As I noted over on the [ profile] savepluto LiveJournal blog, six years ago today the New Horizons spacecraft was launched toward Pluto. Hard to believe we're only three and a half years away from seeing Pluto up close...
Over on the [ profile] savepluto blog, the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet (or SP3) marks the fifth anniversary of Pluto's demotion:

Five Years Ago Today, Pluto Was Demoted

Go read it and contemplate the universe we live in.
Last night, thanks to the Boston Skeptics organization, Nomi and I got to meet Mike Brown, the man who discovered Eris and indirectly led to the demotion of Pluto's status as a planet.

Nomi S. Burstein, Mike Brown, Michael A. Burstein Nomi S. Burstein, Mike Brown, Michael A. Burstein
Photo ©2011 D. Moskowitz. All rights reserved.

The Boston Skeptics had arranged for Mike Brown to give a talk last night at Tommy Doyle's in Cambridge. We had only found out about the talk on Tuesday morning, but thanks to a good friend who volunteered to put our kids to bed, we managed to clear our schedule to attend. But when the National Weather Service predicted a significant snowfall starting yesterday afternoon, we weren't sure if we were going to make it to the lecture.

The roads turned out to be clear, and we made it to the pub just as things were getting started at 7 pm. Brown was already there, and willing to sign books even before his talk began. We brought our copy of his book over to him and introduced ourselves. It turned out he had already heard of us and was as delighted to meet us as we were to meet him. He was very gracious and personable, and his talk demonstrated quite clearly why he had won a teaching award.

The space was somewhat small and crowded, and not designed very well for his talk, I'm afraid. The screen for his presentation slides didn't face the main body of the room, so it was hard for us to see. Having arrived just at 7 pm, Nomi and I had difficulty finding seating, but a nice scientist named Jason allowed us to sit at the table with him and his two friends.

Brown discussed his research in the outer solar system. He had a graphic that showed just how big in comparison all the planets are to each other and to the objects in the Kuiper Belt, making it clear why Pluto is such an outlier. He talked about the telescopes at Palomar Observatory that they use to photograph the sky, and how they look for those tiny objects that are so far away. Back when Clyde Tombaugh found Pluto, Tombaugh used a blink comparator, a device that allowed him to compare two photos of the same portion of sky from two different nights to see if any points of light had moved. Brown relied on something similar, except in his case a computer went through a slew of photos and would present him with likely candidates in his morning email. I wonder what Tombaugh would have thought of that.

Brown seemed very respectful of those of us who still feel that Pluto should be considered a planet. He understands where the impulse comes from, and in a way, if Pluto were still a planet it would be better for him. After all, he'd be able to go down in history as the discoverer of the tenth planet (and eleventh, and twelfth, and thirteenth, etc.) Instead, he's going to be the discoverer of a lot of astronomical bodies that he himself points out are rather insignificant to the solar system.

Although he feels that Pluto should not be a planet, it turns out we do have a few points of agreement. He and we both feel that the term "dwarf planet" is a bad one, and he also has issues with the way the term "planet" is currently being defined by the IAU.

Brown also spun a brief tale of alternate history that, as a science fiction writer, I found fascinating. He pointed out that the discovery of bodies like Pluto, Eris, and Sedna relies a lot on the good luck of looking in the right place at the right time. He suggested that had Eris's orbit been different, and had it been discovered only a few years after Pluto, that perhaps we wouldn't have this controversy over Pluto's status today. After all, when Ceres was discovered in 1801 it was thought to be a planet, but as soon as many other small bodies were discovered nearby it got demoted as well and became known as the largest asteroid instead. Had Tombaugh or others managed to find other Pluto-like objects in the outer solar system in the early twentieth century, then perhaps we wouldn't have this debate today. But, Brown acknowledges, he does prefer what really did happen, as otherwise he wouldn't have been the discoverer of Eris.

All in all, a lovely evening, and it was wonderful to have the chance to meet him.

Mike Brown's Message to Supporters of Pluto Mike Brown's Message to Supporters of Pluto
Photo ©2011 M. Burstein. All rights reserved.

As I noted over on the [ profile] savepluto blog, Nomi and I plan to be at the Mike Brown lecture tomorrow night in Cambridge, assuming the weather cooperates.

Mike Brown, the astronomer who discovered Eris and who didn't necessarily want to kill Pluto but ended up doing so, will be speaking at Tommy Doyles Irish Pub & Restaurant at 96 Winthrop St. in Harvard Square tomorrow night starting at 7 pm. He will be lecturing on his new book "How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming." The president and vice-president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto As a Planet will be there to show our support for Pluto...and to get our copy of the book signed. :-)

People tend to assume we go to these talks with large signs protesting the demotion of Pluto. In reality, we know that in the end, people like Mike Brown and Neil deGrasse Tyson are on the same side as we are, at least for the important part, which is promoting astronomy among the general public. Tyson can testify to how respectful we were at his talk a few years ago, and how delighted we were to meet him. We're looking forward to meeting Mike Brown tomorrow night.
Tonight's Nova episode, "The Pluto Files," follows Neil deGrasse Tyson around as he discusses Pluto's status with various people all over the country. I thought that it would be a good time to link people back to my post a year ago, when Nomi and I confronted Dr. Tyson in our role as the main officers of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet:

Mabfan's Musings: Talk: Neil deGrasse Tyson and the Demotion of Pluto (February 27, 2009)

If you don't want to go back to the post, here are some of the relevant pictures from that fateful night:

Back, back! Back, back!
Neil deGrasse Tyson defends himself from the defenders of Pluto. Photo copyright ©2009 by SP3.

Dr. Tyson's Message to Supporters of Pluto Dr. Tyson's Message to Supporters of Pluto
Photo copyright ©2009 by SP3.

But We All Share a Love for Astronomy! But We All Share a Love for Astronomy!
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Burstein, and Nomi S. Burstein may disagree on Pluto, but we all agree that Dr. Tyson is a gentleman. Photo copyright ©2009 by SP3.

As reported over on the SP3 blog at Hubble Images of Pluto, yesterday, NASA released some new images of Pluto taken with the Hubble Space Telescope, that reveal Pluto to be "a complex-looking and variegated world with white, dark-orange, and charcoal-black terrain." Pluto's many changes show it to be "not simply a ball of ice and rock but a dynamic world that undergoes dramatic atmospheric changes."

Follow the link above to other links to NASA's Hubble photos of Pluto, including a video.
Sean P. Fodera, the New York Regional Coordinator of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as Planet, visited his son's classroom to discuss Pluto and blogs about it in My Presentation on Pluto's Planetary Status:

I briefly explained the history of how planets get discovered, and how improving technology has made it easier to find objects in space. They were amazed that anyone could have spotted Pluto from Earth with 1930s telescope technology, or that comparing fuzzy photos could work for detecting the far-off planet....

I discussed the controversy over Pluto's demotion, explaining how the new definition of planet is not accurate, and how less than 5% of the IAU actually voted on the matter. The students had trouble understanding the voting part of it, since they all seem to assume that if something is voted on, it must be fair. So, I presented an example. "Let's say that when your teacher and I went to this school, it was decided that every year the 6th grade class would get to go to the circus. Now, years later, someone decides to take a vote about whether to keep going on the circus trip. Instead of all 50 of you voting, only three of you vote. One votes 'yes', and two vote 'no'. 'No' wins, but it's not exactly a fair vote, is it? That's what happened to Pluto." Eyes lit up, and lot of heads started shaking.

Go read!
Last night, Nomi and I met Dr. Neil deGrasse Tyson, the director of the Hayden Planetarium, for the second time. As I noted earlier, Tyson was speaking at the Newton Free Library to promote his new book The Pluto Files, which is all about his role in the controversy that led to the demotion of Pluto. Since Nomi and I are, respectively, the vice-president and president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet, also known as SP3, we felt compelled to attend.

Back, back! Back, back!
Neil deGrasse Tyson defends himself from the defenders of Pluto. Photo copyright ©2009 by SP3.

Read more... )

I shook hands with Dr. Tyson after we were done, and I could tell that he'd been signing a lot of books. It kind of reminded me of my own publication party back in November.

We said good-bye to Melissa, and Andrew drove Nomi and me home. All in all, a nice start to my birthday weekend.

As for Dr. Tyson and Pluto... well, the IAU has another General Assembly this summer, in Rio de Jainero, Brazil. I suspect Dr. Alan Stern will be there to push for a restoration of Pluto's status. We'll see what happens.

But We All Share a Love for Astronomy! But We All Share a Love for Astronomy!
Neil deGrasse Tyson, Michael A. Burstein, and Nomi S. Burstein may disagree on Pluto, but we all agree that Dr. Tyson is a gentleman. Photo copyright ©2009 by SP3.

Copyright ©2009 by Michael A. Burstein.
The Illinois State Legislature is taking on the cause of Pluto, according to an article in the Daily Herald:

Like some sort of rulers of the universe, state lawmakers are considering restoring little Pluto's planetary status, casting aside the scientific community's 2006 decision downgrading the distant ice ball.

An Illinois Senate committee on Thursday unanimously supported planet Pluto and declaring March 13 "Pluto Day." The idea now moves to the full Senate for a vote.

See Pluto Politics Hits Springfield for the full story.

(Thanks to fellow traveler [ profile] ffoeg for the tip.)
I've been meaning to let people know about two upcoming events in the Boston area that might be of interest. By an odd coincidence, both of them are happening right around my birthday.

The first event is an appearance by none other than Neil deGrasse Tyson, the demoter of Pluto, at the Newton Free Library. Tyson will be speaking on Thursday, February 27th at 7:30 pm and then signing copies of his new book The Pluto Files. Nomi and I plan to be there to hear him speak, get the book signed, and maybe (if he's willing) get a picture taken with him.

More information on the event can be found at this link.

(Our thanks to [ profile] 530nm330hz for bringing this to our attention.)

The second event is a special shabbaton taking place at our shul. Rabbi Yitzchok Breitowitz, who is the rabbi at the Woodside Synagogue in Silver Spring, Maryland, and a tenured professor at the Maryland School of Law, is coming for the weekend of February 27-March 1. He'll be giving a variety of talks on the intersection of Jewish law and secular law, and the topics include ethical behavior in the marketplace and stem cell research.

More information on the event can be found at this link.

(Thanks to [ profile] marsgov for pointing this out. The original XKCD cartoon can be found at
Exactly one year ago today, the International Astronomical Union, at their General Assembly in Prague, voted to demote Pluto from planet to dwarf planet.

(An excellent post about the public's reaction since can be found at The Enduring Power of Pluto.)
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.
A year ago today, NASA launched the New Horizons spacecraft to Pluto. Therefore, this is a good time to remind folks about The Great Pluto Debate coming up on February 4.

I know that sometimes this journal might seem like all Pluto, all the time, even though we have the [ profile] savepluto LiveJournal for Pluto news. But I want to mention the Debate here, because the event will be of interest to anyone fascinated by astronomy and our solar system. It's not just for Pluto supporters, but for anyone interested in the question of how we should classify Pluto.

The flyer for the event is posted at I have to say that I am very impressed by what the Clay Center Observatory managed to do. Panelists for the debate include Owen Gingerich, the chair of the IAU Planet Definition Committee, and Brian Marsden, the Director of the Minor Planets Center. Both of these gentleman have agreed to come over from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics to participate, which boggles my mind as much as it delights me.

I'm asking for your help in publicizing it, especially if you're local to Boston. If you're a teacher or a parent, please bring this event to the attention of your school. The Debate is appropriate for ages 8 and up, and schools may find it valuable to send their students.

And if you're interested in attending, please go to and make sure to register for the event. Seating is limited, so register as early as you can.
As I mentioned recently, I was just interviewed for a podcast.

Paul Levinson, who does the Light On Light Through podcast among others, decided to devote Episode 17, released on Saturday 1/13/07, to the status of Pluto. Paul asked me if I would be willing to come on in my capacity as the president of the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet to discuss what the International Astronomical Union did to Pluto and what might happen next.

Even if you've read some of what I've written before on the subject, you might want to download the podcast, since Paul does a good job of asking the questions that are on everyone's mind. You can click on the link above, or you can go directly to Light On Light Through: What on Earth Are They Doing to Poor Pluto?. Both SF Signal and Locus picked up the news for their "SF Tidbits" and "Blinks" sections respectively, so I guess it has some significance.

Also, on the podcast, I make the first public announcement regarding the lineup we have for "The Great Pluto Debate!" taking place at the Clay Center Observatory in Brookline, Massachusetts on the afternoon of February 4. I'll be posting more about this soon, but if you download the podcast, you'll get the news sooner.
As usual for Martin Luther King Day weekend, [ profile] gnomi and I attended the Arisia science fiction convention. This year, the convention moved to a smaller hotel, the Hyatt Regency in Cambridge. (Those of you who are local might know it as the ziggurat.) In general, we had a good time, but it does make it hard to catch up on LiveJournal.

Nomi has posted Arisia in a Nutshell, By the Numbers, but if you want a slightly more descriptive summary of what we did, from my perspective, read on.

Read more... )

And that was our Arisia. We saw some friends as we left, then ate dinner at Taam China with folks who were in for the convention (and again, you all know who you are).
I'm getting a birthday present from NASA!

On February 28th, the day after my birthday, the New Horizons probe will make its closest approach to Jupiter. If you've been reading my blog, you're probably aware that New Horizons is the spacecraft launched almost a year ago, bound for the planet (yes, I say planet) Pluto.

New Horizons started approaching Jupiter for its gravity assist a while back, and what's the point of passing by Jupiter without taking a few pictures? As Alan Stern, the principal investigator of the New Horizons mission, said, "We're the only train going to Jupiter between '03 and 2016." The Galileo probe finished its mission back in 2003, and the next mission to Jupiter isn't planned to reach the planet until 2016.

Of course, New Horizons will be taking lots of data before my birthday. In fact, NASA is planning its first press conference with new images of Jupiter for January 18th -- the day after Nomi's birthday.

Hmmm. I wonder if this has anything to do with our desire to keep Pluto a planet? Is it possible that Stern and NASA planned this as a secret thank-you? After all, they did first attempt to launch New Horizons on Nomi's birthday last year, and it was only bad weather that delayed the launch to January 19.

Then again, it's probably all just a huge coincidence.

(See the article "Pluto probe begins close-up study of Jupiter" by Kelly Young from the New Scientist Space website for more information.)
I'm surfacing briefly while on vacation just to note that the Brookline TAB has published their first part of The Brookline TAB 10: 2006. This is their list of the top ten Brookline newsmakers for the past year, and, um, Nomi and I are on it:

Just when you thought the solar system was safe, a planet gets laid off.

But lucky for the universe, there are two local — rather, intergalactic — crusaders fighting for the little guy.

Following the International Astronomical Union’s decision to strip Pluto of its planetary status this summer and redefine it as a “dwarf planet,” one Coolidge Corner couple took action...

Other honorees include the Community Preservation Act, Pat Norling, Deb Goldberg and Andrea Silbert, and Zathmary's, etc.

Apparently, Nomi and I rank up there with the two Brookline women who ran for Lieutenant Governor and the gourmet food shop that closed overnight.

We thank the Brookline TAB for recognizing us and our campaign for Pluto, even while we maintain an air of detached bemusement.
To start with, I'd like to let [ profile] lizziebelle, [ profile] xochitl42, [ profile] michelel72, and [ profile] sharonaf know that I'm not ignoring your requests in response to my post about taking the Grub Street seminar. The problem is that the scene I wrote was in longhand, and it would take me some time to type it up in order to post it to the blog. That's why I offered to post it if "enough people" wanted to read it. Sadly, if only four people are really interested, it probably doesn't make sense for me to type it up right away. I will try to do it for you soon, and perhaps send it to you by email, but please understand that it will take me a while.

On Friday, a group of my co-workers and I took one of our retiring colleagues out to lunch. The colleague, P., has organized a weekly departmental political discussion lunch for many years, and we wanted to thank her for all her efforts in doing so. So even though the department is having a party and a lunch in her honor later this month, those of us who have attended her political lunches wanted to do something extra.

We took her out, talked about how she ended up running these lunches, and thanked her for how well she has kept them bipartisan. P.'s genius has been in creating an environment where we can all disagree with each other respectfully, and maybe learn something from each other as we discuss and debate. We presented her with a few gifts, including two adorable stuffed animals, a Democratic donkey and a Republican elephant, which are pictured here.

Friday night and Saturday were shabbat, of course. Ever since the beginning of 5767, Nomi and I have been davening regularly at Kadimah-Toras Moshe (which I call KTM but everyone else seems to call Kadimah) in Brighton. It's a friendly shul, and one where we do feel welcome. Nomi's been helping set up the kiddush every week, so she's become a de facto member of the kiddush committee. And for the second week in a row, we found ourselves talking about Pluto during kiddush, because people saw us on television. There's more I've considered posting about Jewish topics, but some it is personal, this space for a minor announcement.

Saturday night (or motze shabbas), Nomi and I went to a birthday party for two friends. Party goers had the option of coming in costume, so we brought Nomi's camera and took a lot of pictures of folks in fancy dress. We met some new friends, reconnected with some old friends, and had a great time.

Sunday was another day devoted to cleaning up the accumulated clutter in our apartment. As I mentioned before, [ profile] farwing has been helping us out a bit with our cleaning up, and she helped us out again yesterday. First we went out to Target to buy some storage units for DVDs, and then we brought them home and Nomi built them. In the meantime, [ profile] farwing and I cleaned up the area around the television set and the right hand back corner of the living room, near the heater. The place continues to look much, much better. We still have plenty more to do, but I'm very pleased with our progress.

I'm also pleased with our new commitment to stop clutter from happening before it starts. With some simple rules (such as, "Thou shalt bring down the paper recycling the instant it fills this one particular bin") we've managed to curb some of our natural tendencies to "get to it later." I'm very proud of both of us for this one.

Copyright © Michael A. Burstein
As mentioned a couple of days ago, [personal profile] gnomi and I were interviewed by CBS4 News about our fight to save Pluto.  They ran the interview last night.  The video is here, with a partial transcript here.  The reporter, Ken Barlow, gave a plug for the Clay Center Observatory and for our upcoming Save Pluto Day observances on 4 February 2007.

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