Inside the Capitol

Monday, August 20, 2007

8-22 Hope for Pluto


Syndicated Columnist

      SANTA FE -- OK, all you Pluto lovers. I apologize for reporting your planet's demise while there is still life and hope left in the heavenly body.

      Since writing a June 27 column reporting very little life left in the effort to resurrect Pluto from obscurity, I have heard from some of you saying, not so fast, the new definition of a planet has major problems and an abundance of Pluto supporters are working to see the demotion overturned.

      Upon checking sources for my column on Pluto's expiration, I discovered they were contained in a Houston Chronicle article and all were from Texas. These Texas astronomers are well aware that Clyde Tombaugh, the discoverer of Pluto, was a New Mexican.

      And New Mexicans are well aware that Texas has never been out to do us any favors. Texas invaded us twice in the mid-1800s. The first time we marched them barefoot to jail in Mexico City.

   The second time, we sent them scurrying to and fro down the Rio Grande, going hundreds of miles out of their way to be sure to avoid any further battles.

   Maybe we should treat this situation in a similar manner, although I understand opposition to Pluto goes further than that. But now that we know Texas can't push us around, we might as well take on the world.

   We have a lot of friends out there, according to Laurel Kornfeld, a reader in New Jersey. She is associated with one of many efforts to overturn the International Astronomical Union's decision exactly a year ago to adopt a new definition of planets that excludes Pluto.

   Chief among those opposing the IAU's demotion of Pluto to a dwarf planet is Dr. Alan Stern, the lead scientist of NASA's New Horizons robotic mission to Pluto. Stern calls the new definition that downgrades Pluto "sloppy science that would never pass peer review."

   Why is it sloppy science? The added criterion for being a planet is that it must clear the path around its orbit. That means having enough gravitational pull to either suck them up or brush them aside. Since Pluto's orbit overlaps that of Neptune, it does not clear its neighborhood.

   But then Neptune doesn't clear its zone of Pluto, so it shouldn't be a planet either. And the seven other planets all have thousands of asteroids in their orbital paths.

   So, by definition, there are no planets. And it's time for astronomers to reconsider and come up with something not quite so embarrassing.

   The big battle is between two branches of astronomy. The planetary geologists came up with a definition that a planet is round and orbits the sun. But the dynamicists, who study the motion and gravitational effects of celestial objects, wanted a more precise definition.

   They couldn't sell their idea to the total group, so they waited until the closing ceremonies of the 10-day conference. All but 424 of the 2,500 delegates already had caught flights home. The revolt successfully hijacked the vote on Pluto. The IAU has 10,000 members and no electronic absentee voting, so the vote was only a small percentage of the membership.

   If you would like to see astronomers go back to the drawing board and work out a definition that includes Pluto, go to for a delightful discussion about Pluto and its worldwide popularity, along with a petition you can sign online.

   If you would like a hard copy of a petition, with about 20 signature lines, e-mail Laurel Kornfeld at It could be a fun activity for a group of believers in the tiny little planet that has captured the hearts and imaginations of so many.

   It also would be a good classroom exercise. Materials, pro and con are available on the Web, along with Web sites at which students can vote on whether they think Pluto should be reinstated as a planet or not.

WED, 8-22-07


JAY MILLER, 3 La Tusa, Santa Fe, NM 87505

(ph) 982-2723, (fax) 984-0982, (e-mail)



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