Pluto: Still a planet, always a planet.

Poor Pluto. I wrote a detailed essay about my feelings back in 2014, before New Horizons had gotten close enough to reveal the stunning images of Pluto and Charon that it painstakingly sent back at 38 kbps.

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Pluto and Charon. ©2015 NASA

Yeah yeah, I get it. Science moves on. Clyde Tombaugh discovered the Kuiper Belt; Pluto is just another trans-Neptunian object that happened to get captured, and not even the biggest. There are doubtless many more large ones yet to be discovered.

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But Pluto was a part of the public’s consciousness as a planet for 76 years – from 1930 when Dr. Tombaugh discovered it, until it was reclassified by the IAU, a move that was opposed by many scientists and astronomers.

I even wrote to Mike Brown, who has referred to himself as “the man who killed Pluto,” and expressed my feelings that for historical reasons, Pluto should have been “grandfathered in” as a planet; he was kind enough to reply, and explained that while he understands why I and others feel emotionally attached to Pluto, the IAU took an opportunity to make planetary classification meaningful instead of arbitrary, which is scientifically more important than nostalgia.

But I’m still sad. And I’m not the only one. Dr. Maggie Lieu, a research fellow at the ESA (European Space Agency) recently posted on Twitter,

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The cleaners took Pluto down, but he was quickly replaced:

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And the current status is this: (If you can’t read the text, it says

  • Don’t worry, Pluto! We dwarf planets will be your friends.
  • Yes, those stuck-up full planets are the 1% living in their “cleared neighbourhoods” and oppressing the rest of us with their unequal distribution of mass.

Thug 2

I accept the science, but the IAU’s designation is, after all, just academic nomenclature – and whatever the scientists of today or the future choose to call Pluto, for me it will be the 9th planet in our solar system, Sol IX, forever.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

PS: One of my all-time favorite Woot! shirts, “Gardening at Night.”

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There! Are! NINE! Planets!

Nine Planets Thumb

Maybe.

See, for the longest time, I’ve been fascinated by space, and the stars, and astronomy. When I was a kid in the 1950s I’d go from New York City where I lived to visit one of my uncles in the country, and he had an interesting and eclectic library, which things like CS Lewis’ Out of the Silent Planet or The World of Å by A.E. van Vogt. He also had this book:

zim stars

which I would spend hours and hours perusing, right around the same time Alfred Bester was publishing the exploits of Gully Foyle. In my own mind, the stars were my destination.

And of course, there were Nine Planets. Nine.

Solar System

This was cemented into my mind when, during the same epoch, I read Heinlein’s Have Space Suit, Will Travel. Beyond being a delightful space opera, it was full of hard science, too. Kip Russell was a genius who thought higher math was as addictive as peanuts, and had all sorts of astronomical data tucked away in his mind which helped him figure out where his evil worm-faced kidnappers were taking him and his little companion, Peewee.

“Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no protest.” Could you forget that after saying it a few times? Okay, lay it out so:

Mother Mercury $.39
Very Venus $.72
Thoughtfully Terra $1.00
Made Mars $1.50
A Asteroids Assorted prices,
unimportant
Jelly Jupiter $5.20
Sandwich Saturn $9.50
Under Uranus $19.00
No Neptune $30.00
Protest Pluto $39.50

The “prices” are distances from the sun in astronomical units. An A.U. is the mean distance of Earth from Sun, 93,000,000 miles. It is easier to remember one figure that everyone knows and a lot of little figures than it is to remember figures in millions or billions. I use dollar signs because a figure has more flavor if I think of it as money – which Dad considers deplorable. Some way you must remember them, or you don’t know your own neighborhood. (Heinlein, Robert A., Have Space Suit, Will Travel).

And no, I could never forget it either. There were nine planets. Nine. And the mnemonic was seared into my consciousness forever. When Pluto was demoted from planetary status to “dwarf planet,” I was devastated. I refused to give in. No. Still a planet, always a planet. Apparently, others felt the same way I did, and for similar reasons:

I really wasn’t too concerned about Pluto’s demotion from being a planet. It was a non scientific discussion about a silly serious definition.

Well, at least that was until they decided to TAKE AWAY PLUTO’S NAME. WTF? So, please Mr It’s-Not-A-Planet-Just-A-No-Name-Dwarf Astronomer, what am I supposed to use for my mnemonic now? Huh?

I learned “Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no protest” as a teenager reading Robert Heinlein. And now? “Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no 134340” just doesn’t have the same ring to it.

[Update: Thanks Dan]
Pluto may have lost it’s planetary status, but it GOT A NEW NUMBER! It went from merely 9 to a rocking 134340! Wow, what a raise. I am however bummed that my favorite memonic, “Mother very thoughtfully made a jelly sandwich under no protest” learned as a teenager reading Robert Heinlein, no longer works.

Perhaps “Mother very thoughtfully made a cherry jelly sandwich under no protest. Excellent!”  (Hmmm, still doesn’t ring well.) Anyway I still stand to-

Sure tell me Pluto it isn’t a planet, but stop MESSING AROUND WITH MY CHILDHOOD! (From Eclectics Anonymous)

And that’s the crux of my objection: don’t screw around with what I learned as a child. If nothing else, Pluto should have been grandfathered in, because despite its true status as a captured Kuiper Belt object (as clearly shown by its off-kilter orbit and the identification of countless other trans-Neptunian objects), it was treated as a planet since it was discovered by Clyde Tombaugh.

Sadly, science moves on. As Neil de Grasse Tyson has said, the universe is under no obligation to make sense to us – it’s just out there, waiting to be discovered. In much the same way as they took away my beloved Brontosaurus, we learn new things every day. Now, as New Horizons approaches Pluto for a scheduled 2015 rendezvous, my excitement to see our last little solar system outlier (at least, that’s the way it was in the 50s) knows no bounds.

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“The [above] animation of Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, was created using a series of images captured by the New Horizons spacecraft as it continues its long journey to the distant planetoid. Taken from a distance of 422-429 million km, the images are not for scientific study, but for optical navigation between worlds. (From i09)

Those pictures are going to get a lot clearer and more wonderful as New Horizons approaches, if the results from Cassini and other planetary probes are any indiation. But based on what I’m seeing there, it may turn out that Pluto and Charon are not really planets at all, but nothing more than space junk, garbage that looks more like comet 67P/Churyumov-Gerasimenko. And if that ends up being the case, I’ll have to throw my visceral but irrational defense of Pluto’s planetary status onto the trash heap of disproven theories, as sad as it may be.

Our Solar System is a lot bigger now than it used to be. No one ever made mention of the Kuiper Belt or the Oort cloud. It was just us, although some scientists even back then were looking for the mysterious “Planet X” [1] which would help to explain certain orbital anomalies.

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Image: NASA’s Solar System Exploration. Click through for the full interactive graphic, along with a lot of other wonderful information.

Some other really good stuff about space and stars and especially planets is found at Starts with a Bang!

In the end, better minds than mine have come to terms with advancing knowledge. A quote at Wikipedia’s article about Clyde Tombaugh is particularly comforting:

Tombaugh’s widow Patricia stated after the IAU’s decision that while Clyde may have been disappointed with the change since he had resisted attempts to remove Pluto’s planetary status in his lifetime, he would have accepted the decision now if he were alive. She noted that he “was a scientist. He would understand they had a real problem when they start finding several of these things flying around the place.”Hal Levison offered this perspective on Tombaugh’s place in history: “Clyde Tombaugh discovered the Kuiper Belt. That’s a helluva lot more interesting than the ninth planet.”

The Old Wolf has spoken.

Old_Wolf_Cry


[1] They’re still looking.