Filler Far-Out Debate

Scientists Wage War On Planet Pluto.
By Tom Danehy

REGULAR READERS OF this column might be surprised to learn I was scientifically trained and educated. Irregular readers of this column might be even more surprised, but then they have other things to worry about, what with their being irregular and all.

Danehy I liked everything about math and science, especially the fact that there was no interpretation involved. If a history teacher asked you a question on a test, you darned well better regurgitate all the stuff he'd been spouting the past few weeks, even if you had a different answer that was just as good.

But in math, when they ask what 2+2 is, you can say, "Four, and I don't like your mama," and that's correct.

When I decided to become a writer, I drifted away from science. Oh, I still have my subscription to Scientific American. I even read all of the articles, most of which are now written by guys from Pakistan. These are the same guys who used to be TAs when I was in college. They'd say "Good morning," and I'd raise my hand and with a puzzled look, ask them to repeat the question.

Nonetheless, I still marvel at the strength and beauty of math and the constant opportunities for wonderment that the sciences offer.

But doggone it if life isn't just full of disappointments and disillusionment. The three biggest bumouts of my life have been:

1. The first time I saw my favorite "Boss Jock" deejay in person. Nothing will ever top that one.

2. When I learned that some world-class athletes actually drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or worse. That actually disappointed me on two fronts, first that they would do that to their bodies, and secondly, that they would do that to their bodies and still be so much better than I would ever be.

3. Scientists are human and therefore given to the same petty jealousies, faults and foibles that screw up the lives of everybody else.

The latest evidence of this comes in the form of a very public, very nasty flap over whether Pluto is actually a planet. Well, let me settle this once and for all, so you real scientists can get back to work. Of course it's a planet. I was taught in school that it was a planet. Every kid in America who ever made one of those really bad mobiles knows it's a planet. And besides, who ever heard of an eight-planet solar system?

Believe it or not, those arguments are just about as cerebral as anything that has been put forth thus far in public debate.

The classification of objects, be they bugs or celestial bodies, has always been an important part of science. It helps bring order from chaos, but taking it too far leads to the point where scientists try to raise chaos to a science unto itself.

Which they have, of course. The "science" of chaos is an attempt to explain all things. It's like Brownian motion writ large. (Hey, how would you like to have been that Brown guy? He gets a fancy scientific term named for him just because he had the nerve to say out loud that the movement of dust particles in air is completely random.)

Gee, I could have said that. Then they could have called it Danehynian motion, which some of my friends would have immediately branded something of an oxymoron.

Let's get back to the subject at hand. What do we know about Pluto? It's the only planet discovered by an American, Clyde Tombaugh, who amazingly, is still alive, and quite naturally miffed by the controversy. Tombaugh discovered Pluto in 1930, working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. He was searching in an area where the great astronomer Percival Lowell first postulated in 1905 the possible existence of a celestial body which might be the cause of perturbations in the orbit of Uranus.

(Interestingly, the planet Uranus was discovered in 1781. Eight years later, Martin Klaproth isolated atomic element No. 92 and named it uranium after the new planet. Likewise, when Glenn Seaborg isolated the transuranic element No. 94, he named it plutonium, after the planet which had been discovered a few years earlier. And yes, the little-known element which occupies the space on the Periodic Table between the radioactive heavyweights is indeed neptunium.)

From the beginning, astronomers knew Pluto wasn't a giant, like Jupiter and Saturn. It was puny like Mercury. Some even suggested back then that it was not spun off from the same solar matter which created the other eight planets. Two common theories are that it's either a space immigrant from another part of the universe which got trapped in the sun's gravitational pull, or perhaps a "trans-Neptunian interloper," a moon which broke free somehow.

Pluto is currently not the farthest planet from the sun. We are nearing the end of a 20-year period where, because of Pluto's elliptical orbit, Neptune is actually farther away. When Pluto slips back outside of Neptune in 1999, it will remain the most-distant object in the solar system until the 23rd century.

Much of the argument about Pluto focuses on its size. You'd think scientists would know better. Percival had suggested his mathematical models would show that "Planet X" would be several times as large as Earth. (Percival died in 1916, and when Pluto was found, his wife Constance suggested two possible names: Planet Percival and, ahem, Constance.)

The final decision on the scientific downsizing of Pluto will be decided by something called the Interplanetary Astronomical Union's Working Group For Planetary Scientific Nomenclature. Interestingly, the group's nameplate on the door is actually larger than Pluto itself.

Thus far, the IAUWGFPSN shows no inclination toward dissing Pluto. And that's good. Otherwise the Disney folks would have to rename Goofy's pet dog (which, if you think about it, is an odd form of animal slavery) "Trans-Neptunian Interloper or Possible Asteroid.")

Which is as good a reason as any to keep things the way they are. TW

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