BBC Future Gets It Wrong on Both Planet X and Pluto

The BBC Future article "If Planet Nine Exists, Why Has No One Seen It," published on February 16, 2021, unfortunately presents a very biased view of the ongoing planet debate. Instead of acknowledging the continuing debate over Pluto's planet status and how to define the term "planet," the article presents only the position of the International Astronomical Union as if it were a done deal, which it is not.

Just four percent of the IAU voted on the controversial 2006 demotion of Pluto, and their decision was immediately rejected in a formal petition by an equal number of professional planetary scientists. Yet nowhere is this mentioned in the article. Instead, the writer simply makes the biased statement, "the ninth planet was no more" regarding the aftermath of the IAU 2006 vote, completely ignoring the fact that the majority of planetary scientists reject that decision to this day.

In this Science Direct paper, planetary scientist Phil Metzger discusses the history of planetary classification and the fact that planetary scientists do not use the IAU definition in their peer-reviewed published papers.

Those who reject Pluto's planet status completely ignore the stunning revelations of active geology and planetary processes on Pluto by the New Horizons probe in 2015.

Nowhere does the article mention the alternative geophysical planet definition, presented by planetary scientist Kirby Runyon at the Lunar and Planetary Sciences conference in 2017 and in a 2018 article in Astronomy magazine. This definition views dwarf planets as a subclass of planets and therefore keeps Pluto, Ceres, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris in the planet list. It is the definition preferred and used by most planetary scientists.

Also problematic is the repeated quoting of Mike Brown, a controversial figure who represents just one side in this debate. Brown unprofessionally promotes himself as the man who "killed" Pluto, and it is disappointing to see the writer repeat this without question and even promote his twitter account. Brown was one of a team of three who discovered Eris, but he did not "kill" planet Pluto, and journalists should not be promoting this nonsense. Notably, the other two members of the discovery team reject the IAU planet definition in favor of the geophysical one.

Brown controversially named the hypothetical planet in question "Planet Nine" to further promote the self-serving notion that he "killed" planet Pluto. In 2018, a group of planetary scientists formally objected to this term in their publication Planetary Science Exploration Newsletter because of its inherent bias. There, they noted that the appropriate professional term for a hypothesized but undiscovered planet is "Planet X," with "X" referring to the unknown, not the number 10.

It is unfortunate that some scientists continue to mislead the public by promulgating their own biased positions as fact, without even acknowledging the existence of a debate or of other legitimate scientific positions. I urge the BBC to be more vigilant in the future when it comes to the planet definition debate to use neutral language that acknowledges the fact that this issue is not settled but remains an ongoing debate in the science community.

I Heart Pluto at 91

Pluto Discovery Image

Today is the 91st anniversary of Pluto’s discovery by Clyde Tombaugh on February 18, 1930, and in honor of the occasion, the Lowell Observatory held an amazing six-night virtual “I Heart Pluto” festival that just concluded.

For those who may have missed the live events, all programs and presentations area available for viewing on the Lowell Observatory’s YouTube channel.

This was not the observatory’s first “I Heart Pluto” celebration, but it was the first virtual one and therefore the first I attended. The fact that people around the world could attend is a silver lining to a very difficult time, and I hope that even once live events resume, Lowell will do a livestream virtual event alongside the in-person one.

Over the last six nights, there was a lot of discussion of “Pluto culture,” of Pluto’s far-reaching impact, not just in science but in the arts and humanities as well. Pluto artwork is on display and for sale at the I Heart Pluto website.

And in a fortuitous coincidence, NASA’s Perseverance rover successfully touched down on Mars on this 91st anniversary of Pluto’s discovery.

Yes, Pluto culture is a thing. It is a beautiful, inspiring thing, centered on a tiny planet that touches both minds and hearts. Pluto has a pull on so many people; it fascinates and inspires in an intangible way that is difficult to put into words. That type of inspiration is what produces not just great science but also amazing art, music, writing, etc. Once it’s in your blood, it stays forever.

As noted in the event’s closing discussion, the ridiculous IAU vote in 2006, followed by New Horizons’ flyby in 2015, only served to make Pluto more beloved and more popular.

What makes Pluto have lasting power as an astronomical rock star? Is it the fact that it, its discoverer, and the spacecraft that revealed it to the world are plucky underdogs who cannot be kept down? Is it the beauty of its many exotic terrains revealed by New Horizons? Is it that an object that was supposed to be a dead rock turned out to be so geologically active?

Or is it all of these things and more, waiting for us at the frontiers of the solar system?

Ninety-one years ago, in the depths of the Great Depression, people found hope and promise in the unlikely discovery of a new planet. In many ways, today’s pandemic and economic crisis are a reflection of the despair and deprivation so many experienced at that time. On this day of discovery, the success of a very complex maneuver that landed a robotic probe on the Red Planet, and the continued inspiration Pluto is to so many once more offer hope and promise even in the darkest of times.