An orbital is the orbit (energy level) in which the electron spins around an atom. The arrangement of electrons in the outer orbitals determines the physical and chemical char…acteristics of an element. (MORE)
An orbital is the region around the nucleus where an electron can be found. One cannot really predict the position of an electron but one can surely determine the probability… of spotting an electron in a particular region (MORE)
Who cares? .
Many people. This is one of the questions that people ask very often. Many branches of science require a precise classification scheme, otherwise people cannot… talk to each other effectively. Astronomy is no different. We need a definition for the word "planet"..
Who decides? .
Scientists do. You may have heard people promoting a definition based on "tradition" or "culture". That's cute, but it doesn't work. Your cultural background may be quite different from my cultural background, and therefore a cultural definition is not unique. And we did not resort to pop culture to define "triangle", "energy", or "acid". Most people agree that it's a good idea to let biologists provide the definition for "bacteria" and "viruses". Scientists must provide precise definitions for scientific terms. It's not only their job, it's their responsibility..
The International Astronomical Union (IAU) is an organization of over 9,000 professional astronomers. It is the community of experts that is best suited to provide the definition that we need for "planet"..
Why now? .
There have been two important developments in our knowledge of "planetary systems" in the last decade or so: the discovery of celestial bodies orbiting stars other than the sun, and the discovery of a vast belt of small bodies orbiting the sun beyond Neptune. These recent developments make it pressing to arrive at a proper definition for the word "planet"..
What happened when Pluto was discovered? .
In 1930 staff at the Lowell Observatory issued a circular entitled "Discovery of a solar system body apparently trans-neptunian" for distribution to astronomers around the world. The announcement describes a new "object" and makes no claim of a planet discovery (see the full text from the Lowell Observatory archives here ). This object later became known as Pluto..
The term "trans-neptunian" (literally "beyond Neptune") is used today to represent a very large number of objects that orbit the Sun beyond the orbit of Neptune. This population is also referred to as the Kuiper belt or Edgeworth-Kuiper belt..
What has changed? .
The two figures below show the trajectory of objects in the plane of the solar system (the sun is at the center, but it is not shown). The figures compare our knowledge at the time of Pluto's discovery and our knowledge today. The orbits of the four Jovian planets (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune) are drawn in blue, the orbit of Pluto in red, and the orbit of about 800 of Pluto's friends in green. Based on these diagrams one can understand how astronomers in 1930 felt that Pluto was an exceptional object and decided to call it a planet. One can also easily understand how the majority of astronomers today recognize Pluto as a large member of a vast population of small bodies beyond Neptune..
Two figures contrasting our knowledge at the time of Pluto's discovery and our knowledge today..
Is Pluto a planet? .
The best illustration of the fact that Pluto is a very different animal than the eight planets was published by Steven Soter in the Astronomical Journal in 2006. The figure clearly shows that some bodies are capable of clearing their orbit, whereas other bodies are not. (This orbit-clearing criterion is ultimately what the IAU decided to use in its definition of a planet. It's a criterion based on dynamics and not geology. We define "moons" based on their dynamics and not their geology)..
There are many things that make Pluto quite different from the planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. The first difference is fundamental, and makes it very hard to classify Pluto with the rest of the major planets:.
Unlike any of the planets, Pluto is embedded in a vast swarm of small bodies, just like the asteroid Ceres in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. Pluto has many friends orbiting nearby, which is not the case for any of the major planets. The major planets have accumulated, captured, or ejected all the mass in their immediate proximity. Pluto and Ceres have not been able to do that, so it is quite legitimate to question their planetary status. .
Pluto's orbit deviates significantly from a perfect circle while the major planets have quasi-circular orbits. Pluto's orbit is also considerably tilted compared to the orbits of the major planets. (Note that the orbits of Mercury and of some extra-solar planets also deviate from a perfect circle). .
Pluto is much smaller than the major planets. Its mass is only 0.2% of the Earth's mass, and 100,000 times less than the mass of Jupiter. .
Some who argued for maintaining Pluto as a major planet often proposed the following arguments:.
Pluto has a tiny atmosphere. Several moons of the Jovian planets have an atmosphere, so the presence of an atmosphere is not a distinctive feature of major planets. .
Pluto has satellites. Many small asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects have satellites, so the presence of a satellite is not a distinctive feature of major planets. .
The IAU decided that Pluto is not a planet! .
That's ok. Science is all about recognizing that earlier ideas may have been wrong. For a long time biologists thought that all microbes causing diseases in humans were bacteria. At some point scientists realized that there was another class of microbe more properly described as viruses, and they had to change their ideas about which bug was what. We are all better off now as the new classification has clarified meaning and has allowed researchers and health professionals to communicate with each other and the public. Astronomers must revise their classification in light of our improved understanding of the solar system. Pluto is now recognized as a large member of the trans-neptunian population..
Will this decision cause a cultural revolution? .
Of course not. Pluto was considered a planet for only 75 years, and questions about its planetary status have been raised for more than 10 years. Compare that to the thousands of years during which schoolchildren were taught that planets revolved around the Earth. When scientists demonstrated that planets revolve around the Sun, people had to make very serious adjustments to their ways of thinking. Some people resisted. People are resistant to change, and this resistance is obvious today in discussions involving Pluto. Ironically, most non-scientists understand the arguments and do not object to a sensible classification of the planets. The most vocal opponents are a small number of astronomers who are thinking emotionally and not rationally about this problem. We must try hard to reassure our colleagues that Pluto is a very exciting object even if it is not considered a planet by the IAU. Note that Ceres, Pallas, and other objects were considered to be planets in the first half of the nineteenth century. People have easily adjusted to their demotion..
How did the IAU arrive at its decision? .
Science prevailed. On Aug 24, 2006, the assembly of IAU members voted overwhelmingly in favor of a resolution that defines three distinct classes of objects in the solar system: planets, dwarf planets, and small solar-system bodies. There are 8 planets in the solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune. A dwarf planet is not a planet (A resolution that would have allowed dwarf planets to fall under the umbrella of planets was strongly defeated by the assembly). The vast majority of astronomers favored rational arguments instead of emotional arguments. Here is the full text of the resolution that defines a planet in the solar system..
Is the language of the resolution perfect? .
No, it's not. In an attempt to draft a resolution that was jargon-free and understandable to the public, some scientific rigor was lost. In particular, the language "clearing its orbit" implies that a planet is the dominant body in its neighbourhood and gravitationally controls its neighbourhood. By a very narrow and misleading application of the definition, some people have claimed that Jupiter or Neptune have not "cleared their orbits". This reflects a very poor understanding of the resolution and of the science behind it..
Should we be concerned about the voting process? .
No. The resolution was passed by an overwhelming majority of those in attendance, following the protocol in place for all IAU resolutions. Any IAU member who had an interest in this issue was welcome to participate in the discussions and vote. Should we have sympathy for those who did not bother to vote and who complain about the outcome? How about presidential elections?.
What's this petition I have been hearing about? .
Some people who were unhappy about the outcome organized a petition to protest the decision by the IAU. The petition was a collossal failure. Only 79 IAU members signed it, and none of the members of the Planet Definition Committee signed it. Neither did Bob Millis or Ted Bowell, director and senior astronomer at Lowell Observatory, where Pluto was discovered. Collecting a bunch of signatures from Pluto enthusiasts cannot be compared to the thoughtful and official decision by the IAU membership..
Will the situation change? .
Although minor corrections to the language of the resolution may occur at the next IAU general assembly in 2009, it is unlikely that the resolution and its outcome will change significantly. From a rational standpoint, it is quite clear that Pluto and Ceres are very different animals than the eight planets..
For further reading .
Dan Green posted an illuminating discussion here ..
Almost ten years ago David H. Freedman wrote an insightful story that captured all the relevant arguments in the debate. The Atlantic Monthly, Feb 1998, vol. 281, no. 2, p. 22..
Jean-Luc Margot Department of Astronomy Cornell University 304 Space Sciences Bldg Ithaca, NY 14853 607 255 1810 firstname.lastname@example.org . (MORE)
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