Thursday, August 24, 2006

Poor Rejected Pluto...We Saw it Coming

Pluto image taken from Gene Smith's Astronomy Tutorial

Now writing about science and technology isn't something I've done on this blog before. That's because my focus, as is obvious from this blog's description, is somewhere else.

However, when I was a child I was a huge astronomy and NASA geek. My mom bought me all sorts of astronomy books and I still smile when I think of how I just loved Ham, the chimp astronaut. L.A. is great because it has the Griffith Observatory and the big high tech companies related to space travel in California, but even if I'd grown up in middle America I think I was always drawn to places unknown whether it be outer space or international destinations. I'm still fascinated when I sit and watch the movie depiction of Carl Sagan's Contact. And, while science fiction doesn't qualify you to comment as an authority on astronomy, it was the pull of science coupled with sci-fi that inevitably led me to bringing a toy light saber at my law school graduation and wielding it when I received my diploma. That makes me feel more than qualified to comment on this Pluto matter as a keyboard astronomer (think "armchair commentator" or "armchair pundit").

I was following the Pluto debate and knew it would probably be regulated to a planetoid status. If only being tiny regulated humans to a humanoid status, I wouldn't feel a slight tug of envy seeing all these female skeletal frames in the Hollywood spotlight being called beautiful. They'd just be "beautiful for a humanoid". Okay, I know Pluto is not a planetoid. That's a totally different astronomy category, but that whole planetoid/humanoid tie in would have failed had I acknowledged that a few words earlier.

It seems naming and categorizing it is one of the issues. Pluto is now in a terminology wasteland it seems:

In a series of votes, the astronomers narrowly decided against calling it a "plutonian object." The term "pluton" was shot down, too. But they insisted that Pluto would still have stature -- it becomes a "dwarf planet" and the prototype of a new, as yet unnamed, subcategory of objects. (from the Washington Post article For Pluto, a Smaller World After All)
What caught my attention was a headline I saw from ABCNews: Widow of Pluto's Discoverer 'Shook Up'. In the article, Patricia Tombaugh talks about how her husband, Clyde Tombaugh, "...would understand they had a real problem when they start finding several of these things flying around the place."
The controversy over how to define Pluto began when scientists realized it was much smaller than it was thought to be when it was discovered in 1930. Early data indicating that it was large enough to disturb the orbits of Neptune and Uranus turned out to be observational errors. (see For Pluto, a Smaller World After All)
I actually think the rejected option, adding more planets and upping the number from eight to ten would have been better.
Another possibility, advocated by Gingerich's committee, would have been to call any orbiting object sufficiently large for gravity to pull it into a round shape a planet. That would have included Pluto, Xena and Ceres -- a object long considered an asteroid that orbits between Mars and Jupiter -- and perhaps others. (see For Pluto...)
I mean a planets named Xena and Ceres would be cool, but I'm not an astronomer and cool planet names wasn't the point.

For this blogger, it breaks my heart. Mrs. Tombaugh was ready for it. Rationally, I was ready for it. But poor little Pluto has been dissed.

According to the Washington Post article:
The fight over Pluto's status at a meeting in Prague of the International Astronomical Union, the body that sets standards for the field, became a vicious battle that ultimately broke along scientific, linguistic and historical lines.
I just don't understand how little Pluto could make anyone "vicious", but I've been known to get vicious over issues others would find obscure too. In fact, the saying "it's not that serious" really irks me when thrown my way. So maybe here, that phrase is needed for all who are worked up and shocked.

Pluto will survive. It has friends. It has the support of many humans (and humanoids). It will continue on in its existence following its own orbit. Unfortunately it will not be clearing the way of other objects was orginally thought, but trailing along in influence behind its more powerful neighbors.

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