In The Field

IAU: planet vote approaches

The final opportunity for astronomers to comment on the resolution to define a planet passed quietly. Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a member of the IAU’s resolution committee who chaired one of the earlier meetings (blogged here), fielded a series of gentle questions. I eavesdropped.

One rather shy astronomer pointed out to Bell Burnell that moons now fell through the cracks of the resolution (version 4). Were they meant to count as ‘small solar system bodies’?

“He’s quite right. There’s a loophole in the drafting,” she told me afterwards. Satellites will be their own class of objects.

Otherwise, the debate has degenerated to the level of hyphens and commas. When the Resolution committee removed the hyphen from the “dwarf-planet” category of version 3, settling on “dwarf planets”, they created some ambiguity about whether this second category, which includes Pluto, were really planets or not.

One solution put forward this morning (see post IAU:invasion!) was to say “planetinos” instead of dwarf anything. But Bell Burnell said at lunchtime that that was out of the question. “We don’t introduce any new names at this stage, that’s out of the question”. The option tabled instead was the introduction of inverted commas around the dwarf, to give ‘dwarf’ planets. Personally, I can’t see how this is supposed to help*.

Despite the calm at her stand, Bell Burnell was uncertain whether the resolution, after final tweaks, would pass muster. “It’s very hard to predict how it will go this afternoon,” she said.

We’re about to find out. The closing ceremony is beginning now, with some beautiful a cappella singing. The vote should be done by 4pm. (First we have to sit through votes on a few other uncontroversial resolutions.) I’ll post news as it happens.

*Update: the quotes, I have since learnt, are intended to go around both dwarf and planet to give ‘dwarf planet’, which makes slightly more sense.


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