Monday, August 14, 2006

Thoughts on Pluto

This has upset me:

The International Astronomical Union (IAU) has gathered in Prague to finally settle a matter of galactic import: whether Pluto is in fact a planet or should be relegated to the second division of Kuiper Belt Objects and similar detritus.

Astonomers have to date failed dismally to agree what exactly constitutes a planet, as demonstrated by last year's Xena controversy which saw stargazers claim they'd discovered the solar system's tenth full-fat planet, while others used the opportunity to call for Pluto and Xena's classification as minor planets.

The matter may soon be settled once and for all, The Detroit Free Press reports, as the IAU is scheduled to "consider a resolution that defines a planet". The committee writing the resolution is maintaining a stony silence as to what it will finally recommend, but whatever it decides will inevitably cause a rumpus in either the pro or con Pluto camps.

Steve Maran, author of Astronomy for Dummies told the The Detroit Free Press: "This is such a hot issue. They never rule on things like this. There's a lot more to it than science," alluding to the fact that Pluto is the only planet discovered by an American.

Indeed, the US has a soft spot for Pluto, and any attempt to downgrade its status will certainly upset large numbers of fanatical schoolkids such as those who in 2000 bombarded the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York with "hate mail" after it omitted the planet from a solar system exhibit.

Robert Williams, a vice president of the International Astronomical Union who's "deeply involved in the deliberations on Pluto", admitted: "My niece said to me, 'Are you going to demote Pluto?'."

Williams did, nonetheless, show his icy scientific cool with: "If that's the way it is, that's what we do. It's not written in stone anywhere there's got to be a numerable number of planets. If it upsets schoolchildren, I regret that."
So when is a planet not a planet? I understand the idea of there being a standard definition of planets (as Pluto is apparently very small compared to even Mercury), but this demotion of an entire planet has me wondering about the egos of these scientists. They hold a whole planet in an un-natural balance, with hordes of plutonians waiting to see if they will remain planet dwellers. It has got to be a power rush to be one of those who determine a planets worthiness of planethood.

So what if this goes to their head? What if they demote Rhode Island so it is no longer a state (after all, it isn't even an island). Liechtenstein would be removed from the ranks of countries as well. Small towns such as Belvidere, Nebraska (Pop. 98) would have to also be worried that they may be demoted by these power-mongers.

Personally, I think that we should think of demoting some small things. Chihuahuas, for instance, should be demoted to rodent status. The Cooper Mini should be demoted to go-cart status. Precious Moments figurines should just be gathered up and napalmed (not because they are small, I just have that fantasy).

Why doesn't this conference deal with the more pressing planetary problem: the name of the 7th planet, Uranus. It is embarrassing to say that planet, regardless of where you put the accent. It either talks about a part of the body we just don't want to discuss, or it talks about a bodily function that lives in the same neighborhood. They need to change this name to something much less embarrassing. Xena is the name of the other possible planet (see above) and was actually named after the TV character. Why not? Pluto is named after a Disney character! They could change the name of Uranus to Seinfeld or Bob Barker.

Well, one thing that would be really bothered by this demotion of Pluto from planethood would be the catchy song I learned when I was in school: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizza Pies. The point was to teach us the planets' names in order. Without Pluto, our mother would have to serve us Nothing. Now that would make kids sad.