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Random: Heartfelt, Hysterical Plea for Pluto

The New York Times
Op-Ed Contributor

I Love Pluto

Published: August 23, 2006
Charlestown, Md.

MY love for our picked-on ninth planet is deeply, perhaps embarrassingly, personal.

I took my first public stand on Pluto’s taxonomical fate when I addressed the Forum on Outer Planetary Exploration in 2001 (don’t ask why a cartoonist was addressing astronomers — it’s a long story).

I informed the assembled scientists that, first of all, no way was I or anyone else about to un-memorize anything we’d already been forced to learn in elementary school. More important, I felt sure that, as former children, we all instinctively respected the principle: no do-overs.

Planets, like Supreme Court justices, are appointed for life, and you can’t blithely oust them no matter how eccentric, skewed or unqualified they may prove to be. If they could kick out Pluto, I warned, they could do it to anything, or anyone.

I admit: it’s a highly emotional issue and maybe I got carried away in the heat of debate.

Even I was a little abashed last week when the International Astronomical Union tried to protect Pluto’s status by proposing an absurdly broad definition of planethood that encompasses moons, asteroids and trans-Neptunian objects — in other words, pretty much any half-formed hunk of frozen crud that can pull itself together into a ball long enough to get photographed by the Hubble.

For longtime Pluto partisans, there was something almost punitive about this proposal: happy now?

I guess I aways knew, in my heart, that Pluto didn’t “belong.” Pluto is idiosyncratic — neither a dull, domestic terrestrial planet nor a surly, vainglorious gas giant. It’s mostly ice. It’s smaller than our own Moon, and has an orbit so eccentric that it spends 20 years of its 248-year revolutionary period inside Neptune’s orbit. It’s tilted at a crazy 17-degree angle to the ecliptic, and its satellite, Charon, is so disproportionately large that it’s been called a double planet.

Pluto is what my old astronomy textbook rather judgmentally called a “deviant,” and I’ve always felt a little defensive on its behalf.

I’ve long regarded Saturn’s misty tantalizing moon Titan as the Homecoming Queen of the solar system, courted and fawned over, stringing us along with teasing glimpses under her atmosphere, while Pluto was more like the chubby Goth chick who wrote weird poems about dead birds and never talked to anybody. Still, I just can’t stand by and watch as the solar system’s Fat Girl gets pushed down into ever-more ignominious substrata of social ostracism.

All I really wanted was a little velvet-rope treatment for Pluto. I didn’t expect them to throw open the doors to all this Kuiper Belt riffraff.

It’s like that point when your party’s grown out of control and you look around and ask: Who are these people? Sedna? Xena? Ceres? Ceres is an asteroid, for God’s sake. Why not just make 1997 XF11 or Greenland or Harriet Meiers a planet?

And I am second to no one in my respect for Charon, but come on: it’s obviously Pluto’s moon.

Now they’re proposing to designate it a “large companion,” which sounds like the sort of euphemistic legal status the court might grant to Oliver Hardy and can’t be doing Charon’s self-esteem one bit of good. “Longtime companion” would have been more dignified and validating.

The solar system is a mess.

The situation this seems most similar to is the inextricably tangled social nightmare that is inviting people to your wedding. You truly want to invite your distant and eccentric but dear old friend Pluto, but this necessarily means inviting his horrible girlfriend, too, plus then maybe you’re obliged to invite all the other people you were both friends with in college, friends he’s still in contact with who will be offended if he’s invited and they’re not but who, frankly, are now boring people with whom you no longer have anything in common.

Some would suggest we just have to be harsh about this and not invite any of them, Pluto included. But these people are forgetting that we already sent Pluto an invitation, 76 years ago. Pluto has rented a tuxedo.

The astronomical union is to vote on Pluto tomorrow. But even as astronomers squabble, I remain confident that this whole wonky state of affairs will not be permanent. Eventually we’ll get it all sorted out.

For the record, I would accept a separate (but equal!) class of dwarves or planetoids, including Sedna and Xena. After all, the childhood mnemonic is easily amended: My Very Energetic Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas, Sans Xenophobia.

But what I really wish is that we’d just grandfather Pluto in and then close all the loopholes. Let’s do it, not for scientific reasons, but for sentimental ones.

As a friend of mine at NASA said, “It would prove our humanity to let Pluto stay in.” It would be like that moment when the doorman is about to escort you out of a private party where you don’t, arguably, belong, but then someone who knows you taps him on the shoulder and says, “Wait a minute, I know this guy. He’s O.K..”

Tim Kreider, a cartoonist, is the author of “The Pain: When Will It End?” and “Why Do They Kill Me?”
Tags: random, scientific

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