Archive for Tuesday, August 15, 2006

Pluto solid as a rock at KU

Potential demotion of planet won’t affect discovery, leaders say

August 15, 2006


Pluto and its discoverer will always be important at Kansas University, even if the solar system's smallest planet is kicked out of the heavenly club that includes Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

"We'll continue to lobby for the importance of Clyde Tombaugh's heritage no matter what," said Barbara Anthony-Twarog, KU professor of physics and astronomy.

Astronomers from across the globe convened in the Czech Republic on Monday to discuss the definition of a planet - a move that could change the status of Pluto.

But regardless of what the scientists conclude, KU's scholarships, celebrations and bragging rights tied to celebrated alumnus Tombaugh won't cease if Pluto is demoted to mere orb, KU faculty said.

Tombaugh, a western Kansas native, discovered Pluto in 1930 while working at Arizona's Lowell Observatory. He later earned bachelor's and master's degrees from KU.

But the planet, smaller than Earth's moon, has been on shaky ground for years with some pointing to its relatively wee size and erratic orbit as reasons it should be toppled from its planetary pedestal.

KU's small astronomy department is on Tombaugh's side.

Bruce Twarog, KU professor of physics and astronomy, said he supports the definition of planets as spherical objects that orbit the sun. It's one way to have a physical determinant of what constitutes a planet, he said.

That definition would preserve Pluto's status and likely open the door for others, including the recently-discovered object known as Xena. But it also might reduce Pluto's stature by putting it in a more crowded field.

Anthony-Twarog, who also supports that definition, admitted she is a bit biased as a faculty member at Tombaugh's alma mater. But, she said, the international hubbub is largely more of a semantics issue than a scientific one.

"I've felt that it's important for us to feel engaged in this issue and to feel proud in our status with the history of this planet," she said.

KU recently celebrated Tombaugh's posthumous 100th birthday. The school offers the Tombaugh Scholarship and Tombaugh Summer Internship programs.

"It would be nice to maintain the status of Pluto," Bruce Twarog said. "It's good for the program. It's good for the university."

Regardless of the planet's status, Tombaugh's contributions to astronomy can't be reversed, said Steve Shawl, KU professor of physics and astronomy.

"The significance was, I think, a historical one," Shawl said. "At the time when he discovered it, he extended our knowledge of the solar system significantly."

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Tombaugh's daughter, Annette Tombaugh-Sitze, agreed.

She said her father was passionate about Pluto's designation and saw it as a personal attack when one top figure in the field chose the 50th anniversary of the discovery to question the planet's status.

"My father was very upset about it," Tombaugh-Sitze said in a phone call from her home in Las Cruces, N.M. "It hurt him very badly the way it was done."

Tombaugh-Sitze said her father later came to accept the academic discussion surrounding his discovery.

Tombaugh-Sitze said her father's work and methodology was important, regardless of the planet's status.

"What he accomplished - whether you call it a planet or a planetoid or an icy planet or whatever you call it - is still monumental," she said.


conservative 11 years, 8 months ago

To me the definition of a planet versus other types of objects should be fairly simple and based upon the physical characteristics of the object, not some arbitrary diameter.

The one I've read that seems the most simple would be any object with enough mass to form itself into a sphere, and which does not orbit a body other than a star.

That would be an easy definition to apply to any body in the solar system. If it isn't orbiting another planet and is spherical in shape it's a planet. If it's orbiting a planet then it's a moon. You could then go on to clump planets into separate groups such as rocky, gas giants, and icy planets.

Shelby 11 years, 8 months ago

Planet = something Star Jones couldn't possibly consume, even after skipping a meal.

b_asinbeer 11 years, 8 months ago

Shelby--not funny, good try though. :o)

Shelby 11 years, 8 months ago

b_asinbeer, you must be overweight. Probably all that beer. Sorry if I offended you.

displacedsunflower 11 years, 8 months ago

I don't know enough about the science of planets to give an accurate observation. I would think that Mr Tombaugh probably knew enough about the science to know what he was saying.

By the way, my mother was in his calculus class at KU. I think that she said that he had discovered Pluto before then.

Mike Blur 11 years, 8 months ago

You're right displaced, KU recruited Tombaugh AFTER he discovered Pluto. The discovery happened in 1930, and Tombaugh attended KU in the mid-late 30s.

b_asinbeer 11 years, 8 months ago

No offense taken. Funny you should mention it though...I don't like beer. Ironic, ha?

dacs23 11 years, 8 months ago

Who really cares what they call. I think astronomers in their anti social phallic bubbles (observatories) just needed something to talk about so they don't fall asleep looking into nothingness. Call it whatever you want to call it and then go about your day doing something more productive.

blessed3x 11 years, 8 months ago

Shelby, I thought your Star Jones comment was hilarious, but don't tell anyone. I don't want to seem insensitive.

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