The Great Planet Debate

By Phil Plait | July 2, 2008 10:02 am

Is Pluto a planet?OK, so you know the deal with Pluto. It was discovered in 1930, and declared to be a planet. But over time, as estimates of its size got more accurate, and it dwindled in physical stature, it dwindled in status as well. Then, just a few years ago, the International Astronomical Union, in a fit of fiat, declared it to not be a planet anymore.

This ticked off a lot of people. It made others happy. Many, like me, were more concerned with the idea itself of trying to define a planet. You can’t do it, and I’ll defend that statement.

But not now. For now, in a seeming tangent, I got a call from Alan Stern — the ex-Associate Administrator for science at NASA and the PI on the New Horizons Pluto mission — because he wanted to let everyone interested in astronomy know about an upcoming conference called The Great Planet Debate. To be held August 14 – 16 in Maryland, it will have many representatives of the planetary community attending, including people who study extrasolar planets.

Here’s the scoop:

The Great Planet Debate (GPD) conference includes two days (August 14-15) of scientific sessions to discuss and debate the processes leading to planet formation and the characteristics and criteria used to define and categorize planets. An open-to-the-public debate between Dr. Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute and Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson of the American Museum of Natural History is scheduled on the afternoon of August 14th.

Coooool. I wish I could go, but I’ll be on a boat in the Galapagos at the time. Hey, a guy has to have priorities! So I cannot attend, but they will be doing some live streaming of the talks, which is a good sign that the science community is starting to figure out this great series of tubes. The debate between Sykes and Tyson will be fantastic.

I’ll try to keep track of the meeting if I can (I suppose a satellite internet card may be in the future for me), but you might want to mark your calendars anyway. This will be a wonderful show of scientists talking science, and should be plenty interesting. And maybe I’ll post my thoughts on why hanging labels on things can sometimes help, but can be a bad idea when you let them box in your thinking.


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