Thursday, June 12, 2008

Resist, Erisians, resist.

Pluto Now Called a Plutoid

Robert Roy Britt, Senior Science Writer,
Wed Jun 11, 11:49 AM ET, Updated 11:36 a.m. ET

The International Astronomical Union has decided on the term "plutoid" as a name for dwarf planets like Pluto.

Sidestepping concerns of many astronomers worldwide, the IAU's decision, at a meeting of its Executive Committee in Oslo, comes almost two years after it stripped Pluto of its planethood and introduced the term "dwarf planets" for Pluto and other small round objects that often travel highly elliptical paths around the sun in the far reaches of the solar system.

The name plutoid was proposed by the members of the IAU Committee on Small Body Nomenclature (CSBN), accepted by the Board of Division III and by the IAU Working Group for Planetary System Nomenclature (WGPSN), and approved by the IAU Executive Committee at its recent meeting in Oslo, according to a statement released today.

Here's the official new definition:

"Plutoids 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.

The two known and named plutoids are Pluto and Eris, the IAU stated. The organization expects more plutoids will be found.

Controversy continues

Already the IAU recognizes it is adding to an ongoing controversy.

The IAU has been responsible for naming planetary bodies and their satellites since the early 1900s. Its decision in 2006 to demote Pluto was highly controversial, with some astronomers saying simply that they would not heed it and questioning the IAU's validity as a governing body.

"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."

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."

More debate coming

The dwarf planet Ceres is not a plutoid as it is located in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter, according to the IAU. Current scientific knowledge lends credence to the belief that Ceres is the only object of its kind, the IAU stated. Therefore, a separate category of Ceres-like dwarf planets will not be proposed at this time, the reasoning goes.

A meeting, planned earlier this year for Aug. 14-16 at Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory, aims to bring astronomers of varying viewpoints together to discuss the controversy. "No votes will be taken at this conference to put specific objects in or out of the family of planets," APL's Dr. Hal Weaver, a conference organizer, said in a statement in May. "But we will have advocates of the IAU definition and proponents of alternative definitions presenting their cases."

The term plutoid joins a host of other odd words -- plutinos, centaurs, cubewanos and EKOs -- that astronomers use to define objects in the outer solar system.

Source: Yahoo news from

What's the solar system coming to? If a geeky-looking fellow in my vicinity were to begin talking in a whiny voice about the Plutinos and Plutoids, I would immediately tag him as an astronomer-impersonator and orally eject sputum into his ocular orbits. Billions and Billions of times. Even if he looked exactly like Stephen Hawking. I might push his wheelchair down the stairs, even if that meant we never found the wormhole to an alternate dimension that would save our species from extinction. Yes, this evokes strong emotions. Better that our world fall into the sun than we should move into the cosmos having permanently adopted the use of "plutoid." Think about it. What if "America" had been called, say "Spainoid" instead? South America, "Portugon"? How would you feel? Words matter.

What is this, really, some kind of attempt to pacify the angry supporters of Pluto-planethood? Pluto is not Hillary Clinton. The people who came up with this idea (or those who support Pluto as a planet?) could be called Plutons or Plutoids, but the long-established term Dwarf Planet is a more dignified and appropriate term. 1. It's not a made-up word that sounds like it was made by a third-grader, and 2. It contains the word "planet" and is therefore more acceptable to the planet-arians, people who do not want to see these bodies downgraded to non-planets. A dwarf planet is still a planet. Sort of. Also, imagine the confusion of translating the new made up (and fugly) word into Chinese and hundreds of other languages. Just use words that already exist, like "dwarf" and "planet." Gnome Planet would work, too, but do not consider Fairy Planet, please. Outer Dwarf Planets and Inner Dwarf Planets are possible, to accommodate the problem of Ceres.

I urge others who aspire to one day visit the (outer) dwarf planet Eris to resist! Resist this outrage. Call your local planetarium or university astronomy department to demand that their staff denounce(!) and reject(!) this mercurial decision by the IAU's CSBN and WGPSN. Better yet, go to John Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory August 14-16 to lobby the superdelegates. It'll be like Woodstock without the music, the hippies, and the muddy fields, and with astronomers, I promise. Throw pluton into the dustbin of discarded nomenclature. Throw plutoid into the void. This decision will not stand!

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