Mexico recently passed legislation declaring that Pluto is a planet, at least while passing through New Mexican skies. The State of California has debated an even more amusing bill. If we are not careful the IAU will get billed by California State Schools and Museums for the cost of changing educational materials. One detects a certain knowingness here. This burning issue has now been spotted by our local student newspaper, who noted that Plutan Officials have so far not reciprocated by recognising the legitimacy of the State of New Mexico.

Pluto 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 Pluto” petition, and somehow we ended up having a debate on somebody else’s blog. I checked out the petition. The quality of the comments on the signatures page puts that shabby and hurried IAU debate to shame, of course. I tried to Vote but couldn’t make it work. Hmmm.

New Mexico feels a special connection because Clyde Tombaugh, discover of Pluto lived there. Maybe I can get the Scottish Executive to vote to bring back Ceres ? Ceres of course was called a planet for about fifty years until the list of similar size things between Mars and Jupiter made this a bit silly and it got demoted. Sound familiar?

Lets cook up some connections. I am the Regius Professor of Astronomy, and my predecessor was Charles Piazzi Smyth, whose godfather was Giuseppe Piazzi, who disovered Ceres in Palermo in 1801. My good friend Pepi Fabbiano Pepi Fabbianocomes from Palermo. (Well, ok, she lives in Cambridge now..) Best of all, just up the road in the Kingdom of Fife, is the town of Ceres. We can start a petition, hold an international conference in Ceres, and convince the Scottish Executive that the Honour of Alba is at stake, noting that exchange visits to Sicily would be rather jolly.

The Dawn mission, launching this year, is due to visit Ceres and will get there BEFORE New Horizons reaches Pluto ! Controversy and Competition – even better ! The time is now ! This sounds like a real winner.

If I can be bothered.

13 Responses to Screw Pluto Lets Bring Back Ceres

  1. Stephen says:

    I can’t wait for Dawn to visit Vesta. Does Vesta qualify as a planet according to the IAU draft definition? Inquiring minds want to know.

    Unfortunately, Ceres is currently close to the Sun. Otherwise, Ceres is much easier to spot than Pluto in a backyard scope. Ceres can be a binocular object. Pluto is a binocular object only for large values of binoculars. I’ve not seen it. It should be near the limit of what i can see in my 250 mm reflector. Light pollution has prevented my attempts so far.

    Vesta is a morning object, not far from Jupiter in Ophiucus. Pretty easy to spot, as these things go.

  2. I am not the organizer of the Please Save Pluto petition although I have assisted in recruiting signatures and in bringing inappropriate comments on the petition to the attention of the organizer, a guy named Dipankar Subba in Singapore. On my own blog, I specifically request that all comments be kept respectful and on topic.

    As for Ceres, I don’t have any problem restoring its planet status although I will note that it is significantly smaller than Pluto, and the analogy between the two is flawed. Pluto is one of only two Kuiper Belt Objects that are significantly larger than any other KBOs, meaning it stands out as a unique object rather than simply one of a “belt”; it is also much larger than Ceres, and has three moons and an atmosphere. This competition thing about the Dawn Mission vs. New Horizons is downright silly.

    Nowhere in this entry is there any legitimate argument in favor of Pluto’s demotion or explanation of how a “dwarf planet” does not constitute a subclass of the larger term “planet.” The fact remains that the astronomy community is about evenly divided on this issue, and public sentiment is clearly on the side of Pluto’s planethood. Yes, there are some people who post silly comments on the subject but it is unfair of you to generalize this and use it to discredit all who favor restoring Pluto’s planet status.

  3. andyxl says:

    Laurel – I am glad to stand corrected about implying that you are the organiser of the Please Save Pluto petition. Sorry about that. You are clearly not the organiser, just one of the chief banner wavers.

    You are absolutely correct that my post contains no serious argument in favour of Pluto’s demotion, let alone Ceres’ re-promotion. It wasn’t intended to contain any such argument. It was ..err.. meant to be fun. Please do jest back. Cross-Atlantic banter is very jolly.

    Briefly on a serious note I would be interested in your evidence that the “astronomy community is about evenly divided”. At the IAU, only only a small proportion of all the world’s astronomers were there, but it was a random selection. The key vote on resolution 5A was passed by “a great majority” – the officials didn’t even bother counting. I was there and would say roughly about 420 to 30. The later more detailed resolutions were much closer votes but still fairly clear. Have you conducted an unbiased poll of professional astronomers that I am unaware of.

    On your own blog, I know that you do keep comments respectful etc. But if you look at the signatures on the petition ALMOST ALL of them are either make no argument

    “Pluto is a planet, period.”

    or are very silly

    “Look – if we decide that Pluto’s not a planet, then what’s next???? Will “they” decide that the sun is not a planet??? What if Plutonians get pissed off and cause a major revolution, destroying what’s left of our ozone layer???”

    or are rude

    “they’re retards for demoting pluto”

    or even ruder

    “save it dirtbags !”

    …several are much worse.. or make unjustified accusations

    “The reasons for the demotion seem unwarranted. It appears that behind the logic of the demotion are ulterior motives and hidden agendas. Please reverse the decision.”

    or are completely irrelevant (No. 1539, too long to quote)

    No. 1570 is a long bizarre poem. Its rather good, but doesn’t help me decide about Pluto.

  4. I have not conducted a poll of astronomers; however, I have researched this issue extensively over the last seven months, and it seems clear that there is a lack of consensus by astronomers regarding Pluto’s planetary status. I’m not sure I agree that the proportion of IAU members who took part in the vote constitutes a “random selection.” Those present for the vote were mostly dynamicists as opposed to planetary scientists (no disrespect or discredit to dynamicists here, just a questioning of the claim that this was a representative sample of astronomers). It is well known that only a small percentage of IAU members stay for the entire 10-day General Assemblies. Many have family and other obligations; some don’t attend at all, and others in this case left before the vote on the last day. The IAU needs to institute electronic voting so members do not need to be present in the room to vote. Also, my understanding of what took place at the General Assembly is that members were unclear until the very end that there would even be a vote on this subject at all. Even IAU members who supported the decision admit the new planet definition was hastily constructed and is “sloppy.”

    Also, the failure of Resolution 5B, which would have established both “classical planets” and “dwarf planets” as subclasses of the general category “planet” is where a good portion of the problem with the new definition lies. Had resolution 5B passed, we would have had a broader category of planets with two subclasses, recognizing that planets can take many forms and increasing rather than decreasing the overall planet count.

    As I am sure you are well aware, almost immediately following the IAU decision, planetary scientists launched a backlash, led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto (who could not attend the General Assembly because he was taking his daughter to college). That petition was signed by almost as many astronomers as voted for Pluto’s demotion. You can find a copy of it at You can also find a BBC story on Stern’s attempt to overturn the decision at

    I think it is significant that astronomers who oppose the demotion and support restoring Pluto’s planethood, in addition to Dr. Stern, include Dr. David Rabinowitz, co-discoverer of Eris; Dr. Mark Sykes; Dr. David Weintraub, author of Is Pluto A Planet?; Dr. David Levy and Dr. Carolyn Shoemaker, co-discoverers of Comet Shoemaker-Levy; Dr. Marc Buie of the Lowell Observatory; and many more distinguished experts in the field.

    As for the Save Pluto petition, it was created for lay people to advocate at a grassroots level for the restoration of Pluto’s planethood. I agree there should be more controls on the comments or perhaps the comments section should be eliminated altogether with the only information collected being people’s names and residences. It is clear that some of the signatories are children who are not as articulate as adults in making their arguments. Unfortunately, it is clear there are also some people who are treating the petition as a joke and deliberately making silly comments. Before the petition is sent to the IAU, all comments and signatures need to be edited to remove those that are inappropriate. But this is up to the organizer; I can and will recommend it to him, but I cannot make such changes myself.

    The poems and such that appear indicate that there is strong public sentiment in favor of Pluto’s planethood, that there is a cultural dimension to this issue that should not be overlooked. Pluto, like all of nature, the other planets, etc., has inspired works of art, music, and literature and has become firmly ensconsed in our cultural lexicon. With the scientific distinction between planets and “dwarf planets” being as unclear as it is, I believe this cultural component needs to be part of the overall debate as an element in favor of Pluto maintaining its planet status.

  5. andyxl says:


    “Those present for the vote were mostly dynamicists as opposed to planetary scientists”

    Completely wrong. Nearly everybody in the room was not any kind of solar system astronomer at all, but like me, various other kinds – cosmologists, quasar folk, stellar astronomers, etc. I would guess there were about 25 each of dynamicists and other planetary types, and 400 other kinds of completely random astronomers. Now it is true that the vote was evenly divided amongst the solar system people, but ALMOST UNANIMOUS amongst all the others.

    You might argue that it should only be decided by the real specialists and quasar fans like me should not have a vote. But let me state very very clearly that was NOT A FIX BY “DYNAMICISTS” as people who weren’t even there keep saying.

    “Before the petition is sent to the IAU, all comments and signatures need to be edited to remove those that are inappropriate.”

    Very wrong. The reasons people voted should be left clear.

    “there is a cultural dimension to this issue that should not be overlooked.”

    Yes. I agree with this. My actual opinion is that the IAU shouldn’t pontificate on this one way or the other. It makes no scientific difference what label is put on Pluto. But however flawed the process was, it followed rules and was prefectly clear. Nobody cheated or schemed. I just get cross when people say rude and untrue things when trying to get their way.

    “The IAU needs to institute electronic voting so members do not need to be present in the room to vote”

    Interesting idea, but of course if we thereby decide to re-hold one specific vote from the past, as opposed to all future votes, we will have to revoke all IAU decisions for the last hundred years.

  6. “Nearly everybody in the room was not any kind of solar system astronomer at all, but like me, various other kinds – cosmologists, quasar folk, stellar astronomers, etc.”

    This to me is a huge part of the problem with the vote. I don’t believe that only solar system astronomers should have a vote. However, it is problematic when so few solar system astronomers, those most knowledgeable in this field, take part in the vote. Some may argue they chose not to be there, but the reality is many have other obligations that make them unable to attend the full ten days of a summer conference. This goes back to the notion that the IAU needs to institute electronic voting. Having so few IAU members, not to mention solar system specialists, take part in such a crucial vote calls the entire process into question.

    I understand that you get annoyed when people question the integrity of the August 2006 vote; however, what you should try to understand is the outrage and bewilderment by millions of people that a decision with such far reaching impact in science, education, and culture, was made by such a small group in such a hasty, sloppy, and exclusionary manner. Even without electronic voting, the IAU could have made provisions for absentee voting, as many countries do in national elections. The fact that one had to be in the room to vote and that so many solar system astronomers who couldn’t be there immediately rejected the decision raises serious doubts about the process and diminishes the integrity of the IAU in public perception.

    “Interesting idea, but of course if we thereby decide to re-hold one specific vote from the past, as opposed to all future votes, we will have to revoke all IAU decisions for the last hundred years.”

    This is not necessarily the case. One can make a legitimate argument that the planet definition/Pluto vote is different than all other IAU votes because of its tremendous worldwide ramifications. It affects what will be taught to children; it affects potential funding for future space missions; it affects cultural and popular sentiment and therefore is much more far reaching than any other previous IAU decision. When something this major is at stake, it is crucial that all voices are included, that public sentiment be taken into account, and that the process be–and be perceived to be–above reproach. With all due respect to you, I believe the vote of August 24, 2006 did not meet these standards.

    I am perplexed by your statement opposing the removal of inappropriate signatures and comments from the Save Pluto petition. If comments reflect the reasons people signed, they should be left as is even if they are emotional rather than logical statements. However, comments by spammers, pranksters and people making obscene or irrelevant remarks have no place in a document intended to be representative of grassroots public sentiment on the subject. Saying such comments should not be edited out makes me question whether at some level you want to see the petition discredited, which would mean it would not have the impact of conveying the genuine support for Pluto’s planet status that the organizer intended.

    Finally, I think it is highly likely that electronic voting or not, a vote on the issue of Pluto’s status and the definition of the term planet will be re-held at the IAU General Assembly in 2009.

  7. andyxl says:

    Laurel – the comments from the petition that I listed, and many many others, are not from spammers or pranksters. They are genuine responses, and genuine feelings, by people who want astronomers to reverse the decision. They tell us that people are reacting emotionally, not in an informed or thought-out manner. The fact that people round the world do care is very important to consider, and a perfectly good reason to consider a revised, or additional, IAU discussion.

    But we mustn’t confuse this with matters of science, logic, or fair process. In fact the idea that science should be decided by mass force is very scary. That way lies fascism. We need to carefully separate the cultural issues from the scientific issues.

    Talking of cultural issues .. as a matter of interest, is the planetary status of Pluto important for astrological prediction ? I ask because I note that your profile on your blog lists your interests as acting, astrology, astronomy, and fantasy, in that order.

  8. About my list of personal interests(which is far from complete on my profile page): LiveJournal lists them in alphabetical order, not order of preference. As a writer, I have a strong interest in literature and mythology,and astrology certainly figures into literary symbolism and cultural phenomena. I don’t believe there are actual deities called Zeus and Athena, but I do recognize that these characters and their stories play significant roles and have strong symbolic importance in many literary works, including Shakespeare. That is pretty much the way I feel about astrology. It is a cultural referent that certainly has played a role in Western society including religion and history as well as literature.

    Likewise, my interest in fantasy involves a liking for Tolkien, the Harry Potter books, science fiction, Star Trek, etc. Please do not use it as some sort of ad hominem attack to argue that I live in a fantasy world. I am a writer, not a scientist, and don’t claim to be something I am not. However, I believe I have made clear, logical, rational, and sensible arguments supporting my position that Pluto retain its planet status.

    Regarding the petition, I have no problem with leaving in emotional responses as long as they are not obscene, completely irrelevant, or clearly meant to spam or make a joke out of the issue. There have been comments in the three above categories that I pointed out to the organizer, and he subsequently removed them. I would do the same with a political petition. People who sign to sabotage any petition do not belong on it.

    I appreciate that you recognize the importance of the fact that people around the world do care about this a great deal and that this should play a role in the IAU’s revisiting of the issue.

    I’m not saying that science should be decided by mass force. I am saying that in a case like this, where the situation is muddled, where the facts do not clearly indicate a right vs. a wrong position, where so much depends on interpretation and perspective (planetary scientists vs. dynamicists as well as other types of astronomers), where the leading experts themselves do not agree, those making decisions should take all relevant factors into account and not rush to a decision that only complicates things further and alienates more people. Additionally, I continue to maintain that the process that took place on August 24, 2006 was flawed and seriously problematic, especially because such a small percentage of astronomers were permitted to take part in it and because of the immediate backlash by experts in the field. This issue needs to be revisited in a much more thorough, open, inclusive process than the one that took place last summer.

  9. andyxl says:

    Laurel – not worried about fantasy, only about astrology !

  10. […] 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 link to the beautiful image of solar system bodies […]

  11. elaine says:

    i want to get the nane and the peolpe belongs in astronomer

  12. isis solar says:

    isis solar…

    Screw Pluto Lets Bring Back Ceres « The e-Astronomer…

  13. yıldızname says:


    […]Screw Pluto Lets Bring Back Ceres « The e-Astronomer[…]…

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