Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Pluto Got What It Deserved

This picture, taken by the Hubble telescope, is the best we have of Pluto until the New Horizons probe arrives in 2015.

My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas. In grade school I learned this mnemonic for remembering the nine planets in the solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto. If you didn’t pick it up at school you might have heard it in song form playing over the speakers at Chuck E Cheese. My first job was working at Chuck E. Cheese. In addition to hearing the planet song 500 times a day, I also danced the Macarena in a rat suit for $4.50 an hour. I lasted about five weeks. But something happened a few years ago to change this... in large part thanks to research by astronomer Mike Brown, Pluto was downgraded to a dwarf planet. When I heard about this I was sad and confused. How could Pluto no longer be a planet? What was next? Would the Pyramids no longer be considered an Ancient Wonder of the World? And how was it fair? How does indigo get to remain in the Roy G. Biv lineup but Pluto no longer gets to be a planet? I mean indigo doesn't even have a crayon in the rich kid 120 box of crayolasYes Yes indigo is there now. Evidently it was added in 2000 when someone noticed one of the 7 colors in the rainbow wasn't in the 120 color box. It wasn't there when I was a kid hot dammit! Boo indigo. Boo! Somebody sick Mike Brown on indigo! but Pluto gets kicked out of the planet club? So when I saw that Mike Brown had written a book called How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming I knew I had to read it. I was ready to disagree vehemently with this Mike Brown and trash him for offing poor Pluto.

And then within the first 30 pages I agreed 100% with him. Pluto had it coming. Did you know in the 1800s people decided there were 12 planets? It all happened when astronomers detected the largest asteroids in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. These objects were first classified as planets. It turns out they were just the largest objects in the asteroid belt. Similarly, it turns out Pluto is just one of the largest objects in the Kuiper belt, a bunch of objects orbiting the sun out past Neptune. Pluto just doesn't cut it as a planet, and so Brown teaches us a new hilarious (but not particularly accurate) mnemonic device: Mean Very Evil Men Just Shortened Up Nature.

Brown's description of his search for a new planet in the solar system was fascinating and definitely a page turner. I really do need to start looking at the night sky more and will be busting out the binoculars as soon as we get a new moon. I also enjoyed the discussion of how his personal family life impacted his professional life. His story of how his daughter thanked him after he turned the moon back on (it had gone behind a cloud) was very touching.

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