Exposing PseudoAstronomy

March 19, 2017

Podcast Episode 159: A Proposal for the Geologic Definition of “Planet,” Interview with Kirby Runyon

Definition of
Planet: Useful in science?
Or, just pedantry?

Sorry for the delay again, but I have an interview that’s just under an hour this time on a new proposal for a geophysical definition of the word “planet.”

In 2006, the International Astronomical Union sparked an uproar and furious debate among scientists and non-scientists alike when they voted for a definition of the word, planet. Numerous proposals since that time have been made for the definition of that term. Eleven years later, a new proposal has gotten a lot of media attention and in this episode, we discuss that new proposed definition. This is closer to a friendly debate style because the guest and I have different points of view on this issue.

There are no additional segments in this episode, but the interview runs 51 minutes. This is also the episode for the first half of March.

Poor Pluto

Poor Pluto

July 18, 2015

#NewHorizons #PlutoFlyby — The Pseudoscience Flows, Part 3


I honestly haven’t seen this one that I remember — yet (I’m working on very little sleep and 14+ hour days right now) — but I suspect it’s only a matter of time from more conservative religious conspiracists: The naming scheme for Pluto and Charon. Some background is needed …


In planetary science, one might wonder why we care about naming things. It seems to be a remarkably human-centric thing, for why should we have to feel like we need to stick a name on everything?

The answer is ease of communication. If you say “Tycho crater” to just about any planetary scientist, they know the exact lunar crater you’re talking about. Same with “Copernicus crater,” or “Mare Imbrium.” The alternative is something like, “The big crater with bright rays near the bottom of the moon if the north is up.” Or something like that.

Other than historic objects, things these days on planetary surfaces generally only get named if there’s a reason for it: As in, it’s an interesting feature that we’re going to be talking about a lot. Not every feature on every body is named.

International Astronomical Union (IAU) Policy for Pluto System

Because Pluto is the Roman god of the underworld, and Charon is the Greek ferryman of the dead to the underworld, the International Astronomical Union — the only official naming body in the world for naming stuff in the solar system and beyond — decided that the theme of “underworld” is going to stick, at least for major features. Sometimes this varies, but more on that later.

There is a sizable component of conservative Christians who think that any naming, or any reference, to such is an affront to their god, that it is occultism, Satan worship, etc.

Another side-rule is that no name should be duplicated.


There are lots of “levels” of names. There’s the official IAU name. There are provisional, recommended names to the IAU. There are “for fun” names used within the science team. And there are “would be nice” names used by individual people.

As an example of the last item, there are many craters right now on Pluto and Charon named “Robbins” with a lot of numbers after it. For a friend, there are two “Banks” craters (one because I’m not sure if it’s real because of JPG compression artifacts). But that’s just for fun.

The more formal process, those other three levels I mentioned at the beginning of this section, varies somewhat. In the case with New Horizons and the Pluto-Charon system, a public website was launched months ago where people could both recommend and vote on names.

This was vetted by a very small group within the New Horizons science team, raking names by popularity, looking for gender and ethic biases, removing incredibly offensive names, and removing those used elsewhere (e.g., there’s a “Lonely Mountain” on Titan, so even though we’ve been referring to one on Pluto lately in the team, it cannot be recommended as an official name to the IAU, but this falls into the third category of “for fun” by the team).

So, the biggest stuff is going to get the most popular names from the list. And by “get,” I’m talking about that that second level, the recommended-to-the-IAU level. Which I think pre-approved “Tombaugh Reggio” before-hand. But beyond that, all names must be submitted to the IAU, and hence they are called “provisional names” until the IAU approves or rejects them.

The “Offending” Name(s)

Right off the bat, I figure that there will be some groups that are offended already by the “underworld” theme. But I read some very über-right-wing Christian / conservative websites. One of the beliefs among them is that anything “new age,” anything they perceive as pagan or “occult,” is Satanic, and therefore directly opposed to their version of a deity.

Enter Cthulhu (pronounced something like “coo-THOO-loo”). It was a deity created by H.P. Lovecraft. To quote from Wikipedia: “Lovecraft depicts Cthulhu as a gigantic entity worshiped by cultists. Cthulhu’s anatomy is described as part octopus, part man, and part dragon.”

Lovecraft himself is often viewed by these über-conservative Christians as an occultist/cultist himself, and the fact that a major low-reflectivity feature on Pluto that has been provisionally named after a “demonic” deity that Lovecraft dreamed up is likely going to not sit well with them.

However, my understanding is that it was selected because it was one of the most popular names in the voting.

Final Thoughts

Well, that’s it for now. Back to work. I expect to do at least two more of these, another about young-Earth creationists’ take on this and another about Crrow777’s take on this (he’s been getting a lot more press lately, so even though I really don’t want to give him more because question his mental fidelity).

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