That’s funny, you look planetish

August 26, 2006

So Pluto’s planeteering days are over. As a card-carrying geezer, I guess I’m supposed to get all nostalgic and upset. But it was past time the astronomical community settled this thing, one way or another. And there was simply no intellectually honest way to maintain the old canonical nine.

I’ve seen quite a few horrified cries of “But think about the children!” The children were well served by this decision; better served than they would have been by the open-ended planet list of the committee’s Roundness Recommendation. Our solar system now has exactly eight planets, and always will.

Not that extrasolar planetary systems won’t trip us up down the road. Whether under the Committee’s scheme, or the one that got voted in, planets do not constitute a natural kind. Domination of an orbital region is hardly a bright line in the universe of possible arrangements of heavenly bodies. When we run into a former planet busted up into half a dozen pieces, or an asteroid-like belt with one major body and a couple of dozen lesser ones that failed to amalgamate, the sky solons will have to convene and scratch their heads all over again. But surely this definition will be serviceable for a generation or two. And that’s an eternity in science.

The one thing that “the children” now need is a standard classroom census of the solar system which isn’t planet-centric. The magic number is no longer nine, but it shouldn’t be eight either. It’s twelve: the eight planets, plus Sol, the asteroids, the Kuiper belt, and the Oort cloud.

May victimes evade Muhammad Ali’s jaw slamming uppercut? No: Knock Out!


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