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Saturday, September 23, 2006

The ouster of Pluto

For years I’ve been preaching about the facts of life, admittedly in a limited way, reminding people that the only constant is change. And yet sometimes when change comes with dramatic suddenness, as it did recently, I was ill prepared for it.
This has to do with the elimination of Pluto from membership in the solar system.
One of the few things I know about astronomy is that Pluto was the smallest planet, the farthest from the sun. That was etched in my mind because at some point, probably when I was studying what was known as General Science, I memorized the solar system. With a little prompting, I can still do that today, in no particular order: Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Venus, Mercury Mars, and, of course, Earth.
(Students were more likely to memorize things years ago because the information wasn’t that readily available. As an example, I give you trustworthy, loyal, helpful, friendly, courteous, kind, obedient, cheerful, thrifty, brave, clean and reverent. That was, and perhaps still is, the Boy Scout Law.
(I can also recite the Greek alphabet, although that doesn’t help me much in my daily life, even when contemplating chicken souvlaki, and as a journalist I learned that The quick brown fox jumps over the lazy dog’s back. Oh, and I once was able to recite the Gettysburg Address without hesitation, but that is long gone.)
Now Pluto is gone, too, relegated to the inferior and demeaning status of “dwarf planet.” That action is the direct result of a vote by the International Astronomical Union, whose members had apparently been arguing for years about the status of Pluto. That debate took place in the remote sanctums of the astronomical world, and didn’t attract any public attention until it was too late to mount a reasonable campaign to safeguard Pluto’s status.
The elimination of Pluto from the solar system was a bitter defeat for those who favored its continued inclusion. What were the arguments pro and con between revisionists and traditionalists? I cannot tell you and I have not pursued an explanation because we probably would not understand the two sides of the issue anyway. Many of us who have gone through life with little or no knowledge about Pluto seem unable to accept its reduced status with equanimity.
My affection for Pluto is probably a direct result of the dog of the same name, created by the folks at Disney, to be a sidekick for Mickey Mouse, Donald Duck and Goofy, in those short cartoons which filled an important interlude during the Saturday matinee. Pluto never uttered a single line in any of his many film appearances, but he didn’t have to speak. He had great facial expressions and a series of unique bodily contortions, attainable only with the aid of a cartoonist. He remains one of my favorite bloodhounds.
Controversy sometimes results in learning, even at the pedestrian level of the columnist. Seeking a nugget or two of information, it’s always possible to strike gold. Did you realize that Pluto, the planet, was discovered in 1930? It had been out there for an eternity, but in 1930 it was finally discovered. Now extensive research discloses that Pluto, the dog, was created, named, and made his first film appearance in 1930. That is certainly no coincidence. The Disney people of the time must have been so enchanted with the name of the new planet, they acted immediately to bestow cartoon fame upon it. The Disney people of today have been quoted as claiming there are no records linking the naming of the dog with the planet, but only a gullible few believe that explanation.
The planet---or ”dwarf planet” as it shall henceforth be known---was named after Pluto, the Greek god of the underworld, not to be confused with Plato, the Greek philosopher. Pluto wasn’t such an admirable character; he kidnapped Persephone and together they ruled the underworld.
This whole discussion brings up the issue of Plutonium, that metallic element produced in a cyclotron that can be used in the making of nuclear bombs.
I realize I’ve strayed far from the topic but I attribute that behavior to a common character fault, the difficulty people like me often have with sudden change. I’m trying my best to support the decision of the astronomers, who surely must know space, but it won’t be easy to accept the deletion of that distant speck of a planet. Pluto, we hardly knew you...



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