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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