Icy World

Normally I keep my posts here in the realm of literature, but I will stray a bit here.  Though it ties back to a book.  

There are many things a bit wonky about the Museum of Flight.  Each typo I see hurts a bit, and I hear that signage throughout the museum can tend towards inaccurate.  One of the top issues I take, however, is about a cold little planet.  Ex-planet.  Planet according to us: the video in the theater Pluto is still #9.  Today in the NY Times this opinion piece caught my eye.

Science can shift quickly, and I do think it’s the responsibility of museums and schools to stay up to date with what we tell children.  At the Museum of Flight, we promise education and then inform patrons with something that’s been inaccurate since 2001, even if it only had consensus a year and a half ago.  We should at least be telling of the Pluto debate, and providing information similar to the Pluto plaque.  I see so many kids come through the MoF, and I know that most of them are running from plane to plane with only the bright colors and possibility of guns in mind.  But there have to be some that are hungry for information, and there we are, telling them something inaccurate.  

Maybe that’s why I’m still hooked on ether.  The science is wrong, but it has been acknowledged to be wrong.  It has the veil of history over it, and no one is trying to convince a ten year old that the lumniferous ether transmits light through the void of space.  Or passively providing information and letting someone walk away without mentioning the historical context of what was provided.  

The more time I spend outside of education, the more I want to stand in front of a classroom again.  I can feel myself launching into teacher-mode when I’m at work; rambling off the littlie information I know about planes simply to be sharing something with another person.  Most often the words bubble around and fall a bit flat- no one is interested in listening so much as climbing into the flight simulator and making it do loops.  

I’m not going to take over control of MoF, and I wouldn’t really want to.  I’m sure there are plenty of other museums that also say Pluto is planet #9, and I just happen to be at one of them.  Perhaps it’s like a dictionary: the standard for languages but the last place that active words end up.  It’s only lag time, and I happen to be in the same between Pluto as planet and non-planet.  Silly strange place to be in.


4 thoughts on “Icy World

  1. You are not providing inaccurate information by telling visitors that Pluto is a planet. Pluto IS a planet because unlike most objects in the Kuiper Belt, it has attained hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning it has enough self-gravity to have pulled itself into a round shape. When an object is large enough for this to happen, it becomes differentiated with core, mantle, and crust, just like Earth and the larger planets, and develops the same geological processes as the larger planets, processes that inert asteroids and most KBOs do not have.

    Not distinguishing between shapeless asteroids and objects whose composition clearly makes them planets is a disservice and is sloppy science.

    As of now, there are three other KBOs that meet this criterion and therefore should be classified as planets—Haumea, Makemake, and Eris. Only one KBO has been found to be larger than Pluto, and that is Eris.

    The IAU definition makes no linguistic sense, as it states that dwarf planets are not planets at all. That’s like saying a grizzly bear is not a bear. Second, it defines objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. If Earth were placed in Pluto’s orbit, by the IAU definition, it would not be a planet. That is because the further away an object is from its parent star, the more difficulty it will have in clearing its orbit.

    Significantly, this definition was adopted by only four percent of the IAU, most of whom are not planetary scientists. No absentee voting was allowed. It was done so in a highly controversial process that violated the IAU’s own bylaws, and it was immediately opposed by a petition of 300 professional astronomers saying they will not use the new definition, which they described accurately as “sloppy.” Also significant is the fact that many planetary scientists are not IAU members and therefore had no say in this matter at all.

    Many believe we should keep the term planet broad to encompass any non-self-luminous spheroidal object orbiting a star.

    We can distinguish different types of planets with subcategories such as terrestrial planets, gas giants, ice giants, dwarf planets, super Earths, hot Jupiters, etc.
    We should be broadening, not narrowing our concept of planet as more objects are being discovered in this and other solar systems.

    In a 2000 paper, Dr. Alan Stern and Dr. Hal Levison distinguish two types of planets—the gravitationally dominant ones and the smaller ones that are not gravitationally dominant. However, they never say that objects in the latter category are not planets.

    I attended the Great Planet Debate, which actually took place in August 2008, and there was a strong consensus there that a broader, more encompassing planet definition is needed. I encourage anyone interested to listen to and view the conference proceedings at http://gpd.jhuapl.edu/ You can also read more about this issue on my blog at http://laurele.livejournal.com

    You can find the petition of astronomers who rejected the demotion of Pluto here: http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/planetprotest/

  2. My co-worker went with her daughter to the Franklin Institute for their Night Skies in the Observatory… $5 to get into the observatory, and look through 5 telescopes on their observation deck…. Of course I lived a block from the Franklin Institute for half a year and only found out once I moved to South Philly….. drat!

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