“Pluto makes no sense as a planet…” A Conversation with Astronomer Derrick Pitts

By Bobbi Booker
The Book Report II

From Galileo versus Pope Urban VIII to today’s current battle over the
planetary status of Pluto, the path to scientific understanding is not
always rosy. On Friday, more than 300 scientists around the globe
signed a petition protesting against the definition of “planet”
decided by the International Astronomical Union last week (IAU), a
regulating body for information and research in astronomy. That
definition demoted Pluto, leaving the solar system with eight planets.

“What astronomers did this summer really doesn’t have anything to do
with Pluto,” said Derek Pitts, Chief Astronomer and Director of the
Fels Planetarium. “What they did was develop a classification system
for objects that are in our solar system that makes sense. The fall
out is that Pluto’s designation has changed from planet to dwarf

Pluto’s controversial redefinition as a “dwarf planet” by the (IAU) is
based on the fact that Pluto’s orbital path overlaps with other
objects such as asteroids and the planet Neptune.

Arguments over Pluto have raged on since the planet’s 1930 discovery.
Limited information on the distant planet delayed a realistic
understanding of its characteristics. Even with telescopic aid, the
planet is virtually impossible to see. “When I say small and I say
dim, I mean dust speck small and invisible dim,” explained Pitts. “The
only way Pluto is visible is through photography.”

In January, NASA launched its New Horizons spacecraft, the first probe
ever destined for the planet Pluto, its moons and the Kuiper Belt
beyond. The historic mission, traveling at 36,250 miles per hour, will
take more than nine years to reach Pluto in July 2015.

Last year’s discovery of UB313 or “Xena” also put Pluto’s planetary
status on the line. With a diameter of about 1800 miles, UB313 is larger than Pluto (1400 miles) and occupies an orbit well beyond that of Pluto. More objects
like UB313 are expected to be discovered in the future and many in the
astronomical community do not wish to call these bodies planets.

“We start to discover objects beyond Pluto that are bigger than Pluto.
If they should be planets, what do we do about Pluto? Pluto is way out
at the end of the solar system. It’s made of ice, not rock. It’s orbit
is tilted relative to all the other orbits of the solar system and
scientist have agree for at least the last 25 years that it wasn’t
really an original member of the solar system, but a passing object
that was grabbed by the gravitational pull of Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus
and Neptune. So it wasn’t really part of the original planets to begin

In addition to orbiting the sun and being rounded by its own
gravitational field, the IAU definition of a “classical planet”
requires an object to be the sole occupant of its orbit. A dwarf
planet must only meet the first two criteria and cannot be a
satellite. All other bodies in the solar system are referred to as
“small solar system bodies”.

“If we say our solar system is made up of classic planets, then these
other objects that are smaller than planets can be called dwarf
planets. That covers all of those things that are Pluto-sized or
smaller that are round and orbit the Sun.”

The disagreeing scientists have issued a petition that states: “We, as
planetary scientists and astronomers, do not agree with the IAU’s
definition of a planet, nor will we use it. A better definition is

The signers of the petition included NASA scientists, astronomers at
major observatories, university professors and graduate students. The
astronomical union allowed only scientists attending a conference last week in Prague, Czech Republic, to vote.

The group’s definition for a planet specifies three conditions: the
object orbits the sun; it is large enough for its gravity to pull it
into a round shape; and it “has cleared the neighborhood around its
orbit”. The last condition excludes Pluto, because it is located among
many other icy bodies in a ring of debris known as the Kuiper Belt.

“According to a separately developed theory, all the planets in the
solar system are currently placed in their correct order,” said Pitts.
“Pluto is outside of that order. Pluto makes no sense, no matter how
you look at, as a planet.”

According to the IAU’s guidelines we may have lost a planet but gained
a big family of dwarf planets. In other words, our solar system has
just gotten bigger.

“I believe that furor and outcry this summer over Pluto has to do more
with the cultural icon (Pluto, the Disney character) than it has to do
with the planet itself,” mused Pitts.

“You know what, Pluto has no idea. The planet doesn’t care.



“You can go outside and see the stuff just flying overhead…” Another Conversation with Astronomer Derrick Pitts

By Bobbi Booker
The Book Report

Most city residents believe that they need a big fancy telescope or binoculars to see and identify objects in the night sky. Not so, says Derrick H. Pitts, Chief Astronomer and Director of the Fels Planetarium. Pitts’ September Skies program encourages Franklin Institute visitors to simply just look up.

“The thing that people have stopped doing is looking up,” lamented Pitts. “Through the 70s and the 80s, people were being told that if they lived in an urban environment they can’t see the night sky, so don’t bother.”

Pitts instructs September Skies participants on how to navigate the night sky with or without seeing aides. “The other thing that I really love about looking at the night sky without binoculars or telescopes is that you can see satellites, the Space Shuttle and the Space Station. If we lived down around Washington, D.C. and further south, we’d able to see the Hubble Space telescope and all kinds of stuff like that. All you have to do is know when to look and where to look and then you can go outside and see the stuff just flying overhead,” said Pitts. “I do that all the time.”

Here on Earth, Pitts says the September Skies programs exists “because both adults and kids are in the same boat when it comes to knowledge about astronomy—they have none.”

Pitts offers an example: “Virtually no one understands why the moon has phases.”
Hhm, ponders the reporter, why is that?

Pitts replies, “Because it orbits the earth once every 28 days.”

If that simple answer seems to vaguely linger in some part of your memory, it’s probably because you learned it far too early in school to understand it.

“It’s not rocket science,” explains Pitts. “It’s just that it’s taught so early in our education in schools and before kids really have a three dimensional understanding of the night sky, so it doesn’t make any sense. When we become teenagers and young adults, our brains have developed the spatial ability to be able to project that 3D nature into the night sky, even though it looks (two deminsional). We don’t develop that capability until way after the schools teach us about the moon. So it’s not reality for us when they’re teaching it too us. It doesn’t be come reality until our brains have developed to be able to understand that.”

Pitts has had his head in the clouds—and beyond—for over two decades at the Franklin Institute. He has twice modernized and redesigned the Institutes observatory and oversaw the renovation of the Fels Planetarium. The Philadelphia native’s lifelong interest in space was lauded as one of the “50 Most Important Blacks in Research Science” by Science Spectrum magazine in 2004. Although Pitts is quite visible in his media appearances as the region’s foremost astronomy authority, he is a member of a small cadre of African Americans in the field. In a survey by the National Science Foundation of 708,200 scientists, only 43,000 were Black and Hispanic.

As an educator, Pitts simply wants to increase the public’s awareness of what’s happening in the universe.

” What I want to impart to people is the three dimensional nature of the sky when you look at the sky,” explains Pitts. “Let’s say you have a night when you can see the moon, Mars and Jupiter, all in the same evening. The first thing you’re doing when you’re looking up to the moon is looking across a gulf of 240,000 miles. That doesn’t seem so apparent because you’re use to looking at the moon, but when you see Mars that’s a jump of 50 million miles. Then when you look at Jupiter, that’s a jump of 885 million miles. All of a sudden what happens for you is the three dimensional nature suddenly pops into view and you can see that you’re looking across this gulf and the size of the Solar System starts to make sense.”

Pitts also wants people to understand how much of the universe they can see without a telescope. “Everybody thinks that ‘If I look at the night sky then I’m going to need a telescope and it’s got to be a big one.’ You don’t need that. It’s nice to have it, but we’re perfectly capable of seeing a lot of stuff with out that, and you don’t need a lot of knowledge to do that.”

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During the morning of the Sept. 11, 2001, thousands of Philadelphia residents and merchants took to the streets…

On the morning 9/11 occurred, I had heard a buzz on the streets as I was heading to my new job as Lifestyle correspondent for the Philadelphia Tribune. When I arrived at the paper the full breath of news coverage was upon me. At this point, only one plane had breached the World Trade Center. I tell my editor that this is a story that’s going to play itself out on the streets and hat’s where I want to be. She tells me to go out and get some commentary. The only update readily available was the Tweeter store on Walnut Street that was tuned in to the TV morning news shows. People were gathered at the window and a sales associate, bound by the 10 am opening time, would poke his head out with an update every three minutes or so.Then the next plane hit.

CNN’s Aaron Brown looked devastated and reported on, like a good news soldier should. In Philadelphia, Mayor Street decided to keep the level of hysteria down and called for a total city shutdown at Noon. Parents told their bosses they were going to pick up their children from school, go on home and pray for the world.

That evening, prayer vigils had sprung up across the city. For the first time in ages families eat together for the first time, the skies, silent because air traffic was grounded, sparkled with starlight uninterrupted by planes for the first time in decades.

Eventually, 9/11 acquired a name, a revisionist history, and it’s own celebration due to National holiday status any year now.

Below, a previously published 9/11 story that was syndicated without my knowledge…


By Bobbi Booker


During the morning of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, thousands of Philadelphia residents and merchants took to the streets, stunned at the news of the fallen World Trade Center.

PHILADELPHIA (NNPA) – Concern, dismay and disregard sum up the feelings Philadelphians had as America approached the two-year mark since the terrorists’ attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. The catastrophe of that day hit the East Coast particularly hard as New York, Washington, D.C. and Pennsylvania were struck by surprise.

During the morning of the attacks, Philadelphians were wrought with fear as Mayor John F. Street declared a state of emergency, closed area schools and city offices. Thousands of residents and merchants took to the streets of Center City stunned at the news of the fallen World Trade Center, the struck Pentagon building and the downed plane in western Pennsylvania. Today, Philadelphians, like their fellow Americans, have to deal with heightened security concerns quite unlike the world they lived in two years ago.

“I’m more cautious now,” said Michael Deshazo of South Philadelphia. “I don’t fly as much as I used to because basically I’m more cautious than I used to be.”

Said business advisor James Taylor, “We’re probably never going to be 100 percent safe, but if we adopt the philosophy of the Israelis, we’ll get closer to that degree of security that everyone can feel comfortable with.

“When the Israelis are attacked with terrorism anyplace or anytime, they retaliate with relentlessness and they don’t apologize for it, they just do it. Until we stop making politics a part of our security issue, we’re going to have problems with people feeling safe, being safe, losing jobs, companies having to consolidate or fold because we aren’t clear,” Taylor said.

Others have learned how to cope in their post-9/11 lives and do not reflect much on its aftermath.

“There are so many other issues,” said Center City nurse Judy Butler. “If I see something, an article or the news or something, then I’m brought back to what happened. If I don’t see it, then I usually don’t tend to dwell on it.”

Johnnie Thon, 23, said, “It ain’t no different now. You just got to live life as it is. You can’t let that thing get to you. You got to do what you got to do and just keep on moving.”

And moving on is exactly what Pennsylvania plans to do. State officials say a beefed-up anti-terrorism network is coming into sharper focus, two years and hundreds of millions of dollars since the catastrophe on Sept. 11.

“We can call it anti-terrorism, but it just makes Pennsylvania a safer place,” said David Sanko, director of the Pennsylvania Emergency Management Agency. “The equipment is multipurpose. We’ll enhance our terrorism preparedness, but at the same time it will strengthen our ability to respond to all hazards.”

The Philadelphia region will benefit greatly. The southeast regional counterterrorism task force, which includes Philadelphia and its four suburban counties, will get $14 million in federal funds this year plus what Sanko said could be another $20 million or so in federal urban-preparedness grants.

The list includes on-site computers and software to produce credentials for emergency personnel at a disaster site and a walk-through radioactivity detector. Hospitals will get $19.6 million to purchase equipment, including isolation or decontamination chambers.

This story comes special to the NNPA from the Philadelphia Tribune. The Associated Press contributed to this article.


“We’ve had a lack of color at the senior level, so this is a good step in the right direction…”

By Bobbi Booker
The Book Report

Just three months after Natalye Paquin came to the Kimmel Center as Executive Vice President and Chief Operating Officer she’s been tapped to replace Janice Price, who served as the Kimmel Center’s President and CEO since February of 2002, shortly after the complex opened. This appointment, effective September 10, marks the first time an African American has lead the helm of the Kimmel Center, Inc.

“Absolutely, I’m proud to be an African American and proud to be in a leadership position here at the Kimmel Center,” said Paquin. “But if you recall, the Kimmel Center was designed to be center for all people and a center for the community and I think my leadership here and my joining the team is really about that. Our goal is to serve diverse audiences and my joining the team is really an extension of that vision.”

At the same time, the center announced the formation of a search committee, chaired by Paul Tufano, to recruit a permanent replacement for Price, who has returned to her hometown of Toronto to head a new arts festival, “Luminato,” which opens in June of 2007.

Paquin emphasized her appointment is temporary, and is something she’s neither wants nor sought out. “It is an acting appointment, which is really just an extension of my permanent appointment,” explained Paquin who has requested the search committee not to consider her. “Being the top person is not a position that I am interested in. I was asked to serve in this capacity based on my skills and experience and I accepted the position, but it’s just an extension of my already complex position.”

Paquin’s association with the Kimmel Center begin in earnest three years ago when she was tapped by Mervon Mehta, Vice President for Programming and Education, to serve on the Education Audience Outreach Committee. Prior to joining the Kimmel Center, Paquin was the Chief Operating Officer of the School District of Philadelphia and oversaw a $400 million organization with over 4,700 employees. Before coming to Philadelphia, she held several senior positions with the City of Chicago’s school district and transportation department.

“Natalye comes to us with great experience in running large institutions, or large school districts, with complex budgeting and structure,” said Mehta. “She’s use to dealing with large pictures.”

This year marks the fifth anniversary of the Kimmel Center, Inc, the umbrella non-profit organization that owns, manages, supports and maintains the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts as well as the Academy of Music, which is owned by the Philadelphia Orchestra Association. This summer the organization witnessed a number of changes, including the appointment James Undercofler, the new president and chief executive officer of The Philadelphia Orchestra Association. Also, for the first time, the organization, which employs about 100 people, ended its 2005-06 performance season with an operating surplus of $1.2 million.

“Maybe we have a five-year-itch instead of a seven-year-itch,” laughed Mehta in reflection.

The Kimmel Center, which includes Verizon Hall as its major performance stage, has become one of the more prestigious venues for world-class performers. However, many Philadelphia residents have yet to visit the venue based on the perception that programming is not targeted to their taste with some of the more serious charges alleging class or racial bias in the acts chosen for performance. Paquin is aware of the complaints and has pledged that the organization will become more community oriented.

“I think that what you’ll see in the coming months and over the next few years are several members of our leadership being active in the community, being on more boards and going out speaking and meeting and listening to the communities to find out what more can we offer to be a better center,” said Paquin. “I think that the Kimmel Center is still young and audiences throughout the region, especially in the Philadelphia community, are still learning who we are and what we offer. I think that our programming is becoming more diverse. We have some additional work to do in terms of letting all communities know who we are and what type of programming we offer, and also helping all communities feel invited to the Kimmel Center and helping communities understand that we are a center for them.”

Paquin said she would encourage more residents to visit the Kimmel Center in person, or virtually on the web, so that they can see the venue as more than a performance center and start to utilize it for meetings or personal events, like weddings. “We have a very large facility that serves multiple purposes and should be used by all people in all communities,” said Paquin.

“She’s so connected to the city,” added Mehta. “And I think she’s going to be a great leader and spokesperson for us. It doesn’t hurt that our second president since we’ve been open is a person of color in a city that’s over 50 percent people of color. If you look at our staff overall, we’ve had a lack of color at the senior level, so this is a good step in the right direction. It sends a message. George Burrell is on our board, along with Kenny Gamble, and we’re actively looking for more diversity on the board. That’s something that’s constant conversation here.”

Paquin has been immersed in the artistic and community life of Philadelphia and serves on numerous boards and committees including the education committees of the Kimmel Center and the Philadelphia Museum of Art, the Philadelphia Mural Arts Program, the Philadelphia Boys Choir, and the Center for Emerging Visual Artists. She is also active with the Girl Scouts of South Eastern Pennsylvania, Project Home and City Year.

“I am a champion for the arts,” said Paquin. “If more of our communities really just experience the arts and cultures that are so abundant here in Philadelphia I think that it’s just something that will improve the quality of life.”

For more information visit http://www.kimmelcenter.com