Last year, astronomers discovered a "tenth planet." This new planet is similar to, but slightly larger than, Pluto. All of this is exciting news, but not without controversy. Now, some scientists say that it's not a "real planet," and neither is Pluto. They want to take away the planet designation from Pluto and just say that it's a bunch of ice, and part of something called "The Kuiper Belt."
One of the problems is that there is no official definition of "planet." Personally, I like the following definition: "The nine heavenly bodies that you had to memorize in elementary school plus any new planets that are subsequently discovered are officially planets."
Apparently, I'm not alone in this definition. Dr. Frank Bertoldi of the Max Planck Institute is in favor of declaring the "tenth planet," 2003 UB313, a new planet, and keeping Pluto a planet, too. He says that to downgrade Pluto to a non-planet would be "impolite." Perhaps a more important group, school children, agrees with him. When it was learned that a new model of the solar system at the American Museum of Natural History in New York leaves out Pluto, kids began a letter-writing campaign urging the museum to reinstate Pluto.
Don't worry about having to memorize the name 2003 UB313. If it's declared an official planet, it will have a name based on a god of mythology like the other planets. Those who discovered it have given it a temporary name, "Xena," named after the TV show heroine. I guess if it had been discovered this year, they would have called it "Earl," or referred to it and its moon as "Desperate Housewives."
My objection to downgrading Pluto to a "thing" from a planet is based more on emotion than science. I've always had a special feeling towards the other planets in our solar system, and I don't want to start being condescending towards good old Pluto. Like so many people, I've wondered if there is life on other planets, and certainly Pluto was one of those planets that was in my imagination. When I was a kid, it was one of my favorite planets. I thought that it was named for a Disney character, and assumed if they ever found another planet, they'd name it "Goofy."
Just because some scientists with fancy degrees say Pluto's not really a planet doesn't make it so. These guys have made mistakes before. When I was a kid, Uranus was pronounced "Your-anus," which, of course, made some of us more immature kids giggle. So, what did the scientists do? They changed the pronunciation to "Urine-us," so kids are still giggling. Anybody who could make a silly decision like that could be just as far off base as the anti-Pluto faction.
Maybe the best perspective to give those scientists who want to downgrade Pluto to a non-planet is to put the space shoe on the other foot. How would they feel if the evidence of some scientists or some new definition of "planet" meant that Earth was no longer a planet? I'd be pretty depressed about that. I've been going along my whole life, feeling rather cocky, believing that I live on one of nine planets in the solar system, and then all of a sudden, some guys are telling me that it's not really a planet. It's just a bunch of water and dirt that revolves around the sun.
How would the children react to that? "Mars and Jupiter are planets, boys and girls, but we live on, well, something that isn't quite as important."
It would put an end to all those science fiction movies in which life forms are found on other planets and they come into conflict with Earthlings. Believe me, if we're reduced to non-planet status, Martians, Venutians, and Jupiterians aren't even going to bother with us anymore. And in the distant future, don't expect non-planet Earth to be asked to join any interplanetary governing body like the Union of Solar System Planets. We'd just be a non-voting place that would have to go along with the majority.
So, let's not be too rash here. Let's not risk hurting the feelings of the things that may live on Pluto. If this new discovery is similar to Pluto, call it a planet, too, instead of ousting Pluto. I know they'll never really go for my childhood suggestion for a name for the new planet. But I also know to kick "Pluto" out of our family of planets is just plain "Goofy."
Lloyd Garver writes a weekly column for SportsLine.com. He has written for many television shows, ranging from "Sesame Street" to "Family Ties" to "Frasier." He has also read many books, some of them in hardcover.
By Lloyd Garver