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August 25, 2006 5:24 AM   Subscribe

SAVE PLUTO
posted by thirteenkiller (91 comments total)

 
Honest, un-snarky question: Why do people care about this? I can understand some academic-level astronomers being concerned, as it will dictate how and what they should teach in classes. To me, though, it just seems that if there are nine planets, eight planets, twenty planets - however you label them, they're all up there in the sky doing their thing and their not going to change just because we call them something else. This "PLUTO - IS IT A PLANET??" story continues to be front page news for various newspapers and I just don't get it.
posted by billysumday at 5:28 AM on August 25, 2006


I just don't get it.

Slow news week, obviously.
posted by muddgirl at 5:30 AM on August 25, 2006


Why do people care about this?

It's fascinating because it's a giant nerd fight. A really stupid nerd fight.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:31 AM on August 25, 2006


Plus the idea that a group of scientists could decide that this is NOT a planet after some 60+ years of being a planet is just incredible. T
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 5:32 AM on August 25, 2006


First they came for Pluto...
posted by thirteenkiller at 5:34 AM on August 25, 2006


I think it's only really been a big story because the whole debate has been so drawn out and so public. If the IAU had just got up and announced it, it'd have been in the news one day and gone by the next.

And yeah, it just doesn't matter. A rose by any other name and all that.
posted by edd at 5:39 AM on August 25, 2006


I have no particular investment in either side of this fight, but how is a group of scientists deciding that their observations warrant a change in nomenclature incredible?

Remember when a tomato was a vegetable?

As you sample more information, it's always likely your understanding of what you've seen already will change and suggest you should reconsider some early labels. Just sounds like responsible science (as opposed to populist science).

I'm with billysumday -- I don't get the fervent resistance or wild-eyed Save Plutonians.
posted by abulafa at 5:39 AM on August 25, 2006


Pluto responds: 'Planets have feelings, too'
posted by TBoneMcCool at 5:41 AM on August 25, 2006


But abulafa, it doesn't seem like the vote was very fair, and there doesn't seem to be a general consensus on the matter.
posted by thirteenkiller at 5:52 AM on August 25, 2006


I have to agree that I preferred it when Pluto was a planet. But, yeah, this is nothing unusual in science. Goddamn taxonomists are splitting and creating and merging species the whole time. And they get paid for it. Meanwhile us poor ecologists are supposed to somehow keep track. . .
posted by Jimbob at 5:55 AM on August 25, 2006


Remember when they were trying to decide if there were actually ten planets? Make up your minds ppl
posted by poppo at 6:01 AM on August 25, 2006


"Support democracy?" Do you really want science dictated by the majority?
posted by kimota at 6:03 AM on August 25, 2006


The majority of the IAU is not the same as the majority of people in Tennessee.
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:05 AM on August 25, 2006


Pluto really really really isn't a planet. It never has been. However, it has the name of a Disney dog and features prominently in many well-memorized mnemonics, so it has sentimental value to people.
posted by Peach at 6:06 AM on August 25, 2006


I agree with Peach on this one. It was this or adding two more. That would just be crazy.
posted by slimepuppy at 6:08 AM on August 25, 2006


Pluto really really really isn't a planet. It never has been.

Yeah, because planets are things that have cleared their orbits! Like Neptune and Jupiter!
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:08 AM on August 25, 2006


It's also a part of popular culture and the popular imagination. People aren't complaining about it as if it's the end of the world -- not this world, anyway -- but they are expressing something else, maybe a fondness for or feeling about the idea of planet Pluto that they don't have and probably never will have for a recently catalogued rock listed as UB313 (or Xena? yecch). Nostalgia surely has a lot to do with it. And it may be a bit like a team being disbanded or relegated to a minor league -- some fans will feel it as a real loss. Does it have to be a completely rational response for it to be a valid response?
posted by pracowity at 6:09 AM on August 25, 2006


I have no particular investment in either side of this fight, but how is a group of scientists deciding that their observations warrant a change in nomenclature incredible?

It's not. It's just annoying. I mean, what purpose does an Official IAU Definition Of "Planet" serve? Science is supposed to be about testing hypotheses derived from theory, not delivering officially orthodox definitions of vague and ultimately cultural concepts.

Remember when a tomato was a vegetable?

It is a vegetable, culinarily. It's savory, and normally eaten as an appetizer or as part of the main course. Unlike fruit, which are sweet and usually eaten after the main course. That it is botanically a fruit, with seeds and everything, doesn't change how it functions in the kitchen.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:09 AM on August 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


Yeah, because planets are things that have cleared their orbits! Like Neptune and Jupiter!
No, because it's a typical, if large, Kuiper Belt object and fits that category much better than the category of planets.
posted by Peach at 6:12 AM on August 25, 2006


Ah well, whatever. I don't really care, just kinda bored at work.
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:15 AM on August 25, 2006


ROU_Xenophobe: absolutely, thus the culture will continue to refer to Pluto as a planet without consequence.

Folks undertaking experiments which rely on some consistency of definition of observed subjects really do benefit from an active and regularly-revisited questioning of terms and definitions.

But if the answer to billysumday's (and my) question is: because it's a cultural-predisposition argument, then my interest is... poqued? pooked? I need an antonym for "piqued." Pooped.
posted by abulafa at 6:26 AM on August 25, 2006


Its still a planet because the definition is arbitrary and most people think of it as a planet. Therefore this decision means nothing.
posted by Ironmouth at 6:27 AM on August 25, 2006


the kids today get everything:

- dvd players in the backseat of their mom's suv
- bit torrent, dsl, wifi, ipods
- arcade fire and the go! team

and now they get new planets?

my only hope is that the kids accept these gifts and become the generation who then legalizes weed.
posted by tsarfan at 6:33 AM on August 25, 2006 [2 favorites]


Personally I don't even see what's wrong with calling pluto a planet. I mean, it's not like there are tax issues or legal issues or something. Whatever definition "X" they came up with just change it to "X + Pluto".
posted by delmoi at 6:36 AM on August 25, 2006


Folks undertaking experiments which rely on some consistency of definition of observed subjects

How does this work?

What kind of experiment or observational plan will detect something interesting about Pluto if it's considered a planet but not if it's considered a dwarf planet or transneptunian object or Kuiper object, or vice versa?
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 6:37 AM on August 25, 2006


School children memorize planets; they don't memorize other celestial classifications. It's Romantic to keep discovering new objects within our solar system and by such discovery and inclusion -including them along with the mythos of the "Elilte Eight"- we'd be inpiring our kids and grandkids. Think of the children.
posted by yeti at 6:39 AM on August 25, 2006


Elite

How that extra L snuck in there, I do not know.
posted by yeti at 6:41 AM on August 25, 2006


thirteenkiller, I admit I thought you were working from the angle of 'those crazy scientists don't know what they're doing! Let's take back Pluto for the people!' It sounds like the IAU has some bizarre procedures that they would allow such a tiny percentage to affect the reputation of all members, but hey, isn't that how democracy works in the US?
posted by kimota at 6:43 AM on August 25, 2006


Hey, as a librarian, I have further interests in the problem: Do we now recatalog Pluto? Is it PLANETS, DWARF, or DWARF PLANETS? Does its Dewey Decimal number change?

The IAU can vote all it wants to, but until they check with the librarians, Pluto is still a planet to fourth graders everywhere. Bwahahaha! Cataloging power!
posted by ancientgower at 6:49 AM on August 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


Ah, yes. This is a new development in the story; people charge that this vote was forced through in a pretty underhanded way and really does not represent any kind of broad consensus among the scientific community.
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:50 AM on August 25, 2006


Unlike most people here I think taxonomy does matter because the premises of language shape our views & relationships. If Homo sapiens had been more naturally grouped as Pan sapiens along with other chimp species, I'm convinced that would have affected our attitudes vis-a-vis our hairy cousins and to the natural world in general. Homo was a fudge to keep humans feeling special and seperate.
posted by Rufus T. Firefly at 6:52 AM on August 25, 2006


Fundamentally it's not a scientific question, but a normative question.
posted by delmoi at 6:52 AM on August 25, 2006


Why do people care about this?

Nomenclature is destiny.

We're used to thinking of Pluto a certain way because we've been calling it a "planet" -- akin to Neptune or Jupiter or Earth, but arguably it's something less -- roughly two-thirds the size of Earth's moon, in an eccentric, remote orbit. Notice the trouble we're having -- among the general public and right here in-thread -- in wrapping our heads around the idea that Pluto isn't all we thought it was?

Another example: There's this little town in southern Poland called Oświęcim. But most folks don't think of it as "this little southern Polish town" because it's better known by its German name from when it was Austrian territory:

Auschwitz.

Like I said: Nomenclature is destiny.
posted by pax digita at 6:56 AM on August 25, 2006


GODWINT
posted by thirteenkiller at 6:57 AM on August 25, 2006


First Poland Pluto, then the world!
posted by slimepuppy at 7:04 AM on August 25, 2006


Apparently there are legions of Save Pluto activists out there. As you might imagine, some like to play around with Photoshop, and you can see some of their stuff here. Some of it is kind of amusing.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:10 AM on August 25, 2006


Yeah...we forgot Poland.

'Scuse the Godwin....

Well, in illustrating "nomenclature is destiny," maybe Gettysburg would be a better example, especially to Americans. Believe me, we could've all been talking about the tremendous Battle of Cashtown (or Hanover or York or Frederick or Mechanicsburg) in 1863 and Gettyburg could've gone on being a sleepy crossroads with a beautiful little Lutheran college and seminary a ways down the road. It was pure happenstance that Harry Heth's skirmishers ran into Buford's cavalry there and not elsewhere. Just like few Americans have ever heard of Sharpsburg, Maryland, but fewer could ever forget the name of a nearby creek: the Antietam.

Or "Midway" -- a crummy little pair of islands which got its name because it was a convenient mid-ocean coaling station for ships transiting the Pacific. But because of what happened just a little ways to the west of there in June 1942, no US naval aviator is ever going to associate that name with anything else.
posted by pax digita at 7:10 AM on August 25, 2006


This is a slippery slope. If the IAU can simply decide that Pluto is no longer a planet, how long until they decide that Mercury isn't a planet either? Or Mars? And once Mars has fallen, how long until they decide that Earth isn't a planet? What we face here is nothing less than the potential end of the planet. Is that really what you want?

Besides, I think the IAU is being a little insensitive calling Pluto a "dwarf planet." It prefers to be called a "little person planet."
posted by magodesky at 7:13 AM on August 25, 2006


This reminds me of one of my favorite jokes.

For many years, the border between Poland and Russia was volatile. Due to a political shift, a farmer found that he was no longer a Russian, but had become a Pole.
Thrilled, he told his wife, "Thank God ! No more of those freezing Russian winters."

Seriously, get Kathleen Harris involved in the recount. We'll find out Pluto really won after all.
posted by dances_with_sneetches at 7:14 AM on August 25, 2006


d_w_s, that joke reminded me of a distant relative of mine who expressed a similar sentiment, once upon a time....
posted by pax digita at 7:18 AM on August 25, 2006


pax digita: The names associated with historical events and the places where they occurred is not really in the same ballpark as the scientific assignation of the names of balls of ice hurtling in a consistent trajectory through space; i.e., no one is suggesting that we stop referring to the Midway Islands as ISLANDS.
posted by billysumday at 7:19 AM on August 25, 2006


There's no such thing as a perfect analogy, billysumday.

I was attempting to point out that words are freighted with meaning, and "planet" suggests some things that "two-thirds the size of Earth's moon" rather belies.
posted by pax digita at 7:22 AM on August 25, 2006


Is there some reason these links couldn't have gone in the already existing thread?
posted by languagehat at 7:40 AM on August 25, 2006


My only problem is I have to explain to my four-year-old, whose favorite planet is Pluto, that some wack dudes in Europe decided it isn't really a planet anymore. That just sucks.

Oh he also calls Pluto's moon (co-planet?) "Sha-rooooon". Adorable.
posted by fungible at 7:41 AM on August 25, 2006


dances_with_sneetches, that joke is perfect. I'm going to start using it on anyone who cares loads about what we call Pluto.
posted by mediareport at 7:42 AM on August 25, 2006


IMDB has downgraded the genre designations of the film Pluto Nash from "Comedy/Action/Sci-Fi" to "B/Action/Sci Fi" after critics discover that its tomatometer readings definitively render it not funny enough to receive a "Comedy" classification. This corrects a widespread misconception, held by a public generally untrained in the laws of film criticism and sentimentally attached to Delirious.

Some members of the critical academy took issue with the ruling: "Firstly, it is impossible and contrived to put a dividing line between B-films and Comedies. It's as if we declared jokes not jokes for some arbitrary reason, like 'they tend to elicit guffaws'.
"Secondly, the actual definition is even worse, because it's inconsistent. I mean, have you seen Caddyshack 2?"
posted by kosem at 7:51 AM on August 25, 2006


This isn't just about Pluto. The alternative to changing Pluto's scientific classification is adding a sizable number of objects to the planet category (that is, if they ever agree to a scientific definition of "planet"). Which is better?
posted by zennie at 8:00 AM on August 25, 2006


This whole save Pluto kerfluffle is just Snakes on a Plane now that Snakes on a Plane is hopefully, mercifully, possibly over. If you hold off on buying the t-shirt now you can probably pick up a handfull for pennies on the dollar in a few months when the whimsy-industrial complex catches Steve Martin making anti-Samoan comments while charged up on poppers. Pluto probably feels better as a dwarf planet, lowered expectations and all that.
posted by Divine_Wino at 8:02 AM on August 25, 2006


Which is better?

More planets, of course.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:04 AM on August 25, 2006


Is there some reason these links couldn't have gone in the already existing thread?

Is there some reason they have to? What's it to you? It's a new story - there's serious questions about whether the vote was done fairly. That's the main idea of the first link. People don't seem to be picking up on that, though. Anyway, so what?
posted by thirteenkiller at 8:05 AM on August 25, 2006


> that some wack dudes in Europe decided it isn't really a planet anymore. That just sucks.

S'ok really. After all, Europe has to live with not being a continent any more, just a cultural backwater at the ass-end of Eurasia.

posted by jfuller at 8:14 AM on August 25, 2006


My only objections to all of this is the the seemingly crack pot scientists on a mission to demote Pluto. They seem almost like fantics who have been in the lab too long and have no idea how the real world works i.e. most of Pluto hating scientists have been going on about how "Pluto as a planet has no basis in reality" ( cept we've been calling it one for 70+ years) or "It hasn't cleared objects in it's orbit" (Neither has Saturn with it's rings) Or "If Pluto was discoved today, it wouldn't be a planet." (well it wasnt' discovered today was it?)

Like I said, it seems like a giant nerd fight that doesn't have much to do with scientific reality per se. and what's worng with having 12 planets in our solar system?
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 8:18 AM on August 25, 2006


Most astronomers (and I say this from experience, having studied to be one in my youth) are navel-gazing nebbishes who have a LOT of time on their hands to think up ways to justify their easy living. File this under the "Yeah, whatever" file and just keep looking up.

Slight derail: Did you know that astronomers, as a profession, are said to have the longest lifespan and the least stress of any job on the planet? When I was about 19 and I took my first astronomy class, I got to visit a small observatory in Northern California. The guy who ran the observatory had (I kid you not) these totally pimped out digs with a big satin-sheeted bed, etc next to the telescope room.. you know, for "entertaining" while the computer just recorded all his observations (this was mid-80's so it was prolly an Apple II but still).

Bottle of wine, the ability to point out damn near everything cool in the heavens, this guy was the Astro-Mack-Daddy and had the gals in the class all a-quiver in their knickers. From that point on, Astronomy was for me! 'Course later I found out you actually had to know, like, math and stuff, so it didn’t work out.

Anyway, dont take these guys too seriously. Feel free to think fondly of our frosty little 9th planet.

*Sigh* I would have liked to have been an Astro-Mack-Daddy....
posted by elendil71 at 8:23 AM on August 25, 2006


serious questions about whether the vote was done fairly...People don't seem to be picking up on that, though

Folks think they already know the story, and you didn't highlight the voting stuff, so they just dove in. To me, though, the whole process has been bullshit, so it's hard to care about the unfairness of the last vote.
posted by mediareport at 8:29 AM on August 25, 2006


"If Pluto was discoved today, it wouldn't be a planet."

Funny, but to me that's the most compelling argument in the whole mess.
posted by mediareport at 8:29 AM on August 25, 2006


Cheers, elendil71. I'll try not to be offended.

Anyway, believe me, most of us don't have 'totally pimped out digs'. It's a good job, but it's not entirely devoid of stress and the pay's not that great.
posted by edd at 8:34 AM on August 25, 2006


The alternative to changing Pluto's scientific classification is adding a sizable number of objects to the planet category (that is, if they ever agree to a scientific definition of "planet"). Which is better?

Not having a scientific definition of "planet" seems preferable to me.

It would not kill anyone to write "In this paper we study planetary formation. We exclude Pluto for our purposes because useful data are unavailable," or to write "In this paper we study planetary formation. Because the formation processes are similar, we include several Kuiper objects as planets," or "In this paper we study the formation of terrestrial planets, Mercury through Mars."
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 8:36 AM on August 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


But what about all the poor souls with Disrupted Mnemonic Stress Disorder?
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:39 AM on August 25, 2006


I'm just pissed my crap wasn't included...
posted by pupdog at 8:45 AM on August 25, 2006


"Pluto as a planet has no basis in reality" ( cept we've been calling it one for 70+ years)

Ya know, if we'd had the internets 76 years ago, everybody would've used the same logic to argue against Pluto as a planet ("schoolchildren have been memorizing the eight planets for eighty-four years now!"). The Kuiper Belt is probably just chock full of objects as big, maybe bigger, that are going to be discovered as more powerful telescopes and means of signal processing come into use. Pluto's a pretty poor excuse for a planet - why not elevate its status to the first Kuiper Belt object discovered?
posted by hangashore at 8:50 AM on August 25, 2006


Not having a scientific definition of "planet" seems preferable to me.

You know, thing would be much easier if we just didn't define things. What's a kilogram? Who cares? Better not to define it.

I don't understand any of the arguments for keeping Pluto a planet. Because textbooks will have to be rewritten? Textbooks are already rewritten all the time, and for no good reason other than to bilk parents and students out of their hard-earned money; I think they'll adjust. Because school curriculums will need to be changed? Sorry, let's just halt all scientific advances so that the schools can catch up. Because someone's four-year-old's favourite planet is Pluto? Because Walt Disney named a cartoon dog after the planet? These are legitimate reasons for not changing a planet's status?

Pluto's status as a planet has been contested for some time, especially since the discovery of the Kuiper Belt. Any kid who's studied the solar system knows about its eccentric orbit and its odd relationship with its moon, Charon. The fact that we've gone this long without a scientific taxonomy for celestial bodies boggles the mind, frankly; my only beef with this whole process is that the new definition of "planet" the IAU has come up with is so unsatisfactory and vague.

If we're having this much trouble with Pluto, imagine what will happen in the future when we begin to study planets outside the solar system in depth, perhaps to find new bodies that don't fit into any of the planet groups we've discovered thus far (terrestrial, gas, etc.). We might have to *gasp* change our definition of planet again!
posted by chrominance at 8:51 AM on August 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


"Remember when a tomato was a vegetable?"

"It is a vegetable, culinarily."

To some of us tomatoes will always be vegetables. I understand the clinical definition behind it, but it still tastes like a vegetable to me. The palette should be a contributing factor in determination, and scientists don't. So screw them. I also think yams should be considered fruit... at least when served properly.

"It was this or adding two more. That would just be crazy."

Three more actually, but why would it be crazy? Cuz then we'd have to change the many well-memorized mnemonics? I thought the initial proposal made much more sense. Rather than relegate Pluto to some arbitrary second tier of celestial bodies of which take less notice, add three new big boys to the list: Ceres, Charon and 2003 UB313 and bring more public attention to them. I mean, they're out there. They're orbiting the sun along with the rest of the debris. It's not like the Galileo Nine are doing anything particularly interesting right now anyway. Tracking and learning more about the scores of other big things out there is much more interesting.

"Pluto has lots and lots of friends; we're not so keen to have Pluto and all his friends in the club because it gets crowded. By the end of the decade, we would have had 100 planets, and I think people would have said 'my goodness, what a mess they made back in 2006'.""

No. They will say, "my goodness, we have 100 planets," which is what's really going on here. Planets are "nonluminous celestial bodies which are larger than comets or asteroids." That might rule out Ceres for the scientists if not for the fact that as asteroids go it's too big to be an asteroid.

This whole thing's arbitrary anyway. This third criteria of "clearing the neighbourhood around its orbit" is absurd. The real reason why we have this distinction is human frailty. We couldn't see these other objects with the naked eye very well until relatively recently. Galileo could see Neptune but not well enough to determine it was an actual planet. That didn't happen until a couple hundred years later. In fact it was more mathematics than telescopes that helped us see Neptune, Pluto and Charon. Because their orbits seemed erratic, it lent to the theories that something else was there affecting them. It's all like a dance out there, and however subtly, the smaller objects do influence the larger ones. Dismissing or ignoring them because they don't fit some arbitrary criteria is pointless.

To some of us, there will always be nine planets. That's just how we were raised. However, I'd rather accept Pluto's friends as planets too, then dismiss Pluto as something other than a planet.
posted by ZachsMind at 8:53 AM on August 25, 2006


"Galileo Nine" is a misnomer by the way. I had meant to change that in editing, but there it is anyway. Taunting me. I don't think Galileo actually knew about Uranus or Pluto. So it'd be the Galileo Seven. ...huh. To Star Trek freaks like me that's actually a significant realization.
posted by ZachsMind at 8:55 AM on August 25, 2006


Is there some reason they have to?

Yeah, that's pretty much how Matt tries to run things: minor additions to a story that's covered in an ongoing thread should go in that thread. Otherwise the front page gets cluttered with endless trivial updates like this.

What's it to you?

I care about MetaFilter.

It's a new story

In a very, very minor way. But hey, it's got lots of comments, so you win, if you choose to look at it that way.
posted by languagehat at 9:02 AM on August 25, 2006


I think that a lot of people are emotional about the whole Pluto thing because it makes our entire belief system a bit more tenuous.

There are certain things that we've grown up knowing as facts: the knowledge that there are nine planets is not something that we think about much, but it's something that we have always been able to rely upon and a "fact" that we can spout out like the number of continents and the distance to the sun--it's something concrete, something we've been brought up with. If that "fact" is in doubt, what other "facts" might be out there that may be called into question? It makes us feel uncomfortable because it shifts our own sense of reality just a little.
posted by leftcoastbob at 9:18 AM on August 25, 2006


"It was this or adding two more. That would just be crazy."

Three more actually, but why would it be crazy?


From the BBC article:
Professor Iwan Williams, the IAU's president of planetary systems science, commented: "Pluto has lots and lots of friends; we're not so keen to have Pluto and all his friends in the club because it gets crowded.

"By the end of the decade, we would have had 100 planets, and I think people would have said 'my goodness, what a mess they made back in 2006'."
And the ABC article says, "around a dozen other objects are already dwarf candidates."

How many planets is too many? It's easier, though not as cool, to reclassify Pluto. People laugh at old notion that the heavens are divine and unchanging, yet it seems that people wish the ancient scholars were right about that.
posted by zennie at 9:22 AM on August 25, 2006


Botanically, tomatoes are a fruit but oddly enough, in 1893, tomatoes were ruled by the Supreme Court to be vegetables (NIX v. HEDDEN, 149 U.S. 304 (1893) for tax reasons. (Vegetables required a 10 percent tariff, while fruits were imported duty-free. Apparently the government could make more money if they pretended that tomatoes were veggies.)
posted by leftcoastbob at 9:31 AM on August 25, 2006


You know, thing would be much easier if we just didn't define things. What's a kilogram? Who cares? Better not to define it.

Yes, because "planet" is clearly a unit of measurement. Earth is exactly one planet of planetness, as is Jupiter, while Pluto is only 0.8 planets of planetness and other Kuiper objects are 0.5--0.9 planets of planetness.

There are things you have to have defined to get your work done, and things you don't. "Planet," you don't.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 9:55 AM on August 25, 2006


I think the problem with this whole discussion is that people don't seem to understand (a) what Pluto is and (b) why it was called a planet in the first place. For people who DO understand these two, it makes perfect sense that Pluto is not a planet and was mislabeled as one when it was first discovered.

Generally, the planets break down into two categories: the terrestrial planets, small, rocky objects like Earth or Mars, and the gas giants, like Jupiter or Saturn. All the other planets look pretty much like one of these. Except Pluto, which is basically a big comet with a more-or-less circular orbit. It's one of hundreds or thousands of similar objects, members of what's called the Kuiper Belt, at the outer edge of the solar system. Occasionally a bit of icy rubble from the Kuiper Belt finds its way into an orbit that brings it close to the sun, it warms up, grows a tail, and gets called a comet. Other similar objects have been snared by the gravity of the outer planets and get called moons. Pluto is one of the largest of these objects ever discovered, but it's still just one of a large number of similar bodies.

When Pluto was discovered, Percival Lowell had predicted (based on anomalies in Neptune's orbit that he believed must be caused by another giant planet) that there should be another planet like Uranus or Neptune in an orbit even further from the sun. Lowell and his students guessed where this planet should be and, by amazing coincidence, discovered something was there. They claimed it was a new planet, which they called Pluto.

Trouble is, Pluto is so tiny that it could not possibly perturb Neptune's orbit in any meaningful way. Even in the 1930's, shortly after Pluto's discovery, nobody was sure how to classify this object. But the discoverers insisted it be a planet, and so that designation stuck.

Now that we realize that Pluto is really just another (large) Kuiper Belt object and not the planet that was predicted to exist beyond Neptune, it makes sense to get its designation right. The IAU -- which is comprised of astronomers from around the world -- and happens to be meeting in Europe (and is not, as has been suggested, a group of nasty Europeans who want to eliminate the only American-discovered planet in our solar system) are correcting a long-standing mistake. Demoting Pluto helps bring the model of the solar-system in line with our understanding of the origin and development of the same.

The decision might have some pop-cultural significance, but it's the right one. And, anyway, for anyone upset about the loss of one planet, you can bear in mind that we now know about a boatload of new planets in orbit around other stars, so there are really like 100 real planets anyway.

ps. I am an astronomer.
posted by dseaton at 10:24 AM on August 25, 2006


Pluto
with applogies to RK

I went into a public-'ouse to get a pint o' beer,
The publican 'e up an' sez, "We serve no 'Objects' here."
The nerds be'ind the 'scope they laughed an' giggled fit to die,
I outs into the street again an' to myself sez I:
O it's Pluto this, an' Pluto that, an' Pluto, go away";
But it's "You're a Plantoid now", when the band begins to play,
O it's "You're a Planetoid now", when the band begins to play.

I went into an orbit as sober as could be,
They gave a drunk meteor room, but 'adn't none for me;
They sent me to the gallery or round the Kuiper Belt,
But when it comes recite'n, Lord! they'll keep me from that Belt!
For it's Pluto this, an' Pluto that, an' "Pluto, wait outside";
But it's "Don't forget Pluto" when a mnemonic's on the line,
O it's "Don't forget Pluto" when a mnemonic's on the line.

Yes, makin' mock o' planetoids that plumb the 'system's deeps
Is cheaper than them confrences, an' they're starvation cheap;
An' hustlin' wan'rin planets when they're too small a bit
Is five time better business than add'n to the list.
Then it's Pluto this, an' Pluto that, an' "Pluto, 'ows yer 'moon'?"
But it's "Our most distant planet" when schoolkids begin to croon,
Schoolkids begin to croon, my boys, schoolkids begin to croon.

We aren't no Class M 'eroes, nor we aren't gas giants too,
But single rocks in orbits, most remarkable like you;
An' if sometimes our orbit isn't all your circle route,
Why, single rocks in orbits don't grow into perfect spins.
While it's Pluto this, an' Pluto that, an' "Pluto falls ow'side",
But it's "Yer a 'dwarf planet'", when there's changes in the wind,
There's changes in the wind, my boys, there's changes in the wind,
O it's "Yer a 'dwarf planet'", when there's changes in the wind.

You talk o' new classes for us, Charon an' Ceres same,
We'll wait on classi'fictions if you'll give UB a name.
Don't mess about in Czech back-rooms, but say it to our face
The planetoid name is not an astral-rock's disgrace.
For it's Pluto this, an' Pluto that, an' "Chuck him out, the goat!"
But it's "Our most distant planet" when the nerds begin to vote;
An' it's Pluto this, an' Pluto that, an' anything you please;
An' Pluto ain't a bloomin' fool -- you bet that Pluto sees!
posted by robocop is bleeding at 10:24 AM on August 25, 2006


Except Pluto, which is basically a big comet with a more-or-less circular orbit.

What is the difference between a planet and a coment and what specifically makes Pluto more of a comet than planet?


ps. I am an astronomer.

We'll deal with your kind after the lawyers.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 10:33 AM on August 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


I'll tell you what sucks, Pluto loses its 2 senate seats. I think Pluto's many hot bitches are still eligible for the Miss Universe competition though.
posted by Mister_A at 10:44 AM on August 25, 2006 [1 favorite]


Anyway, believe me, most of us don't have 'totally pimped out digs'. It's a good job, but it's not entirely devoid of stress and the pay's not that great.

edd, that was meant with no small amount of affection, and obviously some artistic license with the humor (true anecdote though). I got within a hairs breadth of my undergraduate before the math was threatening to blow the top of my skull off - even logged some time at Lick helping out grads and post-docs. So now I do archaeology and look down instead of up and dont make much money either. Dammit.

Dont give up on the Astro-Mack-Daddy (TM pending), mate. Cheers.
posted by elendil71 at 10:58 AM on August 25, 2006


Whoa, Mister_A wins....
posted by pax digita at 11:01 AM on August 25, 2006


dseaton: and is not, as has been suggested, a group of nasty Europeans who want to eliminate the only American-discovered planet in our solar system

Heh - I'm sure the Americans had no objections when the seventh planet was initially named after George III.

Oh, and fantastic comment, btw.
posted by hangashore at 11:09 AM on August 25, 2006


> ps. I am an astronomer.

Ooooo. Maybe you can explain all them complicated what-they-call "news-paper" articles to us. We never did do much booklearning.

Next you'll be telling us that falling stars aren't really stars, the sun is just another star and doesn't actually rise, the stars in constellations have nothing to do with one another, and the Milky Way has nothing to do with milk. Then we'd all have to change the way we talk about them. Dis-aster.
posted by pracowity at 11:15 AM on August 25, 2006


On the bright side this re-validates the number of planets represented in The Planets by Holst.
posted by quadog at 11:39 AM on August 25, 2006


I liked the first trial balloon definition better that would have increased our number of planets to 12 and increasing, but would be a little happier if at least they made "dwarf planet" an actual subset of "planet" and not a separately defined object entirely. That would still mean its a planet essentially.

At least that is my understanding of what they did with Pluto. Am I right on this?
posted by rfbjames at 12:02 PM on August 25, 2006


On the bright side this re-validates the number of planets represented in The Planets by Holst.

Somebody listens to NPR.
posted by spock at 12:08 PM on August 25, 2006


fuck
pluto

posted by smackwich at 12:23 PM on August 25, 2006


Some points, from someone dating an astronomer, if that gives me any credibility:

1) There is a *broad* consensus among astronomers that Pluto is not a planet. In fact, they get very boring about it at parties.

2) It is not an "arbitrary definition". An object's size, make-up, and distance from the star say a lot about how the object was formed and came to be part of the stellar system - for example, was it formed by the same collapsing nebula that made the star, was it attracted to the system later from outside by gravitation pull, or was it created by the destruction of a larger object. "Planet" is a term that is near-universally applied to objects that most likely formed in a planetary nebula. Therefore, the alternative to saying Pluto isn't a planet is to throw away a perfectly good definition and begin having to say, "OK, Pluto is a planet, too, so we now need a new word for the other eight and everything we find like them so we can talk about them coherently without mixing in a whole bunch of other objects as well. Earth is now both a planet and a, um, woogie." Why bother?

3) I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone who is not an astronomer cares in the slightest bit whether Pluto is termed a planet or not. Seriously. Why would you care? Do you have relatives there?
posted by kyrademon at 12:50 PM on August 25, 2006


Some points, from someone dating an astronomer, if that gives me any credibility:

No. That's like saying you play one on TV, except an actor might have to actually study for the part. At best, you might qualify as a dwarf expert.
posted by pracowity at 1:40 PM on August 25, 2006


Heh. I can accept that designation.
posted by kyrademon at 1:46 PM on August 25, 2006


I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone who is not an astronomer cares in the slightest bit whether Pluto is termed a planet or not. Seriously. Why would you care? Do you have relatives there?
posted by kyrademon


It's like I said before--fear of change. People fear that if one of the only facts they remember from high school science is wrong, then they've been wrong themselves all these years. You start messing with our "facts" and who knows where it might lead. Next thing you know, continental drift will give way to plate techtonics, Europe isn't really a continent, and the world wasn't created in 7 days.
posted by leftcoastbob at 2:23 PM on August 25, 2006


"How many planets is too many?"

When I was a kid one of the subjects that really fascinated me on the outset was astronomy. We got to that point and I was actually excited. This wasn't like history, where we're talking about dead people and what they did before I was alive. This was about stuff that was out there in space doing stuff right now, and most of it was bigger than I could conceive in my little head. That was just fucking cool. Stuff's out there right now revolving and rotating and orbiting, and if you're real lucky something's out there colliding with something else right now! Big things!

So the teacher started by going over the sun and the moon and the nine planets in detail... and then talked about what a vacuum is... and uh... Well that was about it. Some scant mention of comets and quazars and black holes, but we don't know much about most of them so...

Oh there's a lot of other stuff out there too. Like an asteroid belt..! Ooh! Cool! Asteroid belt!

"Uh teach?"

"Yes Zachary?

"Is it possible that the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter is there cuz it used to be a planet, but it got blowed up cuz a long time ago people who lived on Mars and people who lived on Jupiter got mad at each other and fought and that planet got blowed up in the crossfire? Huh?"

"Uhm.. probably not Zachary."

"Why not?"

"People can't live on Mars or Jupiter."

"But maybe they did long before we lived on Earth."

"There's no proof supporting that."

"Howzabout a maybe? We don't know?"

"We don't know."

And then she'd skillfully change the subject and before we knew it we weren't talking about celestial bodies anymore. We were on to some other branch of science that was so painfully boring I can't even remember what it was.

I was always fascinated by the "we don't know" part, but that was a black hole to education. I always loved the we don't knows cuz that's where you can imagine things could happen, but the textbooks never covered that. That's where anything was possible and that's always where I wished education would go, and it never did. We only focused on the boring stuff that was already there.

Children need to fill out the we don't knows, and dance around in them for awhile until they're not we don't knows anymore. They're fun places to go.

There can never be too many planets.
posted by ZachsMind at 2:42 PM on August 25, 2006


Now, that's a great comment.
posted by languagehat at 4:48 PM on August 25, 2006


All this debate, and not one person mentioning the devastating consequences on astrology. The tv news had a large segment last night talking to some astrologers about the change and how it would change their predictions. Apparently pluto is influencing the saggitarians at the moment, and they are in for a rough time.

Of course, now we have to wait for the aliens from rupert to recalibrate their horoscopes too.
posted by scodger at 6:47 PM on August 25, 2006


3) I cannot for the life of me understand why anyone who is not an astronomer cares in the slightest bit whether Pluto is termed a planet or not. Seriously. Why would you care? Do you have relatives there?

I don't have to discuss bad family relations with YOU. Lets just say Uncle Bob was a little too close with his animals and leave it at that.

Look, if you scientists types are going to say that you're the authority on this or that, fine. But if you guys start changing your mind about what is X and what is Y, you gotta expect some backlash. What's next, Mercury, you heartless bastards, huh, HUH?!

Don' t mess with my planets and you won't get burned at the stake, mmokay?

Seriously, what's the HARM in keeping Pluto a planet? Ok, maybe it's a little wierd and your definition has changed now based on new info. Fine. But keep it as planet and if you got to, add a few more. THAT would be interesting, going to a 12 planet solar system, that would be exciting.
posted by Brandon Blatcher at 7:09 PM on August 25, 2006


Agreed. Let's have lotsa planets: Ceres, Sedna, Quaroar, Xena, Yomomma.
posted by moonbird at 7:30 PM on August 25, 2006


you can bear in mind that we now know about a boatload of new planets in orbit around other stars, so there are really like 100 real planets anyway.

It turns out that those aren't planets. The definition just approved starts:

"A "planet"1 is a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun..."

So whatever those big things that orbit other stars are, they ain't planets.

It's learning that it's not actually a planet that drives Ceti Alpha VI into a rage so furious that it explodes, knocking Ceti Alpha V into a new orbit.
posted by ROU_Xenophobe at 7:45 PM on August 25, 2006


H.A Rey had a mnemonic for remembering the order of the planets: "Matilda Visits Every Monday Just Stays Until Noon..." then there was a Period but now there is no stopping Matilda, or maybe no getting Matilda to end her visit and go away.
If anyone should be upset about this downgrading of Pluto, it is Matilda. Her whole life is changed.
posted by Cranberry at 10:41 PM on August 25, 2006


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