Friday, August 25, 2006

The best-laid planets of maestros and men

Yesterday my Number Two Son strolled into my office to tell me Pluto has been demoted and is no longer a first-class planet. (It's now classified as a "dwarf planet.")

"Oh, that debate's been raging for decades," I said, barely glancing up from my keyboard. I had already heard the news, but couldn't get all worked up about it, remembering too well how my astronomy professors used to deride little Pluto, the red-headed stepchild of planets, insisting that it was just too strange to be part of the planetary family. Yesterday's decision by the International Astronomical Union hasn't changed a thing except to formally acknowledge the illegitimacy we've all been whispering about for years.

Why does everyone think this is such a big news item? Perhaps because it voids the mnemonic we all learned in the third grade to remember the planets, beginning with the one closest to the sun and moving outward: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pickles. (That's Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto.) I can think of no other reason because this decision changes nothing except the accuracy of a few pages in our kids' science textbooks, which were never scrupulously accurate to begin with. Pluto is still out there, its weird little orbit unaffected by a bunch of IAU members who had maybe a little too much coffee this past week and called some press conferences because they wanted some attention.

This morning I've been listening to Gustav Holst's The Planets, an orchestral suite of seven movements, one for each of Earth's companion planets. (The "Jupiter" movement is my fave.) Pluto wasn't discovered until 1930, roughly fifteen years after Holst completed his opus, but although the composer was still alive and making music at that time, he showed no interest in revising his work to include the little planet. That didn't stop Colin Matthews from "completing" the well-loved suite in 2000 by adding an eighth movement.

I've never heard the updated version of The Planets, but if the additional movement wasn't a silly idea before, it sure is now. I wonder if it will ever be performed or recorded again.

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Katie Hart said...

I learned it as ...Served Us Nine Pizzas. I guess now it can be ...Served Us Nachos. (Though weren't the planets out of order back when I was in school?)

The whole thing seems dumb to me. So now it's a "dwarf planet." It's not like it joins a whole club of dwarf planets encircling our sun that students study one particular day of the year. It's still some type of planet, different from the others yet part of the solar system. Maybe we should keep MWEMJSUNP - whether we learned it as pickles or pizzas or perogies.

PanAsianBiz said...

I don't understand the whole "dwarf planet" designation either. One of the funnies quotes I read on this was in a Washington Post article about the IAU vote. It seems that one of the IAU members that voted to retain Pluto scoffed at the "dwarf planet" label too. He said something like, "So does this mean a human dwarf is not a human?"

Brenda Coulter said...

Pluto is not the only dwarf planet. Several asteroids were put on that list, such as the enormous Ceres, which orbits the sun between Mars and Jupiter, and more will be added soon.

The "dwarf" label makes sense because the same term is used to designate the smaller stars. Our own sun is called a yellow dwarf.

Bonnie Calhoun said...

Yea, but now that they've messed with poor Pluto, they're talking about adding a bunch of others as planets!

Julana said...

My mother was EAGER.

My husband said 90% of the voters had left the conference and this was brought to the floor at the last minutes. Only 200 of the original 2,000 attendees got to vote. And even the attendees are in the minority of astronomers. It was like requiring voters to go to Washington, DC, to vote. Not scientific. :-)

Brenda Coulter said...

All IAU members, even those not at the conference, knew this was coming up for a vote. Few were interested enough to participate.