In The Field

IAU: the verdict is…

At last, the vote. Astronomers waived little yellow cards in the air to indicate their support for resolution 5A – that’s the one that defines planets, ‘dwarf’ planets and other solar system bodies. A few people waived their cards to vote the resolution down, a few obstained.

A moment’s hesitation from the chair: “I believe the resolution is clearly carried.”

Amazing! A decision! I wouldn’t have predicted that at the week’s beginning.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell dived under the table on stage to demonstrate where this left us. Out came a blue balloon – to represent the eight planets. A box of cereal and a stuffed Disney Pluto stood in for the ‘dwarf’ planets, then something lumpy for everything else, the small solar-system bodies.

Next, a vote on resolution 5B. Do we have classical planets, and ‘dwarf’ planets, giving us two classes of planets, with a total of 12 or more. This would make “planet” an umbrella term: out came an umbrella labelled “planets”. What a photo opportunity.

Controversy courts this part of the definition because some astronomers don’t like the idea that debris rings like the asteroid belt, and as found at the edge of our solar system, could harbour planets. They’re counting the votes.

“We looked into the cost of electronic voting but dec the money was better spent on scientific meetings,” quipped the chair.

They counted 91 in favour. The number against was overwhelming — no need to count again.

“It’s clear that Res 5b is not passed,” the chair reported. So, we have eight planets only. Pluto is out.

Will Pluto at least be allowed to give its name to a crowd of “plutonian” objects? That’s what gets decided next. (Excuse my brevity, I’m trying to listen.)

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