TROUBLE  IN  THE  HEAVENS

MANILA, SEPTEMBER 8, 2006
 (STAR) DE RERUM NATURA By Maria Isabel Garcia - Darn, I have to change my plans. I have observed that some humans are really nice to have – in another planet – in a very distant one – so I was planning to volunteer the names of a few of my relatives and some public officials to a future inter-planetary mission to Pluto. But since the International Astronomical Union (IAU) recently decided that Pluto is not really a planet, in the sense that they think the other eight are, I now have to find a temporary strategy to keep these relatives and public officials where they can do the least harm to our home planet and to common sense. Now, I have to wait till some space exploration is launched to "dwarf planets" – the new home category of Pluto and two others, Ceres and Xena, like some "foster home" for fallen celestial celebrities.

The IAU now says that for any entity to be a planet, it would have to be first, big enough and spherical – made so by its own gravity; second, it does not have any other celestial body "loitering" in its orbital path, and lastly, it orbits a star, which in our own neighborhood in the universe, happens to be the Sun. If you know anyone whom you have observed to fit these descriptions, submit your observations to the IAU for verification, but unless they give your application the "OK", so far, only eight entities in our solar system, satisfy these criteria. "Eight" it is because the IAU thinks that what we have thought for 76 years as the ninth one – icy Pluto – with its elongated shape and its regular tendency to wander around Neptune’s orbit, has pretty much kicked itself out of the category of "planet."

But there is more trouble in the heavens. As of this writing, at least 300 astronomers all over the world have formally objected to the IAU definition of a "planet," a definition which has effectively excluded Pluto from being one. These astronomers are saying that even our Earth has not cleared its neighborhood of smaller objects (such as asteroids a.k.a. "minor planets" that scientists continue to spot in the dozens by the day) so the IAU definition of a planet as it is, may have to exclude Earth as well. The scientists know that it would not matter to the Earth for us to call it something else, but naming things to put some order in the way we think about heavenly bodies matters to us humans. This is why this Pluto decision did not pass on tiptoed silence but banged on the sensibilities of the previously astronomically challenged earthlings that we are.

The objections from the scientists are understandable and expected but the objections from the general public are, at best, like dark energy in the sense that no one really thought there were people who cared how astronomers classified Pluto, and now that they know they exist, I have a feeling they really do not understand their grounds for objection. I say this because once astronomically apathetic people suddenly now care about Pluto’s drop of self-esteem from being shot down from the list of "Who’s who in the solar system." I have heard stories where kids lament, "Oh no, but that is a ‘truth’ that we have already memorized!" and teachers complaining "but how about the textbooks that treat Pluto as a planet!" Dear kids, it will save you a lot of heartache to know early on that half of learning means shedding or revising old knowledge. As for teachers, I think you should seize this chance to remind yourselves why books have not wholly replaced teachers. Print is permanent but a mind that is willing and able to learn can still expand with new knowledge as it is uncovered. A teacher’s open mind can liberate the obsolete information found in old textbooks. This Pluto controversy is also a good chance to let kids think about "how we know what we know" so they can also re-examine and discover the very process of knowing so that they can drop old decrepit beliefs that hang ONLY by the thread of authority and not by evidence from discovery and from their own experience and understanding.

The objection of astronomers to the IAU definition is a very good illustration of science being notoriously known for two things: One for its stubborn insistence to clearly define terms and set the boundaries by such definitions and most importantly, for being tentative about what the "truth" is. Science has no problem rethinking long-held views when the evidence seems to make it necessary and inevitable to do so. Science is a journey where you never leave the door closed to new understanding even if that new understanding threatens traditional views. In this sense, science does not get stuck because its journey to understanding is not run by "fundamentalists," "ideologues" or "true believers" whose interpretations never change, regardless of any new knowledge.

But dear stargazing scientists at IAU, why even give the name "dwarf planet" when you do NOT really mean "planet"? Twenty-thousand words are estimated to be born every year (and we are only talking about the English language!) so a new word or phrase for a celestial category would not have caused a linguistic uproar. I do not care if we even borrowed names like Ragnarok, Picachu or even Hello Kitty as long as we define them, because at least, that will give Pluto and its peers in its category, a fresh start in astronomical labeling, and not some memorial consolation of faded light from once being classified as a "planet." I tried to reach Pluto for comment and judging from its "icy" stance, it does not give a hoot what we call it because it is just what it is. But while we are at it, why name an asteroid a "minor planet" when it is also NOT a planet according to your own definition?

Visit the cyber home of these asteroids (http://cfa-www.harvard.edu/iau/lists/ArchiveStatistics.html) and you will find, that as of Aug. 9, 2006, observed asteroids now total 38,900,944, of which 29,604,830 have been assigned their numbers, while the rest await theirs. Of the almost 29 million or so asteroids that have been numbered, some have been given "second names" after composers, celebrities, scientists and even fictional names like Don Quixote. Six of these 29 million or so have been named after Filipinos. In 1995, asteroid 6282 was named "Edwelda," in honor of astronomer-couple Edwin Aguirre and Imelda Joson (now associate editor and photo editor, respectively, of Sky and Telescope magazine in the US), for their contributions to astronomy and writing a book on Halley’s comet published in 1985. In 2002, four other asteroids were named after Filipinos who won in the 2002 Intel Science and Engineering Fair: 11697 Estrella, 12088 Macalintal, 12522 Rara and 13241 Biyo after students Allan Noriel Estrella, Jeric Valles Macalintal and Prem Vilas Fortran Rara, who won in their own category and after Dr. Josette Biyo for being an inspiring teacher. In 2005, asteroid 4866 was named Badillo after Jesuit physicist Fr. Victor Badillo for having "popularized astronomy in the Philippines for more than three decades, inspiring countless Filipino astronomers."

So trouble in the "heavens" is actually trouble in our understanding of it, of what this group or that group’s understanding, based on their evidence so far, can accept or refuse. I am glad that these troubles are "scientific troubles" because science has an agreed way of settling their issues and that is by evidence, and how evidence can help set definitions. So pretty soon, I think we will soon have a sharper definition of a planet. Meanwhile, I guess the earliest space launch to another planet will be to Mars. I have received suggestions to send my "volunteers" there instead but I think I will pass because frankly, I do not think Mars is far enough.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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