Sykes embarks on mission to define Pluto's status

The Solar System's most eccentric orb was in dire need of a PR pro last month when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reconfigured the definition of the word planet, knocking Pluto out of the classic nine.

The Solar System's most eccentric orb was in dire need of a PR pro last month when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) reconfigured the definition of the word planet, knocking Pluto out of the classic nine.

Dr. Mark Sykes to the rescue. The director of the Tucson, AZ-based Planetary Science Institute, a nonprofit research center, Sykes is calling on the global astronomy community to think of an alternate definition, one which would clarify Pluto's status once and for all.

"The problem with what happened at IAU is that [it] ended up with a definition that [says] nothing about the nature of what is being defined," he says. "The IAU went to LaLa Land and returned with something of little value."

On August 24, 428 of the IAU's nearly 10,000 members passed a resolution which downgraded Pluto to the status of dwarf planet, essentially due to its lack of orbital
dominance.

While the IAU can't alter its actions until its next general assembly in 2009, Sykes says that "doesn't mean the rest of us can't do something" now. He immediately organized a protest committee, posting a Web petition encouraging a new planet definition. Within five days, more than 300 scientists and astronomers from Yale and MIT to Boeing and NASA had signed in favor of his motion.

Though the IAU has yet to respond, Sykes says, his campaign has been embraced by media including NPR Science Friday, ABC News, and papers across the globe. And this is only the start.

Sykes is presently putting together a Web forum in which scientists can discuss specific planetary characteristics, how they arise, and why, he says. He's also working to organize a global conference and publish a collection of white papers on these observations. To be released late next year, the volume will serve as a standard reference, Sykes says, so all the information gathered will be available in one easily accessible volume.

Ultimately, this information will help scientists determine an appropriate "description of what we study," he says. That will "generate ideas for larger issues that haven't necessarily been articulated prior."

Sykes' efforts aren't limited to the professional astronomy community, either. He's developing a parallel public Web site, offering more general explanations, "ask the scientist" features, online educational chats, and activities designed for in-school use.

"This is a great teaching moment," Sykes says. "We have decades of information about things out there. It's an opportunity for people to see what we've learned about the solar system - and what we might discover in the future."

Louis Friedman, executive director of Pasadena, CA-based public interest group The Planetary Society, is familiar with Sykes' efforts and feels the Pluto debate has had an "enormously beneficial" effect, but a specific definition isn't as important as the discussion itself.

"There are a rich amount of other planetary bodies," he adds. "It doesn't matter what you call them, as long as you explore them."

Still, "it's a real demotion for Pluto," notes Dr. Jean Turner, a professor in the physics and astronomy department at UCLA.

There's long been confusion about the tiny, distant planet, says Turner, who acknowledges Sykes' work. "Students would always ask me, 'Where does Pluto fit in?' So I think [the IAU definition] actually makes sense."

"[But] textbook publishers love it because now they can write a new edition," she adds. "I just have to remind students that certain chapters are wrong if you buy the books now."

Regardless of what happens with the IAU, Sykes says, one truth will remain: "There's no such thing as a scientific fact, period. Science is about coming up with explanations for what you observe, then trying to break them down. That's where all the new stuff is."

Dr. Mark Sykes

2004-present
Director, Planetary Science Institute (PSI), Tucson, AZ

2003-2004
Associate director, PSI

2003-2005
Astronomer, University of Arizona Steward Observatory, Tucson, AZ
 
1993-2003
Associate Astronomer, Steward Observatory

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