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May 15, 2008

Media Contacts:

Dr. Hal Weaver, The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
240-228-8078 or 443-778-8078

Dr. Mark Sykes, Planetary Science Institute

Michael Buckley, The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory
240-228-7536 or 443-778-7536

Conference to Grapple with Planet Definitions

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 The Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory (APL) in Laurel, Md. Media are invited to attend the conference, which includes scientific sessions, a debate and an educator's workshop that address 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" says Dr. Mark Sykes, a conference organizer and director of the Planetary Science Institute, Tucson, Arizona. "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 (IAU), 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.

"No votes will be taken at this conference to put specific objects in or out of the family of planets," says APL's Dr. Hal Weaver, a conference organizer. "But we will have advocates of the IAU definition and proponents of alternative definitions presenting their cases."  This includes an open-to-the-public debate between Dr. Sykes and Dr. 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 educator's 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," says organizing committee member Dr. Keith Noll of the Space Telescope Science Institute, Baltimore. "We also need to stress the importance of incorporating new discoveries to continually improve our understanding of the diverse objects within planetary systems."

Further information on the conference and workshop, including the schedule of invited talks, can be found at Media interested in attending the conference can contact Michael Buckley at 240-228-7536 or The registration fee is waived for media, teachers, and students.

The Applied Physics Laboratory, a division of The Johns Hopkins University, meets critical national challenges through the innovative application of science and technology. For more information, visit