In The Field

IAU: invasion!

What a madhouse. I was skipping down the stairs of the conference centre on my way to a 10.30am interview (not about planets) when I encountered a charge of scientists led by the esteemed Brian Marsden. “You’re the press,” one of his cohort noticed. “Show us to the press room.”

I retraced my steps. Marsden had, for many years, been responsible for cataloguing asteroids and other lumps of rock in his role as the head of the Minor Planet Center. He retired recently *, but made the invasion of the press room with youthful vigour. The battalion had an announcement to make.

Marsden held up an A4 sheet of paper, on it was written in very large letters the word planetino. “Planetino is what they say in the resolution is a dwarf planet,” Marsden proclaimed. The category of objects that is to include Pluto, he said, should be renamed.

Pointing to the ten or so astronomers straggling in behind him, Marsden said the proposal had support from representatives of Uruguay, Brazil, the Czech Republic, the Netherlands, Norway, Serbia and the UK – at least. The press room descended into a hubbub as reporters grabbed their notepads or leapt to their laptops. The press officers trying to run the show looked on, bemused.

“This is the ad-hoc international committee,” Brian Marsden told me. He wanted to replace “dwarf planet” with “planetino” to avoid the confusion about how many planets the solar system has, he said. I mentioned that murkiness earlier here.

The group were on their way to a meeting of IAU Division III, the official coordinators of planetary nomenclature, to put their proposal. And I ended up rather late for my interview.

* Correction: he is to retire today.

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