Pluto: The Proper Planet


by L Neil Smith

Here’s a matter that may reveal more about psychology or politics than it does about astronomy. You’ll recall, a couple of years ago, the flap over the “demotion” of Pluto, theretofore the ninth planet of the Solar System, to the mean and niggardly status of “dwarf planet”.

I have always believed that an international conspiracy, possibly composed of those who hate our freedom, carried out this astronomical assassination because Pluto is the only planet discovered by an American, Clyde Tombaugh.

However, given the fact that Pluto, whatever its size, is an independent body circling the same primary we do (unlike the Asteroids of the Belt or those found at various Trojan positions around the System, or parked in orbit around Mars) and the pathetic and petty way this demotion was carried out, many people, including yours truly, objected to it as unnecessary, inaccurate, and stupid.

Now we learn (because we don’t always keep up on these things) that in addition to the moon Charon, which we’ve known about for a long while, Pluto possesses _four_ other moons, Nix, Hydra, and more recently, Styx and Kerberos, all named for various underworld-related entities in Greek mythology.

The System’s “gas giants”, Jupiter, Saturn, Neptune, and the one whose pronunciation mysteriously changes whenever it’s mentioned on TV, all have more moons than we can properly keep track of. Mars, Earth, and Venus, which are also full-blown planets in good standing, possess, respectively, two, one, and zero moons.

And yet Pluto, the little world that has been ignominiously stripped of its rank, and its sword ceremonially broken, has five moons. Count ‘em: five whole moons! I maintain that this confirms its proper dignity as a first-class planet, and to the list of historic phrases like “Carthage must be destroyed!” “Remember the Alamo”, and “Hillary wears army boots!”, we should now add “Restore Pluto!””

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6 responses to “Pluto: The Proper Planet

  1. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy, though I am in the “Pluto is a planet” camp. It’s a matter of definitions.

    The first stage in human thinking- the basis of it- is to divide reality into classes of things. And to do that, you have to create a definition of the class. The definition of “planet” has changed over time; originally it simply meant “bright light in the night sky that moves around relative to the stars, in regular patterns”. Nobody knew they were worlds at all.

    So from this, developed the idea that there is only a small number of these “planets” that a schoolboy can learn to recite. And recent science then found that in fact there are very many of them. And because of this idea of “the planets” in orderly form, some astronomers weren’t comfortable with the idea that there may be twenty, or a hundred of “the planets”. So they cobbled together a definition whose only purpose was to exclude the ice dwarfs from planet status.

    Which is a bit like, say, excluding by definition black people from homo sapiens sapiens by amending the definition with the clause “and has an albedo above 0.5″.

    We should have just gone with “spherical due to gravity, and its primary is a star” in my opinion. But that’s just me.

    It’s also worth noting that the current definition only covers planets orbit the Sun. Planets in other stellar systems aren’t planets at all. They’re exoplanets; despite at least a century of just using the word “planet” for them in both science fact and science fiction. Mr Spock comes from the planet Vulcan, not the exoplanet Vulcan.

    Which is even sillier.

    Also, I can’t wait for the Dawn spacecraft to arrive at Ceres, which I think is going to be a fascinating little planet, which has been sadly ignored because “it’s just an asteroid”. By definition.

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  3. Actually, Pluto is the NINTH planet..
    And it is unique in several ways. Not only is it the only planet with more than two moons – other than the gas giants – but also its biggest moon has about half the diameter of the primary, which surpasses all other moons (the Earth’s moon comes in second with the moon’s diameter being 1/4 of the primary’s). Presumably this means that L4 and L5 are unstable.

    Oh, I totally OK with Uranus being pronounced with main emphasis on the first syllable – a lot of words and names are, including Jupiter.

    • The Greek pronunciation is OUranos. However, I feel that we should keep to the the educated pronunciation of the 18th century, which I think sounds just like Your Anus.

      Some years ago, there was a South Korean Prime Minister or some such called Lee Bum Suk. The Beeb newreaders always dropped their voices and called him “Lee Boom Sook.” Someone from the Spectator called the South Korean Embassy, though, and had the correct and phonetic pronunciation confirmed.

      Any ideas on how to pronounce Phuket?

      • I’m a Your-Anus fan. That’s what I learned as a child, and so far as I can tell the whole thing about finding it funny was started by it being lampooned in the movie ET. Very childish.

        Plus, the PC pronunciation is “urine-us” which doesn’t seem much of an improvement to me.

  4. An advantage of a devalued rank could be that a ceterum-censeo-phrase is hopefully viable: Keep Pluto tax-free!