A Case of Pluto
opening: 19. 10, 18:00
exhibition: 20. 10. - 25. 11. 2018
from: András Cséfalvay
to: IAU Public, IAU General Secretary
Dear General Secretary, International Astronomy Union,
I am addressing this letter to the IAU to comment on the decision of the demotion of Pluto from 2006 and to bring to your attention an issue that is greater than the IAU, it is trust in science and the common good.
I am aware that more qualified voiced protested and perhaps many emotional letters have been addressed to you, guided by sentiment, patriotism or a simple feeling of loss. I am writing in my own name, a visual artist and a non-expert, and I would not question any highly specific detail about scientific classification, I only believe I represent a people and would like to smuggle in the voice of us, non-professionals.
I believe there is a chance and a great channel for communicating to the public something very important about science, the scientific method, the importance of scientific knowledge and the usefulness of its way of producing knowledge by showing science in action, as it is self-correcting, adjusting and listening to the needs of many, a free domain beyond personal or group interest.
It is not a coincidence that I am turning to the astronomic community with this exemplary case, as astronomy has often been an open place and fore-bearer of great changes, a crusher of paradigms.
My primary concern follows. We are living in an era where facts are questioned, scientific research is being mistrusted, and the scientific method itself is wielded as a weapon. While connecting pieces of interlocking proofs is a wonderful tool, it should not be only the explanatory potential, but also the integration potential of the information gained that differentiates science well done from strings of truths of conspiracy-theories hung in mid-air.
Very often people have the wrong assumption about what science is, and how science works. Fortunately science never openly claims that it is uncovering truth about how things truly are, that would assume total access of human minds to reality. But it can sometimes be seen as an elite endeavor talking about transparent facts, with the construction shining through the cracks, and that can build suspicion in the outsiders. But no scientist can truly believe in that purity, it is only a public image. So why does not everyone know that scientific taxonomy, the socalled facts, are constructed, agreed-upon truths, that give us one of the best possible ways of grasping this elusive reality, and science when done well is an enterprise for the common good?
I believe the case of Pluto is potentially a moment where the scientific community could pause, take one step back and lower the guards in a way and give an explanation. I am not questioning the importance of expertise, but believe that that objects of scientific interest are part of our common heritage. Pluto as a planet is part of culture, and by admitting that the IAU definition has primarily situational use for some astronomers, but can have other uses and meanings could be a gesture that would address us non-professionals, allow us to feel included. To transform an elite enterprise into the planetary community from which a new trust can be born.
We need trust of the wide community in a transformed science for the future, if there should be any.
As an artist, I have limited resources, but I created a virtual conference hall and I asked people (astronomers, philosophers) of their opinion on whether Pluto should be a planet and what are the circumstances.
I learned from the astronomers that the size of Pluto relative to its surroundings, or in other terms its gravitational non-dominance makes it a not too remarkable part of the Kuiper-belt family of objects.
I also learned, that while for our current knowledge of our Solar System it would seem viable to continue using the current planet definition, as it separates the populations into logical chunks, yet the definition could potentially be not universal, and less useful for other planetary systems. And a system with a large number of dwarf-planets orbiting a sun would not be then called even a planetary system.
I learned from planetary geologists that another way of defining a planet would be through roundness, including in the definition every round world, thus all the round moons of planets too. Satellite, dwarf, gaseous would become adjectives, sub-categories under the collective umbrella term: planet. And while obviously the naming of a planet is a simple non-binding convention, it is somewhat disturbing to see the broken image of Pluto, Hades, Lord of the Underworld, keeper of the dead, tidally locked face to face with the ferrymen Charon, demoted, killed even. It is simply also possible to define Planets culturally, just as we accepted to meet at sunset, even if it is actually the earth rotating away.
My appeal to the IAU would be to acknowledge the possibility of many uses of the word Planet, and to RESCIND the definition, and allow multiple practices find their own local, situational definition. And as a common sense public definition I believe Pluto should REMAIN A PLANET with dwarf planet being a subcategory of the planet category.
If such reversal of the 2006 would be reached, it would create a special opportunity to communicate the way scientific terminology is useful, and is not dictated nor immanently acquired. And the planetary community can tackle troubles of the following century, scientists and outsiders as allies.
For your consideration.