Wednesday, June 11, 2008

The IAUWGPSN; or, Democracy in Action?

And now, bringing you the latest update on a subject dear to our collective heart:

Pluto is now called a plutoid. Plutoids, for those of you who don't know, are
"[...] celestial bodies in orbit around the sun at a distance greater than that of Neptune that have sufficient mass for their self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that they assume a hydrostatic equilibrium (near-spherical) shape, and that have not cleared the neighborhood around their orbit." In short: small round things beyond Neptune that orbit the sun and have lots of rocky neighbors.

I can tell you, I'm certainly breathing a sigh of relief here. Back in 2006 when the International Astronomical Union cruelly stripped Pluto of its planetary status, I was worried that Pluto would remain unclassified forever, wandering around its uncleared orbit forever just wondering what it was and where it came from. Now it only has to wonder where it came from. However,

it remains to be seen whether astronomers will use the new term.

"My guess is that no one is going to much use this term, though perhaps I'm wrong," said Caltech astronomer Mike Brown, who has led the discovery of several objects in the outer solar system, including Eris. "But I don't think that this will be because it is controversial, just not particularly necessary."

Brown was unaware of the new definition until the IAU announced it today.

"Back when the term 'pluton' was nixed they said they would come up with another one," Brown said. "So I guess they finally did."

Who do we have to thank for this amazing act of astronomical confidence boosting? Who is the new superhero in the galaxy, bringing justice and handles to abandoned ex-planetoids everywhere? Who ya gonna call?

The International Astronomical Union Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature, of course!

Say what?

Okay, okay, okay. It was really proposed by the IAUCSBN (International Astronomical Union Committee on Small Body Nomenclature). The IAUWGPSN only accepted it. Then the IAU Executive Committee approved it.

Say what?

You mean not only does it take them 2 years to come up with something "better" than "pluton", but they also have not one, not two, but three whole committees that it has to go through? Two of which appear to exist solely for the purpose of coming up with names for planet-type stuff? And "plutoid" is what they give us?


I guess they're only members of the IAU because they couldn't get an honest job as a real astronomer. You know it's bad when the people you're supposed to represent say outright that they're not going to pay attention to you anymore. At least the IAU has a good attitude about it, though.
"The IAU is a democratic organization, thus open to comments and criticism of any kind," IAU General Secretary Karel A. van der Hucht told by email today. "Given the history of the issue, we will probably never reach a complete consensus."

I think they've got that right. I don't see them agreeing with me anytime soon that they've messed this affair up from the get-go.

For a more scientific opinion, click here.

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