Friday, August 25, 2006

Ceci n'est pas une planete

With apologies to Magritte...

That's right, I'm jumping on the Pluto bandwagon (and why not? For after all, Pluto was not only the Roman god of the underworld but the patron deity of wealth as well, hence the word plutocracy), with a stylish black t-shirt at

Get 'em while supplies last...

Despite the fact that I am both a Classicist and a huge astronomy buff, I have to say the news of Pluto's recent demotion to the newly-created category of "dwarf planet" hasn't irked me nearly as much as it seems to have countless other souls. Pluto's always been something of an odd-ball, anyway, what with its elliptical orbit which actually made it the eighth planet from the Sun for several years unbeknownst to most of us and no doubt much to Neptune's eternal chagrin (to think, a gas giant overshadowed by a dirty little ice ball)!

The problem with keeping Pluto as a planet is that the recent discovery of myriad objects the same size or even larger would have necessitated a massive enlargement of the solar system. The objects known as Charon, Ceres, and "Xena" would have been only the tip of the iceberg so to speak, since astronomers continue to find ever more planet-like objects as our observational capabilities advance. Had the International Astronomical Union voted to keep Pluto, it would have been very difficult not to admit the several dozen of its peers which have now instead been labelled "dwarf planets".

If we are to find some way to continue to honor our former ninth planet, perhaps the best way would have been to adopt the term "pluton" to describe these ubiquitous smaller spheres of rock and ice hurtling through the outer reaches of the solar system. But alas, the proposal to do just that was axed when a bunch of angry geologists pointed out the fact that pluton already refers to a type of igneous rock.

Sorry, Pluto. Maybe the words of Richard Binzel, my astronomy professor at MIT, can offer some consolation (and some much-needed perspective) in this your hour of need:

The Pluto Portal: Do you think Pluto is a planet, if so why or why not?

Professor Binzel: Pluto is Pluto, no matter what label we put on it. What is important is to learn about and understand what Pluto is.

Well said! Now buy my t-shirt.

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