On January 14, Mark V. Sykes, PhD, director of the Planetary Science Institute, presented “Dawn, New Horizons and the Great Planet Debate,” a lecture for the Innovation and Leadership Institute’s President’s Forum series at Capitol College.
Dr. Sykes’ talk featured a humor-ridden march through the history of the planets and their discoverers, and the process of how the categorization of planets and other space objects has evolved over time. His focus on the clash of science, personalities and politics, and how these and other elements have fueled the debate on what constitutes a planet, is sparked by the International Astronomy Union decision to define a common term for what constitutes a planet.
Dr. Sykes believes the process of defining a term, resulting in the “demotion” Pluto, was chaotic and resulted in public controversy; he argues that a paradigm shift may be underway from IAU’s classical perspective about planets, rooted in ancient times, to a modern perspective in which those roots are finally cut.
Dawn and New Horizons, two NASA missions that have traveled to the most historically disputed celestial objects (Ceres and Pluto), will provide important additional facts for the debate once they reach their planetary destinations in 2015. The data collected, according to Dr. Sykes, could provide the final nails in the coffin of the classical perspective.
He also believes that the Pluto debate offers wonderful access to the public about science as a process. Of the debate, Dr. Sykes says, “The value of this debate is not whether there are winners and losers, but that the clash of ideas and challenging the usefulness of those ideas in explaining the universe are central to science. When teachers ask what they should teach children about Pluto, I tell them to teach the debate itself. It is a means of introducing them to science as something dynamic – not just a list of facts.”
Dr. Sykes is nationally and internationally noted for his leadership in opposing the International Astronomical Union’s decision regarding the reclassification of Pluto. He is Director of the Planetary Science Institute, a private non-profit corporation dedicated to the exploration of the solar system with scientists in 16 states, the UK, Switzerland, Russia and Australia with corporate headquarters located in Tucson, Arizona.
Dr. Sykes’ scientific research includes the study of Pluto, asteroids, comets and interplanetary dust, using both ground-based and space-based telescopes, primarily in the thermal infrared. He is the discoverer of cometary dust trails and rings of dust around the inner solar system arising from asteroid collisions within the zodiacal cloud.
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