Now I've got a chance

Having been rather busy with other things I've not had the chance to write about the news regarding the IAU's vote about the definition of a planet. There's little point in doing so now given that pretty much everyone else has written about it.

But I did realise one small side-effect: with only eight planets in the solar system they should all now be in easy reach of my equipment. ;)

File Under: IAU, Definition of a Planet, Pluto.


Stuart the spymaster

Stuart, over at Astronomy Blog, seems to have set himself up as a spymaster.

Well worth a read if you're interested in that uninteresting subject.

Of course, like Stuart, I will point out that there are plenty of interesting astronomical issues being discussed during the week other than this.

File Under: IAU.

Spell checking and the IAU

Not long after the proposed definition of a planet was published I saw a couple of reports that mentioned that pluton (the term the IAU have proposed to describe "Pluto like" objects) is a term used by geologists to describe a type of rock.

I admit that I wasn't aware of this until I read it, but after reading it I did think it a little odd that they'd try and overload the word in this way — it's not like geology and planetary science are fields that don't overlap.

Reading an article in Nature this morning it seems the committee were aware of the term but took a very curious route to deciding if they should overload it or not:

Owen Gingerich, an astronomer at Harvard University in Cambridge, Massachusetts, and chair of the IAU committee that created the definition, says that they were aware of its usage amongst geologists, but unaware of its importance to the field. "Since the term is not in the MS Word or the WordPerfect spell checkers, we thought it was not that common," Gingerich wrote in an e-mail to news@nature.com. The geologic definition of the word does appear in common dictionaries, including the Oxford English.
What a really strange approach to things! I'm loath to take a quote in isolation but the above really does seem to suggest that they used common spell checking software, rather than a dictionary, to decide if they should use the word or not.

File Under: Planet, Pluton, IAU, Spell Checking.


New sunspot coming into view

Today has generally been cloudy but I've just had a brief clear spell so I took the Solarscope out to do a quick sunspot count.

I could only see a single, large spot in AA904 (which was now very close to the limb of the Sun).

I had quite a surprise when I noticed, right on the opposite limb of the Sun (to the point that it seemed to be right on the limb), a spot that appeared about as big as the one in AA904. I've checked on Spaceweather and with Solar Weather Browser but I've yet to find an ID for the area.

I think this is the first time I've caught a sunspot before an ID has been published on the popular solar weather sites.

File Under: Sun, Solar Observing, Sunspots, Active Area 904.


More 904

This afternoon I had another chance to observe active area 904. While I still had to do battle with cloud I did have the time to take a naked-eye look (via eclipse shades — yes, I could see the main spot) and I also had the chance to do a couple of rough sketches (an attempt at a general view of the Sun and also an attempt at some detail of 904).

File Under: Sun, Solar Observing, Sunspots, Active Area 904.

First sign of confusion already?

We're not that far into the first day of the general availability of the IAU's draft resolution for the definition of a planet and, already, there seems to be signs of confusion.

Alok Jha, writing for The Guardian, says:

If the ideas are approved at the general meeting of the IAU in Prague next week, schoolchildren will, in future, have to learn that the solar system has 12 planets: eight classical ones that dominate the system - Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune and Uranus - and four in a new category called plutons.

These are Pluto, its moon Charon, a spherical asteroid that sits between Mars and Jupiter called Ceres, and an object called 2003 UB313 but nicknamed Xena by American astronomers who found it.
That's not quite right, Ceres won't be a "pluton", the idea is that it will be known as a "dwarf planet". As well as the draft resolution saying this:
We recognize that Ceres is a planet by the above scientific definition. For historical reasons, one may choose to distinguish Ceres from the classical planets by referring to it as a "dwarf planet."
the question and answer sheet that goes with it is also quite explicit about it:
Q: Is Ceres a "pluton"?
A: No.
If a science correspondent is getting this wrong you've got to wonder how the public at large will comprehend it.

File Under: IAU, Pluto, Plutons, Definition of a Planet.

IAU's proposed definition of a planet revealed

The IAU has published a press release giving details of the proposed definition of what is and isn't a planet. The outline is:

1. A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet.

2. We distinguish between the eight classical planets discovered before 1900, which move in nearly circular orbits close to the ecliptic plane, and other planetary objects in orbit around the Sun. All of these other objects are smaller than Mercury. We recognize that Ceres is a planet by the above scientific definition. For historical reasons, one may choose to distinguish Ceres from the classical planets by referring to it as a "dwarf planet."

3. We recognize Pluto to be a planet by the above scientific definition, as are one or more recently discovered large Trans-Neptunian Objects. In contrast to the classical planets, these objects typically have highly inclined orbits with large eccentricities and orbital periods in excess of 200 years. We designate this category of planetary objects, of which Pluto is the prototype, as a new class that we call "plutons".

4. All non-planet objects orbiting the Sun shall be referred to collectively as "Small Solar System Bodies".
At first glance it looks like a reasonable attempt at solving the (non-?)problem but I can't help but think it's got some problems of its own.

Rather than go into details I'd suggest a read of the Bad Astronomer's take on it as he seems to cover all of the concerns I had when I first read it.

The other thing I'm thinking is: isn't it just a little overly concerned with the solar system? Yes, yes, I know, it's the only system we've got to hand that we can study in any real detail but wouldn't it make sense, if you're going to come up with a definition, to have one that we can use everywhere?

File Under: IAU, Pluto, Definition of a Planet.


Blogging Pluto

Yet another cloudy night, yet another night of not getting out and observing. So, while messing about on my computer, I happen to wander over to Google's blog search facility and see what's been said about Pluto at the moment. It's actually kind of fascinating to see what random people, often not involved in astronomy, have to say.

Some people seem to be annoyed that the discussion is even taking place at all, Shining City Atop a Hill has this to say:

Another question... why are we wasting resources on this discussion? In the end who really cares right?
It makes me wonder if the author thinks pretty much all of astronomy, hell, all forms of classification, are a waste of resources. And, of course, the final question is slightly ironic given that you've probably got to care a little to even write about it.

Over on this blog the author seems to ask a similar question, but in a slightly more forceful way:
F**k You. We're paying all these brilliant scientists gobs and gobs of cash to f**k around and decide whether something is important enough to be called "a planet"?
I'm guessing that's an example of someone who does care — with a passion.

Of course, if there's one thing worse than scientists wasting the vast sums of money they get paid, it's having mad scientists wasting vast sums of money:
For the next two weeks a group of mad scientists will be meeting in Prague. Their goal: to define just exactly what constitutes the legal definition of a planet. Like a denizen of congressional staffers, cloistered away deep within the bowels of the capitol building, these mad scientists may well legislate poor Pluto out of existence!
I can see it now, all those astronomers sat around, each stroking a long-haired cat, plotting the slow and overly-complex demise of poor Pluto. Does anyone have the phone number for Mike Myers? Imagine him playing the part of almost 3,000 evil astronomers!

An Astronomer — Earlier Today

That said, in the same blog, we then find the suggestion that the whole Pluto debate is actually an anti-US political stunt:
The spectre of international politics has raised its ugly head at the IAU convention. Pluto was originally discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, an American. (Pluto is the only planet to be discovered by an American.) Current anti-American feelings among these snooty Euro scientists (because of the Iraq war, among other things), may play a role in Pluto's chances to remain a planet. I suppose if Pluto is demoted from planet to a mere Kuiper Belt Object (KBO) or "ice dwarf" -- it will George W. Bush's fault (of course!)
I have to admit that that's a new one on me.

Some people seem to be concerned about the idea of history being erased:
do we erase the past 75 years of Astronomy teaching for the purpose of a technicality?
The same author goes on to wonder:
And if so, can we apply this to other sciences?
almost as if this sort of thing has never happened before in any science.

One thing that I did turn up was probably the most damning evidence against Pluto yet:
Apparently scientists have discovered a meteor that's even further from the sun than Pluto, and there's debate as to whether or not it can be considered to be the 10th planet of the solar system.
There's a meteor furhter from the Sun than Pluto? Well, there we go, what more needs to be said?

However, there is a very compelling argument in favour of Pluto retaining its current status and I found it on Sara Reinke's blog:
What makes me the most depressed about the Pluto debate, I guess, is that as things like that change, I feel really old. I can roll with the punches, learn new things, keep up with all the latest and greatest in science and technology, but that doesn't make it easy. I still watch "I Love the 80s" on VH-1 with a forlorn sort of fondness, yearning for those simpler times, the salad days when Miami Vice was a TV show, not a movie, and a Flock of Seagulls wasn't just something you'd find on the beach.
Put like that, and as a child of the 80s myself, I'm starting to wonder if my not really caring either way makes sense — might it be that it makes me a traitor to my generation?

But, thankfully, I've got the words of anneneil to drag my back to reality:
And I apologize to the nytimes and pluto for the above image.... it is actaully a solar eclipse but so much cooler than any picture I could find of pluto
I mean, really, who really wants non-photogenic planets?

But, wait a moment, then I see worrying news via Propaganda Pipeline:
Today the President for Life of Pluto and all its outlying provinces condemned recent Earthling scientific claims that Pluto is not truly a planet.

"For too long, you arrogant Earthlings have tried to dictate what constitutes a planet. No Earthman can tell we Plutonians whether our rock is a planet or not," President Glik stated in his speech. "Do we tell you how to run things on Earth? No. But perhaps it is time we should."
And just when I thought I'd finally made up my mind...

Finally taking my tongue out of my cheek, I think the last quote really should go to Dr Jim:
Science is about revision and correction, irrespective of people’s beliefs and historical relevance. Yes Pluto was a great discovery, with a great story. Yes it captured the public imagination with its tightly held secrets and unimaginable distance from the sun; but unless we intend on turning planetary science into a new religion, it needs to be treated according to the science, and a few old, stubborn scientists need a slap in the face and told to wake up.
No matter how you feel about the debate I'm guessing that those are words that anyone interested in astronomy, at any level, can agree with. Except... is the "retain the status" crowd really mostly populated with "a few old, stubborn scientists"?

File Under: Pluto, IAU.

I should complain more often

Having a moan obviously works — just a little earlier I managed to get out and view AA904 using the Solarscope.

Very impressive. So impressive that I dashed back into the office to get a pencil and some paper so I could sketch it and..... yes, of course, the brief gap in the clouds moved on and I've not seen the Sun since. Shame really, it's been quite a while since I last did a close-up sketch of a sunspot and 904 is a good candidate for working on those skills.

File Under: Sun, Solar Observing, Sunspot 904, Active Area 904.

No chance to observe active area 904 today

Despite yesterday's optimism I've not had a chance to observe active area 904 today. The sunny spells that were forecast yesterday haven't happened — it's been overcast all day.

It's sort of frustrating given that July was a great month for clear days but had pretty low activity and this month has got off to a pretty bad start in terms of weather but we've got one of the best displays for a while.

File Under: Sun, Solar Observing, Sunspot 904, Active Area 904.

Okay, perhaps not that topic after all

Yesterday, while posting a link to the IAU blog, I said that it would be:

Worth reading to keep an eye out for that popular topic, but also worth reading anyway.
In a post on the blog today I see:
Seed magazine links here, but predicts that you will be able to find out if Pluto is a planet here. No, you won't! I think this is an incredibly unimportant topic, it's not what this meeting is about and I will not mention it at all. Well, not any more, that is.
While I can appreciate that it's a relatively unimportant topic I am left wondering what the actual motivation behind that decision is.

Am I, for example, really so wrong for being interested in that subject as well as the other posts that are being made?

Is it really so terrible that one particular subject has caught popular attention?

I'm finding it hard not to view that sort of attitude as a bit of a swipe at those of us who try and popularise an interest in astronomy at the vaguely-interested and amateur level. Can anyone out there explain to me why I shouldn't view it that way?

File Under: IAU, Pluto, Popular Astronomy.


The IAU General Assembly 2006 Blog

In case you've not seen it yet, there's a weblog from the IAU 2006 General Assembly. Worth reading to keep an eye out for that popular topic, but also worth reading anyway.

File Under: IAU.

Active area 904

Despite having a moan this morning I actually managed a very brief look at active area 904 late on this afternoon. Sadly conditions were such that there was no point in getting the Solarscope out to have a look but I did manage to see one of the spots associated with the area with the naked eye (via eclipse shades, obviously).

The forecast for tomorrow is now suggesting that we might have some sunny spells here so there's a chance I might actually get a better look. After that the outlook doesn't appear to be too good for the rest of the week.

File Under: Sun, Solar Observing, Sunspots, Active Area 904.

Some people have all the fun

Typical! We get the first really large sunspot for quite some time and what happens here? Cloud, rain, cloud, rain, more cloud, some more cloud and even more cloud.

The forecast for today seems to be wall-to-wall cloud.

At least Ian and Peter seem to be having some fun.

File Under: Solar Observing, Sun, Sunspots.


Apollo tapes missing?

According to the Sydney Morning Herald the original tapes of many of the Apollo missions have gone missing:

THE heart-stopping moments when Neil Armstrong took his first tentative steps onto another world are defining images of the 20th century: grainy, fuzzy, unforgettable.

But just 37 years after Apollo 11, it is feared the magnetic tapes that recorded the first moon walk - beamed to the world via three tracking stations, including Parkes's famous "Dish" - have gone missing at NASA's Goddard Space Centre in Maryland.

A desperate search has begun amid concerns the tapes will disintegrate to dust before they can be found.
I can imagine that the "Moon hoax" kooks will make quite a bit of this.

File Under: Apollo, NASA, Moon, Moon Hoax.


Yet another timeline

Yes, yet another timeline. The idea for this one was prompted by a conversation I was having with Tim and I realised that, in my own logs, I've got all the sunspot/active area observing data that's needed to get a nice overview using a timeline display.

Without too much effort I had an active area timeline up and running.

File Under: Sun, Sunspots, Active Areas, Timeline, Simile.


Another timeline

After my first play with Timeline I started thinking that it could be a useful tool for displaying upcoming events in astronomy — especially events that can be observed. As a member of the Society for Popular Astronomy I thought it might be just the sort of thing they'd find useful for their website.

A couple of weeks back I had a chat with Jeff (the SPA's webmaster) and then approached the heads of the observing sections to see who had data that could be used (and which made sense on a timeline). Everyone seemed to think it was a good idea and I received plenty of data. So, after a bit of coding, I finally got a working SPA observing calendar up and running.

Hopefully this will be of some use to amateur astronomers, especially those in the UK (apologies to non-UK readers).

Thanks go to Jeff, the heads of the observing sections at the SPA and also to SIMILE for making timeline generally available.

File Under: Calendar, Society for Popular Astronomy, Timeline, Simile.