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Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Dwarf Planets and the Law

Astronmers, doing astronomy.
(Photo: IAU / Lars Holm Nielsen)

The practice of astronomy and the practice of law are virtually the same, except that what lawyers do is a lot less silly.

Well, that's the only conclusion you can draw from reflecting upon the work of the International Astronomical Union (IAU). This summer marks the fifth anniversary of the IAU's demotion of Pluto to the status of "dwarf planet." The final determination of that matter was made on August 24, 2006 under the Resolutions B5 and B6 of the 26th General Assembly. What amazes me about it is not the outcome of the vote, but the fact that there was a vote at all.

I find it astounding that, as a profession, astronomers have submitted themselves to the jurisdiction of what is essentially a make-believe government. What's really crazy is that not only do astronomers recognize some sort of sovereign authority in the IAU, so do actual lawmakers.

The legislature of New Mexico passed a resolution decreeing that "as Pluto passes overhead through New Mexico's excellent night skies, it be declared a planet."

Are you kidding me? Think about what the New Mexico legislature is saying here: (1) The IAU can legislate scientific fact. (2) The New Mexico legislature can overrule the IAU as to matters of scientific fact. (3) But (incredibly!) only when Pluto is in New Mexico's jurisdiction!!!!!!!!!

Holy freaking cow. Okay, well, I've got to jump off the blog now. I need to finish my grant application. I'm working on a space probe that will beam back to Earth the clearest pictures we've ever had of the rule against perpetuities.

Posted by Eric E. Johnson on July 12, 2011 at 04:36 PM in Science | Permalink


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Okay, Andrew. I understand your point that the definitions and conventions aren't really matters of scientific fact. But you do admit that whether or not Pluto meets those definitions and conventions is a matter of scientific fact. So, then, you've got to agree that the IAU purported to legislate scientific fact with Resolution 6B, which says, "Pluto is a 'dwarf planet' by the above definition ... "

No? Will you agree that this is sublimely silly, or what?

Posted by: Eric E. Johnson | Jul 13, 2011 6:07:50 PM

Here is a link to Kim Ferzan's very interesting paper (technically, a book review) on Pluto and the law:

Posted by: Adam Kolber | Jul 13, 2011 4:06:02 AM

I don't find the IAU as ridiculous as you do: it allows for a formal way to develop definitions and conventions (which aren't really a matter of 'scientific fact;' whether or not Pluto meets those definitions and conventions is a fact, but I digress.)

But I wholeheartedly agree that New Mexico is crazy.

Posted by: Andrew MacKie-Mason | Jul 12, 2011 7:17:53 PM

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