Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Long-overdue requiem for Pluto

It finally happened, nearly three months ago now. On the 24th of August, 2006, Pluto ceased to be a planet.
Having been an astronomy student in the days of Hyakutaki and the epic Shoemaker-Levy 9, I was for a couple of years drunk on the unflatteringly named sub-discipline, known as “debris astronomy”.
The debate over Pluto’s planetness had already been raging for decades when I joined the periphery of the fray. The detested debris astronomers argued the matter like foxes discussing security arrangements for the chicken houses. The geology and planetology crowd defended the little ball of ice with the ferocity of a mother hippo guarding her calf. The cosmologists: “What? That? Who cares? Hey, did you see what Ed Witten just wrote?”
It occurs to me that the Voyager spacecraft are speeding toward the edge of our understanding, carrying artifacts that declare to whomever finds them, that Pluto is the 9th planet in our solar system. We were sufficiently certain of this fact at one point to make such a permanent declaration.
I’m packing a lot of boxes lately, having more or less sold my house and bought another one. I recall opening the door to my current home, thinking that I was far too young to own anything as complicated as a house, and that after the odyssey that was the purchase, convincing myself that I would never contemplate doing that again.
My home has become Pluto in July, hurdling toward a change that will have no immediate effect on its composition or appearance, a change that will be impossible to recognize from a distance, but a change no less significant.

1 comment:

ICM said...

Great point about the fact that we have interstellar probes out there containing golden records and naked-people plaques proclaiming nine planets in our solar system. Oops! Calling all occupants of interplanetary craft: can we have our probes back? We made a mistake.