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Is Pluto a planet? The votes are in
On Sept. 18, 2014, audience members who attended the Observatory Night talk "What is a Planet?" voted to choose one of three possible definitions for a planet. The result: a planet is "the smallest spherical lump of matter than formed around stars or stellar remnants," and Pluto IS a planet! Photo courtesy Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics.


CAMBRIDGE, MASS.- What is a planet? For generations of kids the answer was easy. A big ball of rock or gas that orbited our Sun, and there were nine of them in our solar system. But then astronomers started finding more Pluto-sized objects orbiting beyond Neptune. Then they found Jupiter-sized objects circling distant stars, first by the handful and then by the hundreds. Suddenly the answer wasn’t so easy. Were all these newfound things planets?

Since the International Astronomical Union is in charge of naming these newly discovered worlds, they tackled the question at their 2006 meeting. They tried to come up with a definition of a planet that everyone could agree on. But the astronomers couldn’t agree. In the end, they voted and picked a definition that they thought would work.

The current, official definition says that a planet is a celestial body that:

1. is in orbit around the Sun,

2. is round or nearly round, and

3. has “cleared the neighborhood” around its orbit.

But this definition baffled the public and classrooms around the country. For one thing, it only applied to planets in our solar system. What about all those exoplanets orbiting other stars? Are they planets? And Pluto was booted from the planet club and called a dwarf planet. Is a dwarf planet a small planet? Not according to the IAU. Even though a dwarf fruit tree is still a small fruit tree, and a dwarf hamster is still a small hamster.

Eight years later, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics decided to revisit the question of “what is a planet?” On September 18, we hosted a debate among three leading experts in planetary science, each of whom presented their case as to what a planet is or isn’t. The goal: to find a definition that the eager public audience could agree on.

Science historian Dr. Owen Gingerich, who chaired the IAU planet definition committee, presented the historical viewpoint. Dr. Gareth Williams, associate director of the Minor Planet Center, presented the IAU’s viewpoint. And Dr. Dimitar Sasselov, director of the Harvard Origins of Life Initiative, presented the exoplanet scientist’s viewpoint.

Gingerich argued that “a planet is a culturally defined word that changes over time,” and that Pluto is a planet. Williams defended the IAU definition, which declares that Pluto is not a planet. And Sasselov defined a planet as “the smallest spherical lump of matter that formed around stars or stellar remnants,” which means Pluto is a planet.

After these experts made their best case, the audience got to vote on what a planet is or isn’t and whether Pluto is in or out. The results are in, with no hanging chads in sight.

According to the audience, Sasselov’s definition won the day, and Pluto IS a planet.






Today's News

September 29, 2014

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Most extensive UK exhibition to date by celebrated Chinese artist Ai Weiwei opens at Blenheim Palace

First major retrospective of Anselm Kiefer's work opens at the Royal Academy of Arts

One-person exhibition of recent work by Mona Hatoum on view at Alexander and Bonin

Arthur Boyd like you've never seen him before at the National Gallery of Australia

Belgian musician Tom Barman curates fall exhibition at Kunsthal KAdE in Amersfoort

Europe, Europe: Exhibition at Astrup Fearnley Museet includes works by more than 40 artists

Exhibition at Lennon, Weinberg, Inc. presents Harriet Korman's lively yet focused work

'Jacob Dahlgren: Abstract Space in Concrete Terms' curated by Paul McAree on view at Rua Red

Nina Canell's first solo exhibition in Sweden opens at Moderna Museet in Stockholm

First major solo show in the UK by the Vietnamese-American photographer An-My Lê on view at MK Gallery

Echoes of the past at Ukraine's rebel-held WWII monument

Exhibition at Vadehra Art Gallery brings together a group of Indian and international photographers

Powerhouse Museum unveils its largest jewellery exhibition yet

Smithsonian Books releases a book that explores the men who are a 'Heartbeat away from the Presidency'

Is Pluto a planet? The votes are in

Plasticine-made Grumildos created by Peruvian artist Ety Fefer on view at the Museum of Sex

Montserrat Gallery's exhibiting artist Franklin Evans is making work about making work in current exhibit

Publication Studio sets up shop at the Williams College Museum of Art

Conception Gallery presents 'Brink'

Priscila Fernandes transforms Fundaciˇ Joan Mirˇ's Espai 13 into a classroom

New body of work by Vikky Alexander on view at Wilding Cran Gallery

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