Wednesday, August 23

don't mess with pluto

Tomorrow astronomers will decide whether to kick Pluto out as a planet, or whether to let in a bunch of other riff raff—or maybe something in between.

In an y case, I'll be posting here about it. Meanwhile, here's a funny op-ed from a cartoonist that was in the NY Times:
I ♥ Pluto

I took my first public stand on Pluto’s taxonomical fate when I addressed the Forum on Outer Planetary Exploration in 2001 (don’t ask why a cartoonist was addressing astronomers — it’s a long story).

I informed the assembled scientists that, first of all, no way was I or anyone else about to un-memorize anything we’d already been forced to learn in elementary school. More important, I felt sure that, as former children, we all instinctively respected the principle: no do-overs.

Planets, like Supreme Court justices, are appointed for life, and you can’t blithely oust them no matter how eccentric, skewed or unqualified they may prove to be. If they could kick out Pluto, I warned, they could do it to anything, or anyone.

I admit: it’s a highly emotional issue and maybe I got carried away in the heat of debate.

Even I was a little abashed last week when the International Astronomical Union tried to protect Pluto’s status by proposing an absurdly broad definition of planethood that encompasses moons, asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects — in other words, pretty much any half-formed hunk of frozen crud that can pull itself together into a ball long enough to get photographed by the Hubble.

For longtime Pluto partisans, there was something almost punitive about this proposal: happy now?

I guess I always knew, in my heart, that Pluto didn’t “belong.” Pluto is idiosyncratic — neither a dull, domestic terrestrial planet nor a surly, vainglorious gas giant. It’s mostly ice. It’s smaller than our own Moon, and has an orbit so eccentric that it spends 20 years of its 248-year revolutionary period inside Neptune’s orbit. It’s tilted at a crazy 17-degree angle to the ecliptic, and its satellite, Charon, is so disproportionately large that it’s been called a double planet.

Pluto is what my old astronomy textbook rather judgmentally called a “deviant,” and I’ve always felt a little defensive on its behalf.

I’ve long regarded Saturn’s misty tantalizing moon Titan as the Homecoming Queen of the solar system, courted and fawned over, stringing us along with teasing glimpses under her atmosphere, while Pluto was more like the chubby Goth chick who wrote weird poems about dead birds and never talked to anybody. Still, I just can’t stand by and watch as the solar system’s Fat Girl gets pushed down into ever-more ignominious substrata of social ostracism....
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