You may recall, as I do because I was there, that Coach Jimmy Lange told his seventh grade science class in 1974 that there are nine planets in our solar system. You may even remember all their names. I know Earth was one, and Jupiter, and Sneezy, and Louie. And Pluto. There are others, although I can never remember all of them. But I know Pluto was in there.
Unfortunately, Pluto got kicked out of the Planet Club several years ago, for being unplanetary, or some such. I remember being unhappy about that at the time, because the solar system was one of those things I thought I could count on. Like Roger Staubach being the greatest quarterback ever, and the Russians being our enemies, and John Wayne. Well, maybe not as solid as John Wayne. But still, we had nine planets, and that wasn’t supposed to change. And if it did, I was pretty sure the Russians would be at fault.
So when ‘they’ decided Pluto was out, it kind of messed with my perception of things. For about three hours. And then I went right on with life and forgot about it. Because Pluto, whether it was a planet or not, was still there. At least, I assumed ‘they’ wouldn’t make Pluto leave the solar system. That would just be mean. Plus, where would it go?
As I understood it, Pluto was demoted to ‘dwarf planet,’ because it was small, and ‘they’ decided it was too small to be included with the ‘big planets.’ Which seems discriminatory to me. And rude. Ever since Clyde Tombaugh first discovered Pluto in 1930 it had been a planet, and all of a sudden ‘they’ kicked it out in 2006.
Now, if you’re like me, you probably never thought much about the definition of a planet before Pluto was stripped of its planethood. The International Astronomical Union evidently never did, either. Not really. The IAU only formally decided on the ‘official’ definition of a planet in 2005. And that definition was what caused the demise of Pluto. Well, that and the fact that Minnie never really liked him.
A planet, I figure, is any astronomical body that isn’t a star, and has enough self-gravitation to be spheroidal in shape. If it’s round and ain’t on fire, it’s a planet. Actually, I stole that definition from Michael Tanne, who wrote a pretty good piece about it for Student Voices. Michael describes himself as a ‘curious human being.’ Which could be taken more than one way.
Anyway, that definition included Pluto. The new definition, adopted by the IAU in 2005, also said that, to be a planet, a body must be large enough to have cleared its orbit of other stuff. I’m assuming they’re talking about asteroids, other planets, and the remains of Bruce Willis and Tommy Lee Jones. And Pluto didn’t make the cut, because it hasn’t cleared its orbit sufficiently to satisfy the IAU, with their pocket protectors and all the letters after their names. So long, Pluto.
The thing is, out of the over 9,000 IAU members, there were only about 400 at the meeting where they decided this. I’m no expert on parliamentary procedure, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that percentage doesn’t constitute a quorum. But hey, they’re scientists, so I guess they won’t be asking for my opinion.
The problem is that one of those guys, a fellow named Mike Brown, is the ‘Bishop of Dwarf Planets,’ and it seems there’s a pecking order among scientists, like the one for chickens. Mike pushed for Pluto to be demoted to dwarf so it would be one of ‘his’ planets. Which gave him more playground status, or street cred, or something.
But now there’s a problem. With earth. And this time I might give the issue more than a few hours. Because on 27 April 2016 an asteroid survey telescope discovered an asteroid named Asteroid 2016 H03. And H03 is in Earth’s orbit. And it ain’t leaving. And it’s too far away to be called a satellite of earth, like a moon is. Which means we’re in Big Trouble.
If the definition of a planet is applied here, the one the IAU adopted in 2005 that dropped Pluto like a B-list actor, then earth also must be lowered to dwarf rank. Bummer.
Granted, we won’t have to leave the solar system, since Pluto didn’t, but suddenly we’re sort of second-class planetary citizens. Who wants to live on a dwarf planet? I mean, it might not be so bad if we’d been a dwarf planet all along. We’d be used to it, not being as good as the other planets. We’d be like the Cleveland Browns of the NFL solar system. But having been in the bigs all along, it’s not going to be easy, moving down to the JV.
The good news is that no one much cares what the scientists think, anyway. Bunch of nerds with their glasses taped up. The best representative they’ve come up with so far is wimpy Bill Nye, for goodness sake. The browns wouldn’t even pick him last in the draft if Pee Wee Herman was left.
So forget I mentioned it. Just go on thinking you live on a regular, normal planet. It doesn’t matter, anyway. Not as much as the fact that I can’t remember but seven of the planets at any given time.
Sagittarius is one of them, right?
Kendal Hemphill is an outdoor humor columnist and public speaker who also has trouble remembering the names of all of Santa’s reindeer. Write to him at firstname.lastname@example.org.