Thursday, July 12, 2012

Return Pluto to the Pantheon Of Planets!

The recent discovery (made via the Hubble Space Telescope) that Pluto has not one, not two but five moons to call its own, reminds me of the words of  former Hayden Planetarium Director Kenneth Franklin - when he visited Barbados nearly 40 years ago. He warned (in a guest lecture) that Pluto - based on its relatively small size - might at some time in the future be demoted from full planetary status. However, he warned that if Pluto had any moons, this would amount to a serious error of judgment and perhaps be a result more of subjective preference than scientific determination. 

I have come to believe that as well, despite ridiculous books such as Mike Brown's 'How I Killed Pluto and Why It had It Coming'. The fact is "it" didn't "have it coming" - it was entirely the result of a subjective vote taken at a meeting of the International Astronomical Union (IAU).  So while one might sympathize with author Brown over the "hate mail from school children" at his role in Pluto's demise, the fact is it was likely spurred as much by the irrational basis for the election to downgrade Pluto to "dwarf planet" status.

By contrast, the modern consensus on evolution was achieved by a body of empirical evidence, including from the fossil record, microbiology and genetics. For example, one of the most powerful lines of evidence has shown that the human chromosome designated '2' was the result of the telomeric fusion of the two ape chromosomes, 2p and 2q. The effect also saw the reduction from 24 chromosome pairs in apes, to 23 pairs in humans. (Source: Yunis and Prakash, 1982, Science, Vol. 215, p. 1525, 'The Origin of Man: A Chromosomal Pictorial Legacy')

Mathematical precision also consolidates scientific discovery in quantitative fields, making them less likely to be overturned. Particle physics is one such example, wherein the original three sub-atomic particles (proton, neutron, electron) have become a veritable “zoo” numbering in the hundreds – including up, down, top and bottom quarks, W and Z bosons, electron, mu and tau neutrinos and many others too numerous to mention. This panoply of particles didn’t just manifest because the respective particle physicists intended to be “mean” to school children or regular mortals. It emerged out of more refined and detailed experiments that exposed each of the particles. (The same set of parameter confirmations and empirical cross-checks will have applied if the Higgs boson is confirmed.)

The same applies to the current consensus on global warming, only arrived at after years of computer analysis of ice cores, changing CO2 concentrations therein, satellite imagery disclosing retreat of polar ice and data from over 1300 temperature sensing bouys in the oceans. Not to mention data we now possess that the glaciers in Greenland are melting 32 times faster than they were 10 years ago. No one took a vote to attain the consensus on anthropogenic warming, it was the culmination of over 1500 papers published over 20 years in peer-reviewed climate journals. Doesn't Pluto's demotion warrant at least half as much effort?

In the end, the error of the  IAU planetary astronomers was to cave in to public pressure to avoid “complexity”, e.g. in adding numerous additional planets like Charon, Xena, Ceres etc. This, despite the fact the original IAU definition was perfectly rational in its criteria for a planet.

Alan Stern, executive director of the Space Science & Engineering Division of the Southwest Research Institute – and Principal Investigator for NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto- observed that the new planet definition was “sadly flawed, particularly due to the vagueness of the third condition”, e.g. clearing the neighborhood around its orbit – which might also disqualify Earth!)

He added: “A lot of people are going to ignore the (new) definition because it doesn’t make sense.” (Source: Eos, Vol. 87, 29 August, p. 350)

The tragedy of the Pluto vote is that it has not only set back planetary astronomy – showing the preponderance of ego over scientific inquiry – but also eroded public confidence in science, which extrapolates to areas like anthropogenic global warming. (Which polls disclose only 46% of Americans now accept as arising from human-engendered greenhouse gases, as opposed to 59% in 2000.)

Anyway, the newfound fifth moon, designated P5, is estimated to be between 6 and 15 miles across. Pluto's largest Moon, Charon - at 650 miles across, was discovered in 1978 - three years after Prof. Franklin's lecture and warning about a possible Pluto downgrade.

Right now, I imagine Dr. Franklin turning over in his grave about how his forecast was ignored and the demotion of Pluto overall.  And.....I suspect he'd have some words to share with Brown, Neil Degrasse Tyson and others of the 'Anti-Pluto as full Planet' ilk.

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