Inside the Capitol

Tuesday, August 29, 2006

9-1 Pluto Demoted

Syndicated Columnist
SANTA FE -- Well, at least Pluto had its 75 years of fame. Considering the age of the solar system, that may be equivalent to about 15 minutes.
New Mexicans aren't the only ones peeved about the decision to downgrade Pluto to a dwarf planet. Think of all the school children who had to memorize the planets.
Then there are those who liked Pluto because he's an underdog -- or Mickey Mouse's dog. And what about dwarfs? They may want to join the revolt.
Why are New Mexicans mad? Pluto's discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, spent his last 50 years in New Mexico, making him as bona fide a New Mexican as anyone.
Tombaugh grew up in Kansas and made his famous 1930 discovery in Arizona. But he came to New Mexico in 1946 to work at White Sands Proving Grounds as the German V-2 rockets were being brought in for testing.
In 1955, Tombaugh went to New Mexico State University at Las Cruces where he led the astronomy department to international recognition.
Following his retirement, Tombaugh continued his involvement at New Mexico State, touring the United States and Canada, with his wife Patricia, giving lectures to raise money to bring astronomers to NMSU for post-doctoral research. The Tombaugh Scholars Fund now is a permanent endowment.
All Americans had reason to be disappointed at the decision by the International Astronomical Union. Pluto was the only planet discovered by an American. The NASA team that launched the New Horizons probe, due to approach Pluto in 2015, wasn't too happy either.
There is just something about Pluto that captures people's imagination, maybe because it is so small and far away. Next to Earth, it probably was the best known planet.
Most people know they can see Venus and Mars. They know there is a big planet and one with rings around it, but aren't sure which is which. And then there's Neptune and Uranus that are somewhere way out there. And, oh yes, there's that little one near the sun.
The closest most students come to remembering the names and order of planets is to use a mnemonic device. My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas had its variations, but now the race is on to devise a new one for the remaining eight.
Substituting Nachos or Noodles for Neptune are early efforts. But an enterprising astronomy professor thinks he has found a great way to increase enrollment. He suggests My Very Exotic Mistress Just Showed Up Naked. Of course, that would get any elementary school teacher fired.
And what's going to happen if indigo is eliminated from the rainbow? I can't see it in there, but the Biv family will have a fit.
What if the top line of the treble clef music staff were eliminated? Every good boy no longer would do fine. We have enough trouble with the younger generation now. That would mess them up forever.
And no, Pluto wasn't named for Mickey Mouse's dog. He was Rover until 1931, when the new planet's discovery made such a hit. Google Pluto and you will find 38 entries for the planet before the dog is mentioned.
There's also a lot of anger on the Internet about the change. Some are calling it a communist conspiracy. The change was made at a meeting in the Czech Republic. It is a former communist state, but not willingly, for sure.
E-bay already is full of opportunists eager to make a buck on protest paraphernalia, but for the most part, the reaction is amusement and not anger.
Even the Tombaugh family in Las Cruces, although disappointed, is not letting it send them into orbit. Clyde's reaction before he died was that he discovered something out there and it doesn't matter too much what they call it.
We got to sit next to the Tombaughs at the 1976 dedication of the Space Museum in Alamogordo and quickly appreciated his great wit.
FRI, 9-01-06

JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505
(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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