The end of the world as we know it
Pluto, the Rodney Dangerfield among planets in our solar system, got no respect for years. Now, 76 years after its designation as the ninth planet, it's suddenly a mere dwarf planet. What -- you demote a heavenly object, and you can't even be pol...
Pluto, the Rodney Dangerfield among planets in our solar system, got no respect for years. Now, 76 years after its designation as the ninth planet, it's suddenly a mere dwarf planet. What -- you demote a heavenly object, and you can't even be politically correct about it?
The International Astronomical Union, in making its announcement Thursday, said that Pluto -- under newly defined rules -- doesn't make the cut as a full-fledged planet because its unusual orbit overlaps Neptune, rather than just the sun. Interestingly, an Associated Press report states "astronomers have labored without a universal definition of a planet since well before the time of Copernicus, who proved the Earth revolves around the sun." Copernicus, incidentally, died back in 1543. Astronomers, apparently, have had other priorities for the last few hundred years.
It will be interesting to see how Pluto's demotion plays out in the science community as well as in classrooms across the country. The AP report noted that although 2,500 astronomers attended the IAU conference, only 300 voted in establishing new planetary guidelines. The other 2,200 were apparently stargazing, or frantically trying to come with a more colorful alternative to the term "dwarf planet." And just think about all the textbooks that will have to be rewritten and replaced? School budgets are tight as it is.
Of the controversy over Pluto's planethood, NASA's Alan Stern said, "It ain't over." Maybe it is, maybe it isn't. But more interesting than the actual definition of a planet is the fact that Pluto's change in status seems to evoke a general feeling of sympathy among the general public. To that we say: Hey, stuff happens. Science is always changing. Maybe 76 years from now -- or sooner -- we'll learn something else new and exciting about the worlds around us.