Thursday, April 05, 2007

Rooting for Pluto

If you were upset last year when a group of scientists demoted Pluto to a minor planet (now known as object number 134340, for crying out loud), you are in good company.

Minor planet status is like being sent to the minor leagues. Of course, sometimes a player is sent down, performs well, and gets booted back upstairs. New Mexico has led the nation by having a day of celebration for Pluto, probably as a reaction to the seemingly less than scientific demotion.

Pluto, the planet, is named for the Roman god of the underworld, a sort of early form of Satan, but not the earliest. Scientist like conventions when they categorize anything, and they also like naming things after other things from the classical world, maybe because it helps them remember them. We have named all the planets after Roman gods or similar beings, like so:

Mercury – god of travel and messenger of the gods
Venus – Goddess of love
Mars – God of War
Jupiter –King of the gods. He defeated his father, whose name was -
Saturn – A titan - the titans were giants who preceded and parented the gods
Uranus – Saturn’s dad and grandfather of many of the gods
Neptune – Jupiter’s brother
Pluto – Another brother of Jupiter

Now, Saturn cut off his father, Uranus’, genitals and Jupiter overthrew Saturn, who did, after all, try and eat him along with his brothers and sisters. Fun group. Zeus got the kingdom of the sky, Poseidon, the seas, and poor Pluto got stuck with the underworld.

Unlike the devil in our modern culture, Pluto doesn’t go around stealing souls, he just keeps the spirits in the underworld once they get there.

His being named for a distant planet is probably appropriate as he was one of the most distant of the gods in a mythological sense. Most of the gods play active roles in tales about them, starring roles, if you like, but Pluto usually only played a background character when he was visited by various heroes: Hercules, Orpheus, Odysseus and Aeneas. Even in the one important myth in which he seems to be key, where he kidnaps the beautiful goddess, Persephone (actually his niece, but ancient gods were very incestuous), he does not play that much of a part in the story, which is really about Persephone and her mother. Basically, in most of the stories, Pluto just lets folks know if they can go back upstairs or not.

At least he was rich. Being the lord of the underworld gave him title to all those valuable underground minerals. Of course, being a deity, you have to wonder why he would need wealth.

The name for the distant and cold planet, Pluto, was actually suggested by an 11 year old girl named Venetia Burney whose father happened to know an Oxford Astronomer. Go figure. I believe she is still alive.

Pluto’s home, Hades (which is the Greek name for Pluto), can be approached through caverns or holes in the earth. It is guarded by Cerebus, a giant three headed dog, just like Fluffy in Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone. You also have to cross the River Styx on a Ferry to there, run by the ferryman, Charon (whose name became that of Pluto’s largest moon). Visitors seem to go to Hades with little harm although it is not possible to leave without Pluto’s say so.

It is difficult to understand why Walt Disney named one of his characters after Pluto, although his animated dog appeared in film the same year Pluto was discovered. He’s not evil or scary, although he’s no Goofy.

Pluto has also appeared in Marvel Comic books, which uses a lot of ancient deities as super heroes or villains, as a very powerful and evil character. Pluto also gives his name to a strange element that can be the explosive material in nuclear bombs. The connection may be that as a result of the element, many would die and go to Hades.

Roman gods and their myths are essentially borrowed from the Greeks with some name changes. Here’s what we would be calling the planets if we used their Greek names with only Earth and Uranus not changing:

Mercury – Hermes
Venus – Aphrodite
Mars – Ares
Jupiter – Zeus
Saturn – Cronus
Neptune – Poseidon
Pluto – Hades

The Greek names may seem odder, but only because you are just used to the Latin ones.

Pluto is usually the farthest planet from the Sun. It takes nearly two and a half centuries to complete its orbit of the Sun, something Earth does in, obviously, a year. Pluto is also not always the furthest planet away. In fact, from between 1979 to 1999, Pluto, with its highly elliptical orbit, has been closer to the Sun than Neptune. But it is still really far away. At its closest point from the Sun, it is closing on three billion (that’s billion) miles away. The Earth is only, at its farthest, 98 million (that’s million) miles from the Sun.

If that is hard to picture, look at it this way. At its closest point, Pluto is roughly 26 times as far from the Sun as the Earth is at its farthest point. If we use the farthest points for both of them, it is closer to 50 times as far away.

The definition of a planet, according to the International Astronomical Union last year is, stripped of the jargon, that it is roughly round, orbits the Sun and has cleared its orbit of other objects.

A dwarf planet is round, orbits the Sun, but hasn’t cleared its orbit of other object and is not a moon. Pluto, along with two other objects, Eris and Ceres are presently the only ones so designated. Ceres was actually discovered over 200 years ago, long before Pluto.

The official argument by scientists who have voted (if there is a vote, it’s not science) Pluto to be a minor planet, rather than a regular old planet is that it has not cleared its orbit of other objects, but they are probably more influenced by its diminutive size and very elliptical orbit (which is more like asteroids and comets and less like a planet). It’s hard to believe that if Pluto was Jupiter’s size, anyone would care if it did not clear its orbit.

In fact, that happens to be the case because Pluto has not cleared its orbit of other objects, but then again, neither has Neptune, Earth, Mars and Jupiter according to a NASA scientist, Alan Stern.

Another object, not even considered a minor planet, that some scientists compare Pluto to is Sedna, out in what’s known as the Kuiper Belt where countless small bodies of rock or ice orbit the Sun at extreme distances. Sedna, can be as far away as nearly 942 times earth’s orbit (or 19 times Pluto’s). Try as they might, it seems a great stretch to seriously compare Sedna to Pluto.

Here’s another way to look at it.

If the Sun is on the 50 yard line of a football field, and the Earth is orbiting about on the forty yard line (about ten million miles per yard), then Pluto would be somewhere around four football field away. That’s pretty far. But, Sedna would be about 80 something football fields away, or, in other words, a few miles away.

Again, using Sedna as a comparison, if the earth’s orbit looks like a almost rounded pea, and Pluto’s orbit looks like a chicken egg, Sedna’s orbit would look like a two foot long by two inch wide loop of string. Again, there is no real comparison. Besides, it takes 12,000 years for Sedna to circle the Sun. Do we really want to compare Pluto with an object that has not been around the Sun since way before recorded history?

The minor planet Ceres (Roman goddess of vegetation and Persephone’s mom) which was once considered a planet, because it is round and larger than most of the other asteroids which are its neighbors in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. However, it has no moon of its own and is far smaller than Pluto, whereas Sedna is roughly the same size as Pluto and has its own moon.

It’s not that the scientists have it all wrong, it’s just that it can’t be made right. There is too much variation among these few objects.

All planets have unique qualities in orbits, moons, rings, physical make up and so on. Although the smallest of the planets, Pluto is still roughly half the size of Mercury. Like most planets, Pluto has its own moons. Mercury and Venus have no moons at all although they are a little larger than Pluto. But no one would suggest they were not planets. Pluto has 3 moons while the Earth has only one.

There is no systematic order to it all. The Earth, mid-sized for a planet, is somehow the densest, with tiny Mercury next. Neptune has 11 moons but the much larger Jupiter has a couple dozen, depending on how you count them, and Saturn over fifty. Four planets have rings, most notably Saturn, and the rest don’t.

While it is true that Jupiter and Saturn each have a moon bigger than Pluto, those moons are also bigger than Mercury, which everyone believes is a planet.

Pluto is supposedly rock and ice. You can’t argue that being part ice disqualifies it as a planet, because Jupiter, by far the largest planet, is made primarily of gas, as are all the other largest planets to some extent.

Here’s the sale pitch. Stop the nonsense (does anyone remember Susan Powter). Pluto has been a planet and has been since its discovery nearly 80 years ago. Scientists shouldn’t be wasting time re-categorizing celestial objects when the standards are so arbitrary and there is such great variance and inconsistency between all the planets, particularly where there is such popular support.

In one sense, there is no such thing as a planet, except that we call it that. In time, if the textbooks decide to go along with the minor planet status, they might change popular perceptions as the school children exposed to it age. I hope not. It would be like saying February isn’t really a month because it is only 28 days long or this isn’t a solar system because there is only one star (apparently a minority situation).

Popular culture has a greater claim when there is nothing real at stake. It’s like when they say glass is not really a solid but a liquid. Oh, please. To any lay person, it’s a solid with some characteristics of liquid. And Pluto is a planet with some characteristics of a Kuiper Belt object. That doesn’t make it not a planet. Period.

Here’s my personal bet. In my lifetime, there will be another vote, and Pluto will be back on the island. The criteria they use should not be so mechanical, with precise definitions. It should have a number of factors, any one which could knock it out of contention, but does not necessarily do so. That could include shape, size as well as type and length of its orbit. Having cleared its orbit should not be a factor. It makes not sense.

The only other object I would even consider for the honor of full planet would be Eris, which was originally nick-named Xena for a while when it was discovered a few years ago. It was Eris' discovery which triggered the renewed interest in defining what a planet is.

Ceres appears to be a tiny bit bigger than Pluto and has its own tiny moon. Sounds like a planet. It travels up to twice as far away from the Sun than Pluto, which might disqualify it for some, although sometimes it’s closer. But it’s so arbitrary, I won’t post a blog in opposition if they included it or not. What would they say if it turned out to have intelligent life? What would they say if it turned out to be all ice, and melted.

But Pluto should be in the club. Besides, if the Greeks and Romans (and Marvel Comics) had it right, we will all be in Pluto’s grasp when it’s our time to go, and then I wouldn’t want to be one of the scientists who disrespected him.

1 comment:

  1. Is it Kosher to leave a comment on your own website. I had always believed that Pluto was named by a young girl after it was discovered, which is the conventional story. But recently, reading an interesting 1881 book predicting what life would be like in 1931, I came across something interesting. The guy was incredibly wrong about almost everything, but somehow he got this incredibly close. He predicted that the trans-Neptune planet that had long been thought to exist would be discovered in 1931. He was off by one year. And one of the two names he suggested it might be called -- Pluto. Maybe the name for that distant, small and ice cold planet was obvious, and Venetia just had the right connections. I'll be doing a blog on the book soon. He might have been wrong on most things, but his mistakes are hysterical.


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I started this blog in September, 2006. Mostly, it is where I can talk about things that interest me, which I otherwise don't get to do all that much, about some remarkable people who should not be forgotten, philosophy and theories (like Don Foster's on who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas and my own on whether Santa is mostly derived from a Norse god) and analysis of issues that concern me. Often it is about books. I try to quote accurately and to say when I am paraphrasing (more and more). Sometimes I blow the first name of even very famous people, often entertainers. I'm much better at history, but once in a while I see I have written something I later learned was not true. Sometimes I fix them, sometimes not. My worst mistake was writing that Beethoven went blind, when he actually went deaf. Feel free to point out an error. I either leave in the mistake, or, if I clean it up, the comment pointing it out. From time to time I do clean up grammar in old posts as, over time I have become more conventional in my grammar, and I very often write these when I am falling asleep and just make dumb mistakes. It be nice to have an editor, but . . . .