The Debate Over Pluto Heats Up In D.C.

Monday night in Washington, D.C., two learned men squared off in the greatest debate to date in our truly apocalyptic millennium. When polar bears are floating on ice cubes, it’s not just some poem by Nostradamus anymore. Heretofore known as the Battle for the Heart of Pluto, by all sagacious accounts, Dr. Alan Stern emerged victorious by a vote of 130 to 30, proving that Pluto is first and foremost a planet, before adding the rather discounting, sometimes derisive adjective “dwarf” in front of its appellation.

The Philosophical Society of Washington (PSW Science), founded in 1871 by many eminent men of the day, including General William T. Sherman and Supreme Court Justice Salmon P. Chase, hosted the event – most appropriately in the assembly hall of the Cosmos Club, now called the John Wesley Powell Auditorium. The moderator, Larry Millstein, President of PSW Science, himself a Ph. D. (and attorney), at one point had to smooth the feathers of a slightly ruffled Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator for NASA’s New Horizons Mission to Pluto and Beyond Into the Outer Reaches of the Kuiper Belt and also the Chief Scientist for Moon Express, who had to repeatedly correct the scientifically-inaccurate statements put forth as gospel by Dr. Ronald D. Ekers, an expert in active galactic nuclei and radio astronomy.

Dr. Ekers, former President of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), admitted he didn’t know as much about planets as Dr. Stern; but that never got in the way of a bureaucrat from wanting to exercise dominance. One wishes astronomers would defer to planetary scientists like Dr. Stern. But the IAU, while under the aegis of Dr. Ekers, rammed through a highly politicized and ill-thought-out definition of a planet, specifically tailored to exclude Pluto from the family of solar system planets back in 2006 at the IAU’s General Assembly in Prague – the birthplace of Franz Kafka.

A rancid metamorphosis followed whereby schoolchildren ceased to learn about Pluto whatsoever. I sometimes substitute teach; and, I’ll never forget asking a kid at Cousino High School in Warren, Mich., “What’s the closest planet to the Sun?” He replied, “The Moon?” That was in 2017. Whoever says deplanetizing the most-beloved planet of all time, besides Earth, will make kids more interested in Science is gravely mistaken. Even kids sense “something is rotten in the state of Denmark.” It is rare to find a high school kid who can name the planets in order. Even with them whiddled down to eight. It’s pathetic. 

I learned about Pluto in kindergarten back in 1966 or so at Carleton Elementary School on the eastside of Detroit. I was blessed to have a teacher who cared. Mrs. Boyce taught us all the planets from Mercury to Pluto. She taught us the dinosaurs, too. Pluto fascinated me from the get-go. So remote and mysterious and cold. Just like the kind of women I typically end up falling for; but I digress…. I started daydreaming the very next day about being the King of Pluto. I even had freeze powers and my own pop factory called Icy Poppy. Yeah, we say pop in Michigan, home to the oldest ginger ale in Vernor’s!

Without Pluto in children’s lives anymore, kids will imagine less. The IAU’s arrogance in shoving an unworkable, scientifically-flawed definition down the collective throat of Mankind has had dire, long-lasting consequences. The U. S. space program seems to’ve lost interest in manned space flight. No missions to explore the dwarf planets past Pluto have even been proposed, to my knowledge. It’d take 20 years to get to Eris, Dr. Stern once told an audience in Ann Arbor. We’d better get cracking! I’d like to see a mission to potato-shaped Haumea and its two spudly moons. And a mission to Makemake! Make it so!

The coup de grâce, I think, was when Dr. Stern, with a bit of wrath rising to the surface (like heat from Pluto’s core), countered Dr. Ekers’ baseless argument that since Neptune and Pluto are in a 3:2 orbital resonance, the smaller Pluto must not be a planet. For Jupiter and Saturn are in a 5:2 orbital resonance! Stony silence beset the room. It was at that point that you could’ve stuck a fork in Dr. Ekers. Good thing he is not from New Zealand. Alan added that Earth and Venus are also in resonance for good measure. Sort of like when you put some seasoning on your steak. Their 13:8 orbital resonance is the most precise orbital resonance in our entire solar system, in fact!

Better stick to roasting prawns on the barbie, Dr. Ekers. I do give you credit, though, for stepping up to the plate, unlike Neil deGrasse Tyson, who declined an invitation to debate Dr. Stern.

Speaking of Dr. Tyson (don’t worry, no chicken jokes…..), he recently capitulated, saying he has no problem with dwarf planets being planets. Thanks, Neil. Better late than never, home slice. The early bird may get the worm; but at least the late bird gets a fire ant!

At one point, Dr. Ekers’ feathers were a bit ruffled, too; but he was better at keeping it bottled up under the surface by muffling his frustration at being outgunned by Dr. Stern’s knowledge in planetary matters with his superior tone, his wildly waving arms, hand gestures, and overabundant love of the IAU’s bureaucratic powers of naming celestial objects. With such powers at their disposal, one wonders why they seem utterly unable to name the 14th moon of Neptune. (It should be named Thetis, by the way, who was the mother of Achilles. No matter if some asteroid was oddly given her name when it should’ve been reserved for Neptune’s moons as she is the most notable sea nymph of all time.) Can you say “incompetence?”

But the one thing Dr. Ekers said that really got my goat, showing he’d basically thrown in the towel, was in response to Dr. Stern speaking about planetary scientists coming up with their own definition by consensus and ignoring the IAU’s definition. Dr. Ekers pontificated with smug self-assurance, “I don’t think the public would see that as a sensible answer.”

That statement can be seen in a number of ways. 

  1. The public is stupid and would not understand the planetary scientists’ newfangled Geophysical Planet Definition (GPD) that would, in effect, replanetize Pluto and Ceres. The GPD states, “A planet is a sub-stellar mass body that has never undergone nuclear fusion and that has sufficient self-gravitation to assume a spheroidal shape adequately described by a triaxial ellipsoid regardless of its orbital parameters.” 
  2. The GPD advocated by Dr. Stern and many other planetary scientists is, in itself, nonsensical. 
  3. The IAU is better suited at communicating to the public than a gaggle of planetary scientists by virtue of its insufferable arrogance, time-tested-and-true aplomb with the art of condescension, and near-complete ignorance of planetary science. (For example, the IAU is still promulgating the long-refuted myth that Eris is larger than Pluto. It’s been almost four years since New Horizons measured the diameter of Pluto. Pluto is at least 19 miles larger in diameter.)

The media also likes to mention “the public.” When they pry into a celebrity’s personal life, for example, they say, “The public wants to know….” They’re too spineless to admit they want to know. Whenever someone says they are asking on behalf of the public, or they know what the public wants, or is able to understand, watch your back. The knife is inches from your spinal cord – if not already plunged to the hilt.

They say a picture tells a thousand words. Alan utilized that adage adeptly, opening with the now-iconic, full-frontal high res image of Pluto as NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft neared closest approach to the most majestic icy orb this side of Sedna.

Dr. Stern then iterated the Star Trek test by which if you suddenly find yourself in a spaceship and saw an object much like Pluto orbiting a star, wouldn’t your first impression be, “Damn it; it’s a planet!”  I made up that line, to be clear. Poetic license. One’s honest answer would be, “Of course! It ain’t no horse!”  Dr. Stern further argued that the third rung of the 2006 IAU definition of a planet, viz., that a planet must “clear its path”  is “extraneous,” “created by non-experts in planetary science,”  and “a complete anomaly in science.” Notably, he mentioned how Earth doesn’t even clear its path, alluding to a recent near-Earth asteroid that buzzed by us. Chin music.

Dr. Stern added, “Science is not arbitrary. It is all about consensus. That’s how Science really works.”   That’s why scientific papers are peer-reviewed, for instance. You need your work to be checked. The 2006 IAU definition was a hurried, five-day mess, written with a foregone conclusion in mind. One astronomer even confided he was threatened with losing his academic perks if he voted for Pluto. His flight from America to Prague was paid for, too. If you watch a video of the actual session, you’ll see a pro-Pluto speaker cut off in mid-sentence. Dr. Stern politely said the vote was “botched.”

Dr. Stern doesn’t plan to come groveling to the IAU for them to fix what wasn’t broken. A better, more inclusive definition of a planet is needed, to be sure; but to entrust a slew of non-experts to vote on a hastily-conceived resolution is a recipe for more muck.

“We are going to bring it back in our own way,” prophesied Dr. Stern to the audience in the Powell Auditorium, and the untold, unwashed masses aboard the Worldwide Web watching the live-stream on YouTube, including yours truly.

One of my favorite points that Dr. Stern made, and one that Dr. Ekers had no answer for, is that to artificially limit the number of planets in our solar system to eight is patently absurd. Think if someone said there can only be eight rivers in the world. Is the Congo a creek? A rivulet? No, it is the ninth-longest river in the world, last time I checked. Is a dwarf human being not a human being? What about dwarf rinoceri? Did you know most cashews consumed worldwide are dwarf cashews? Just what are you putting in your mouth, people? Our solar system is lost without Pluto.

If you don’t believe me, ask any high school student to name the planets in order from Mercury to Pluto. You’ll see the stupefying ignorance first hand. Don’t tell me the IAU doesn’t have anything to do with that. Their sledgehammer approach to planetary science has long-lasting dire consequences.

Little did Dr. Stern and Team New Horizons know that seven months after the fastest rocket to leave Earth’s atmosphere blasted off to Jupiter en route to Pluto and beyond that the IAU would jerry-rig a vote, demoting the breathtakingly beautiful ninth planet (apologies to Ceres….we have your back, girl!). But Pluto will not take this sitting down. Pluto will have the last word.

“Pluto 99” is an artwork by Mike Wrathell, using NASA’s New Horizons’ best full frontal image of Pluto as a starting point.

“PSW 2409 A Planet Definition Debate”

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  1. Geeze, so finally just this February, after 6 years, the IAU has named the 14th moon of Neptune. It was discovered by Mark Showalter, I. de Pater, J. J. Lissauer, and R. S. French. Hippocamp is not a sea nymph, but at least Hippocamp is related to the lore of Neptune and Poseidon. I tried, Thetis. I am sort of like Cassandra. No one really listens to me. I just now found out on 05/04/19.

  2. Very well written and informative article about this crucial debate, Mike, thank you. Ron Ekers is a very nice man but his defense of the IAU was sad. He seemed underprepared for rebuttal.

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