June 15th, 2007


Pluto and Eris: The Discussion Continues

Yesterday, Science published a paper by Michael E. Brown and Emily Schaller, reporting that Eris is actually more massive than Pluto, which would imply that if Pluto were to be considered a planet, Eris would have to be one as well. Anne Minard wrote an article on this discovery for the National Geographic News, and as it so happens she called me to get my opinion as the president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet (SP3).

Minard's article can be found at Pluto Smaller Than Nearby Dwarf Planet Eris, Study Finds. I'm actually found on page 2, and the article pretty much sums up where I stand:

Michael A. Burstein is president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet, which goes by the acronym SP3. The group of astronomy buffs formed in the spring of 2006, when rumors first started circulating that Pluto was in trouble.

Burstein preferred the IAU's initial idea for a planet definition, which was never voted upon at their solar-system-shattering meeting last August.

By that definition—that a planet should directly orbit a star and be massive enough to be round—Pluto would still be a planet, as would dwarf planets Eris and Ceres, a large, round asteroid orbiting near Jupiter.

It's fine if we end up with 50 or even 100 planets as new objects are discovered, Burstein said. We could keep the math easy by calling the old guard, including Pluto, "classical planets," he added.

For now, Burstein's group is laying low to see what the pros do—under the guidance of New Horizons' Alan Stern. Stern is leading the charge of professional astronomers to dismiss the IAU's ruling.

"People just aren't using the IAU definition because it's so substantially flawed," he said. "Even their own members, and I'm one, aren't using the IAU definition."

The debate over a better definition was a hot topic at the April meeting of the European Geophysical Union. And it's already part of the agenda for the February 2008 meeting of the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

More Kistlerian Goodness

Many of you know that as a comic book fan, I've recommended the wonderful in-depth articles by Alan Kistler over on the Monitor Duty website. I've also enjoyed his series of articles on Doctor Who.

I'm delighted to discover that Mr. Kistler (okay, Alan) has begun a new series of articles, under the heading In a Nutshell. As Mr. Kistler himself puts it:

It occurs to me that for some topics, people would like a short, more concise and by-the-basics approach so that they can just get a quick idea of what the character is about....

So, I'm starting a new thing called "IN A NUTSHELL" which is basically a 2-6 page explanation of what the subject involves. More detailed than Wikipedia, but not as long-winded as my larger articles.

He's got articles up on Doctor Who and the New Gods, and hopefully more will be coming soon. Go read and enjoy.

This Day in History, 1904: General Slocum Tragedy

Today is the 103rd anniversary of the General Slocum fire, the worst one-day disaster in New York City before 9/11. For some reason, not many people learn about it when they study history. (On a personal note, it's the central event of my novella "Time Ablaze," which was nominated for the Hugo Award.)

Historian Ed O'Donnell, author of the book SHIP ABLAZE, has a webpage about the Slocum, and I'll quote from it here:

"Ask any New Yorker to name the city’s greatest disaster before September 11, 2001 and invariably they offer the same answer: the Triangle Shirtwaist factory fire of 1911. That tragic event garnered international headlines as 146 young immigrant women lost their lives in an unsafe garment factory. Yet even though it is certainly Gotham’s most famous disaster, it runs a distant second to a much larger catastrophe which occurred only seven years earlier. On June 15, 1904, more than 1,000 people died when their steamship, the General Slocum, burst into flames while moving up the East River. It was the second-most deadly fire (after the Peshtigo fire of 1871) and most deadly peacetime maritime disaster in American history."

For more information about the tragedy, see O'Donnell's excellent webpage about the tragedy, The General Slocum Disaster, and also the Wikipedia entry on the General Slocum.