Total Drek

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Friday, August 25, 2006

Snakes on a Planet

There have been a lot of posts here recently about Snakes (on a Plane). I could easily post about the Snakes (on a Plane), but alas, I shall not. Instead, I shall post about an important new development, not just for Earth, but for the entire Solar System.

Pluto is no longer a planet. As of yesterday, there are only eight.

The reason for this decision is the recent discovery of several large objects in the distant solar system, which were given the names Quaoar, Sedna, and 2003 UB313 Xena. Suddenly, Pluto didn't appear so special. In fact, Xena is even larger than Pluto. So, if Pluto is a planet, then why not Xena?

The decision was scheduled to be made at the meeting of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in Prague, Czech Republic. The IAU named a panel to come up with a definition of "planet" that would decide once and for all which planets were in and which were out. The panel's recommendation was to define a planet as an object large enough to form into a spherical shape under its own gravity. By this definition, Pluto was in, along with Xena, Ceres (the largest asteroid), and Charon (Pluto's moon). Smaller objects like Sedna would be defined as "plutons."

The proposal was expected to pass the general vote of all IAU members, but it was roundly criticized by two groups that wouldn't normally seem to have much in common: geologists and Italians. Geologists had first dibs on the term "pluton." Italians already refer to the planetish thing that we call "Pluto" as "Pluton."

So IAU members tried again. They went through a few definitions, but the one they settled on required a planet to be round and to have cleared out the area of its orbit. Under this definition, Ceres is out, because it is in the middle of the asteroid belt. Xena is out, because it is in the middle of the so-called Kuiper Belt. And Pluto is out, because its orbit overlaps with Neptune's. These objects will be classified as "dwarf planets." Science marches on.

I think this was the wrong decision. The decision of what is and what isn't a planet is far too important to be made for scientific reasons alone. And I think there is a hidden danger in demoting Pluto - Snakes on a Planet, if you will.

Whether we like it or not, people anthropomorphize the planets. Anthropomorphism, which scientists work so hard to avoid, is celebrated in the rest of the world. Each planet has a personality, and Pluto is the sad and lonely, but spirited, underdog planet. And now the mean old scientists have kicked it out of the planet club. So many people already believe that scientists are heartless, and I'm afraid that the IAU has encouraged that stereotype.

But now that the vote is taken and the matter is settled, here's what I think we should say. Pluto never quite fit in with the rest of the planets. It was way out there far from the Sun, orbiting at a weird angle. It didn't belong. But now that we know more, we've discovered so many other objects just like Pluto, out in the Kuiper Belt. Pluto is with its friends now. And furthermore, it's one of the biggest and most important objects in its part of the Solar System.

There's another lesson that we can offer from the IAU's decision. Science changes. We keep discovering new facts and putting them into new frameworks. We know this, but the public often doesn't. Far from being a planet-killing downer, science's constant change is what makes it such an exciting, vibrant field of thought.

Even the person with the most to lose from all this is still excited about science's new possibilities. Patricia Tombaugh, the widow of Pluto's discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, is still alive at 93, living in Las Cruces, New Mexico. She's understandably disappointed:

I don't know just how you handle it. It kind of sounds like I just lost my job.

But she adds:

But I understand science is not something that just sits there. It goes on. Clyde finally said before he died, '[Pluto is] there. Whatever it is. It is there.'

Science can never take Pluto away. But it can help us understand it in ways that Clyde Tombaugh, or even scientists a few years ago, could have never imagined.


Blogger tina said...

I was at a cocktail party the other day in which a friend of mine was telling me all about having her astrological chart done and finding out that Pluto's position was having a dramatic effect on her life. Then, she wondered what astrology would do if they decided Pluto was not a planet. Any insights on this?

Friday, August 25, 2006 3:32:00 AM  
Blogger Drek said...

Great post, Slag. I think in addition to observing that now Pluto is with its "friends" we also have a great opportunity to remind people that boundaries between things like "planets" and "asteroids" are largely human constructions. From the point of view of the universe, it's just crap flying around. But from our point of view, that crap becomes something more, and often something beautiful.

Friday, August 25, 2006 9:30:00 AM  
Blogger marc said...

Wikipedia says that Pluto represents extreme power and nuclear armament, since the planet was discovered in the 1930s as nuclear research was taking off. Perhaps the affect on an astrological chart means a decentering of such power? Or on a larger scale, a grand de-nuking?

Friday, August 25, 2006 9:11:00 PM  

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