Having apparently nothing more urgent to tend to, such as addressing their state government’s corruption, lawmakers in the great state of Illinois have now turned to more important matters: the fight for Pluto’s honor. The planet Pluto – or rather the Dwarf Planet Pluto, or is it the Plutoid Pluto? – is back in the news. The Illinois Senate has announced that it does not accept the decision made by the International Astronomical Union in 2006 to demote Pluto, and the senators have voted unanimously to reinstate Pluto’s “full planetary status.”
On February 5, 2009, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City and author of The Pluto Files, spoke at The Commonwealth Club about the plight of Pluto. During a revamping of the Hayden Planetarium in the late 1990s, Tyson and his co-workers decided to re-organize the objects in the solar system by like properties. This resulted in Pluto being grouped with icy bodies in the outer solar system, rather than with the gaseous and rocky objects that we call planets. A year later, this information made the front page of The New York Times: “Pluto’s Not A Planet? Only in New York.”
Soon after, the young citizens of this great nation raised their arms in outrage. As Tyson put it, “This created a disturbance in the space-time continuum of the elementary school curriculum.” He received dozens of letters from young soldiers in the fight to preserve Pluto’s honor. Some even drew him pictures of the planet in case he did not know what it looked like.
Finally, in 2006, the International Astronomical Union made the decision that Pluto did indeed belong in a separate category. That category was called Dwarf Planets. Later, Pluto was again re-categorized as a Plutoid. The loss of planetary status, however, does not mean that Pluto is no longer important, Tyson said during his Commonwealth Club appearance. While Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto in 1930, may not have found another planet, Tyson explained, “He found one of the largest objects of an entire new understanding of the outer solar system. That’s not just a spin on that discovery; that is a much more fundamental contribution to the frontier of science.”
Tombaugh, as it turns out, is an Illinois native, and the Illinois Senate plans on naming March 13th Pluto Day, in honor of Tombaugh and his great discovery. Maybe Illinois’ fight for Pluto does not show a disregard for the more important political issues currently hanging over the state’s head after all; maybe this is in fact their solution. Pluto might not be a bad place to build a medium-security prison to hold crooked politicians.
– Excerpts from Neil deGrasse Tyson’s February 5, 2009 Commonwealth Club appearance, “The Demotion of a Planet, and Hate Mail from Third Graders,” will appear in the April edition of The Commonwealth, the Club's award-winning monthly magazine. You can listen to or purchase the talk in its entirety at The Commonwealth Club web site. –
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