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Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Petition for Pluto

In my previous entry, I presented my thoughts defending Pluto's status as our ninth planet and opposing the IAU's decision to "downgrade" it to a "dwarf planet." If you agree that Pluto should retain its status, please sign the petition to the IAU at the link below. This is an opportunity for people around the world to voice our opinions and hopefully show overwhelming support for a repeal of this decision.

Please keep all comments respectful to assure the credibility of the petition.

The petition is located at

Friday, September 1, 2006

In Defense of Pluto

by: Laurel Kornfeld, Highland Park, NJ

Humans have always had a very self-centered view of the world around us. Our forebears naturally assumed their world was the center of the universe around which everything else revolved. Of course, the plants, animals and other resources of this world were unquestioningly believed to have been placed here for our use, to take, consume, and even destroy at will.

Since the 18th century Enlightenment and certainly at the dawn of the 21st century, people like to believe we have become more knowledgeable, more rational, more aware that we are just one part of a much larger universe as opposed to the center of everything. Yet the recent decision by the International Astronomers Union to demote Pluto from its status as a planet hints that we might not be as intellectually removed from the Dark Ages as many like to believe.

In attempting to create a specific definition for the term “planet,” the IAU set three criteria. An object must orbit the sun, be round, and “clear the area of its orbit,” meaning expel other objects inside its orbit through gravity. That third criterion is where things become problematic, and it is where Pluto does not fit in.

So after 76 years, we have newspaper headlines reading “Pluto: 1930-2006” and the so-called experts telling us that after all these years, what we learned in school is wrong, that Pluto is not a planet, never qualified as one but gets the consolation prize of recognition as a “dwarf planet.”

The linguistics here do not even make sense. One would think “dwarf planet” is a subcategory of the larger classification of planet, but the IAU decision precludes this. The result is Pluto and other objects can be classified as “dwarf planets,” yet are not planets at all. Does this sound logical?

Who gets to define what a planet is? A central principle of rhetoric is that “he (or she) who defines the terms wins the debate.” And therein lies the problem.

The word “planet” dates back to antiquity and is a term meaning “wanderer.” It was used to describe those objects that appeared to be stars but did not maintain fixed patterns in the sky, instead appearing, disappearing, and reappearing in what seemed to be random wandering.

It was not until the 17th century, when we finally realized that the sun and not the earth is the center of the solar system, that the definition of “planet” was narrowed to mean an object that orbits the sun.

Discovered in 1930, Pluto is round, orbits the sun, has an atmosphere, and has three moons. But because its orbit is highly elliptical and somewhat off the plane of Earth’s and most of the other planets’ orbits, it has always been viewed as “different,” never quite fitting in with its eight counterparts.

The question arises, why must an object orbit in the same plane as Earth to be considered a planet? Isn’t that a reversion to the old “we are the center of the universe” mentality? Is it not the height of human arrogance to assume that an object must conform to our home world’s way of doing things to qualify for legitimacy?

Can humans, however educated, “kill off” a planet by expunging it from our records? Do we really have that degree of power?

In this case, as Shakespeare said, “the fault is not in our stars but in ourselves.” The IAU decision, made in a highly political context on the last day of its conference, with a very small minority of members even taking part in the vote, tells us more about old-fashioned human weaknesses than it does about the outer solar system.

Even in our most educated circles, we still have ego issues, factional disputes, and individuals vying for personal recognition. We still want to believe that we are the center of everything. We want the world to conform to the standards we create. We want to control who is in and who is out and what is in and what is out. And we can decide that sorry, but poor little Pluto just doesn’t make the cut.

As a general rule, humans are uncomfortable with non-conformists. We don’t like those that are smaller, that are different, that are in some way vulnerable. In our need to be accepted, we create artificial standards for who is worthy to be part of our in groups and who should be excluded, the way that two hundred and twenty years ago, the framers of the Constitution determined that African-Americans were each three-fifths of a person.

And so in an act of revisionist history that would make George Orwell proud, we have decided to expunge Pluto from our solar system. It’s not a planet; it never was.

Never mind that the criteria of “clearing its own orbit” would also exclude Neptune for not clearing Pluto’s orbit or Jupiter for not clearing asteroid fields or even Earth itself for not clearing nearby asteroids. After all, we get to decide even if there isn’t any sound reasoning behind the decision, even if the “we” amounts to an infinitesimal portion of humanity.

Fortunately, there are still clearer heads who see through the sham of this decision. Dr. Alan Stern, lead scientist on NASA’s robotic mission to Pluto launched earlier this year, is leading a backlash against the ruling, which he describes as “inconsistent,” “embarrassing,” and “sloppy science that would never pass peer review.” He is one of more than 300 signatories to a petition asking the IAU to reverse its determination.

Chances are, at some point Stern and his colleagues will succeed in getting this travesty overturned. But no matter what we here on Earth decide, Pluto remains what it is, unchanged, an enigma that will exist when all of us are long gone, regardless of whether we choose to further our path to open-mindedness and enlightenment or remain stuck in the shadow of the Dark Ages.