Top scientists and educators will convene in Maryland
this summer to explore a basic, but
controversial, question: What is a planet?
The Great Planet Debate: Science as Process conference
will be held Aug. 14-16 at
Johns Hopkins' Applied Physics Laboratory and will
include scientific sessions, a debate and an educators
workshop addressing the processes leading to planet
formation and characteristics and the criteria
used to define and categorize planets.
"The time is ripe to hold a scientific conference to
examine how planets form and evolve, both
within our solar system and around other stars, as well as
their physical characteristics," said Mark
Sykes, a conference organizer and director of the Planetary
Science Institute, Tucson, Ariz. "This
event provides researchers with a unique opportunity to
examine all sides of this issue and talk about
it face to face. They can also sit down with educators to
discuss how to broach the planet definition
controversy in the classroom."
In August 2006, the International Astronomical Union,
the organization that assigns names and
classifications to astronomical objects, passed a
resolution defining new criteria for "planets,"
governed by their mass and location. Under the IAU
definition, only eight of the original nine planets
in our solar system qualify, with Pluto and similar bodies
falling into a new category of "dwarf planets."
Segments of the planetary science community objected to the
IAU criteria, and the debate continues
among professional scientists, educators and the public.
Hal Weaver of APL, one of the conference organizers,
said, "No votes will be taken at this
conference to put specific objects in or out of the family
of planets. But we will have advocates of the
IAU definition and proponents of alternative definitions
presenting their cases." This includes a public
debate between Sykes and Neil deGrasse Tyson of the
American Museum of Natural History, New
York, on the afternoon of Aug. 14.
After two days of scientific sessions, the educators
workshop on Aug. 16 will provide a forum on
how the planet debate can be used to spark scientific
inquiry in the classroom.
"This topic provides the perfect opportunity to teach
science as a process, not a collection of
facts," said organizing committee member Keith Noll of the
Space Telescope Science
Baltimore. "We also need to stress the importance of
incorporating new discoveries to continually
improve our understanding of the diverse objects within
For more information on the conference and workshop,
including the schedule of invited talks,