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Thursday, August 24, 2006

My Very Educated Mother Is Very Confused 

On Tuesday, Jennifer wrote the following:

For the first time ever, we now have a definition of the word “planet” universally accepted by astronomers:

"A celestial body in orbit around a star while not itself being a star, and large enough in mass for its own gravity to pull it into a nearly spherical shape."

This definition means that three new planets will be added to the current nine!!!!

Jennifer based this statement on the following article:

A committee formed by the International Astronomers Union (IAU) has proposed that to be called a planet, a celestial body must be in orbit around a star while not itself being a star.

It also must be large enough in mass for its own gravity to pull it into a nearly spherical shape....

Reaction to the proposal, which will be voted on this Thursday by some 2,500 astronomers and scientists, has hit the IAU's annual conference in Prague like a meteor.

"The desire to put everything in neat little boxes is admirable but can be overdone, particularly when the boxes become contorted to include some objects and exclude others. The universe is too complex and too fascinating to fit everything into neatly described categories," said Paul Weissman, an IAU delegate from the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the United States.

"Often, the most interesting objects are the ones that refuse to be categorized simply. Anally pursuing such a goal is stamp collecting, not science."

Well, that was Tuesday. Thursday, as I was driving into work, several radio stations were reporting that there are now eight planets, and that Pluto is no longer a planet.


Jennifer reports on that, too:

Now, I see that instead of having three new planets, we will actually have one less. The much debated Pluto has been nixed.

Here are some more details, starting with an example of scientist humor:

Although astronomers applauded after the vote, Jocelyn Bell Burnell -- a specialist in neutron stars from Northern Ireland who oversaw the proceedings -- urged those who might be "quite disappointed" to look on the bright side.

"It could be argued that we are creating an umbrella called 'planet' under which the dwarf planets exist," she said, drawing laughter by waving a stuffed Pluto of Walt Disney fame beneath a real umbrella.

Uh oh. The Disney lawyers may get involved in this controversy before it's all over.

Here's what did Pluto in:

Much-maligned Pluto doesn't make the grade under the new rules for a planet: "a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a ... nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit."

Pluto is automatically disqualified because its oblong orbit overlaps with Neptune's.

You may recall a few years ago that Pluto was actually closer to the sun than Neptune for a while. I considered that an eccentricity. The astronomers consider that a major anomaly.

But, with all apologies to Jennifer, when I want to know about all things Pluto, I don't go to Jennifer. I go to the man that Regis Philbin refers to as "The Bean". Needless to say, inasmuch as his blog is named after Clyde Tombaugh, Bean has a lot to say about this topic. And he doesn't disappoint - he was on this story on Wednesday. Underneath a graphic that showed Pluto's orbit, he stated the following:

I'm afraid the news is not good for Plutophiles today.

He links to an article that shows the seamy underside of scientific politics:

Finally, astronomers could be homing in on a definition of the word planet. After a day of public bickering in Prague, followed by negotiations behind closed doors, the latest draft resolution was greeted with a broadly friendly reception....

The crucial change in "draft c" is that a planet must be the dominant body in its orbital zone, clearing out any little neighbours. Pluto does not qualify because its orbit crosses that of the vastly larger Neptune....

[A] supplementary resolution would at least make Pluto the prototype of a class of icy outer worlds beyond Neptune. "The purpose of this is to give a nod to those people who are great Pluto fans," said Owen Gingerich of Harvard University in Massachusetts, US, who is chairman of the committee.

It is not clear what they would be called, however – most early suggestions were rejected by an informal show of hands. Pluton, plutoid, plutonoid and plutid seem to be out of the running, as are "Tombaugh object" and "Tombaugh planet", which had been proposed in honour of Pluto's discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh. "Plutonian object" was the least unpopular choice....

The planet definition committee's first draft definition, released last Wednesday, had admitted Pluto, Ceres and probably dozens more objects to planethood by virtue of being round objects orbiting the Sun....

Then another group of astronomers, many of whom study the dynamics of the solar system, responded on Friday by insisting that a planet must dominate its neighbourhood, which would admit only the eight fully formed planets....

At a fractious lunchtime meeting on Tuesday, the committee's first attempt at a compromise met a hostile response....

"They have presented practically the same resolution as before," said Julio Fernandez of the University of the Republic in Montevideo, Uruguay, lead author of Friday's proposal....

He was cut off when he tried to read his proposal aloud. When more questions were prevented, there was a cry of: "If there is democracy, listen to the questions. Let the people speak!"

Let the people speak, indeed. Even though Pluto has been classified as a planet for less than 80 years, that is a lifetime for most of us. Therefore, this falls into the "we've always done it this way" syndrome that makes us resistant to change. And if you doubt me, wait until YOUR denomination comes up with a new hymnal - you'll hear a ton of grumbling.

And there's grumbling about Pluto:

Pluto is no longer a planet and that it never was. Is it easy for you to accept? (I am having a hard time, I love Pluto)

Pluto is no longer a planet? WTF?! My sign, Scorpio, is ruled by Pluto. I love Pluto. And he was a fun Disney character too :)

if jupiter, a big ball of gas, is considered a planet, then why are we all of a sudden hating on pluto. i love pluto. it's the underdog planet. always overshadowed by uranus, but still hanging in there. i have an idea scientists! instead of sitting around deciding what makes a planet a planet, how about making up another useless algebra rule. i know you love doing that. uh.... ok x equals c over b to the third power. see, it's easy and fun. stick to making up equations and leave my galaxy alone.

In other words, you can take the Ten Commandments out of the schools...you can take God out of the Pledge of Allegiance...but you'll have to pry my nine-planet list out of my cold dead fingers. Good to see we have our priorities straight.

P.S. Has an accused murderer ever tried to escape the charges by claiming that the definition of murder as a crime is a violation of his First Amendment rights?

P.P.S. regarding the Pledge. I'm wishy washy on this one. On the one hand, I don't believe that the phrase "under God" establishes a religion because it's so danged vague - "God" can be the Trinitarian God or Brahma or Molech or whoever. On the other hand, I'm not necessarily married to keeping it in because it's so danged vague - "God" can be the Trinitarian God or Brahma or Molech or whoever (which I guess makes the current Pledge of Allegiance an example of syncretism).

P.P.P.S. According to Wikipedia, Clyde Tombaugh was an active Unitarian Universalist. So he probably wouldn't have cared whether the astronomers believed Pluto was a planet. (That's my early morning attempt at religious humor. Go here for the context - see the quote from the Kansas City Star article.)

From the Ontario Empoblog (Latest OVVA news here)

i feel nostalgic towards Pluto I really do, maybe it's because of Walt Disney, either way....how do u after 70 yrs just up and oust a family member? i mean really....upsetting.
"But, with all apologies to Jennifer, when I want to know about all things Pluto, I don't go to Jennifer."

LMAO! That is very good judgment. I obviously don't know what the hell I'm talking about. :)
Regarding your knowledge of Pluto - we have a new employee who is reluctant to speak up in technical meetings because the existing employees have so much more knowledge. Someone pointed out to the new employee that the existing employees don't know much either. I suspect that in this case, the schoolchildren know more than some of the scientists.

Bean, a Los Angeles DJ (who lives in the state of Washington, by the way), is notorious for his obsessions, Clyde Tombaugh being one of them.
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