New Mexico to Pluto: you’re always a planet to us

By Phil Plait | March 8, 2007 3:04 pm

I’m a little late on this one, which came out this morning: the New Mexico legislature has declared that Pluto is a planet. Kindof.

Here is the text of House Joint memorial 54:

HOUSE JOINT MEMORIAL 54
48TH LEGISLATURE – STATE OF NEW MEXICO – FIRST SESSION, 2007
INTRODUCED BY
Joni Marie Gutierrez
A JOINT MEMORIAL
DECLARING PLUTO A PLANET AND DECLARING MARCH 13, 2007, “PLUTO PLANET
DAY” AT THE LEGISLATURE.

WHEREAS, the state of New Mexico is a global center for astronomy, astrophysics and planetary science; and

WHEREAS, New Mexico is home to world class astronomical observing facilities, such as the Apache Point observatory, the very large array, the Magdalena Ridge observatory and the national solar observatory; and

WHEREAS, Apache Point observatory, operated by New Mexico state university, houses the astrophysical research consortium’s three-and one-half meter telescope, as well as the unique two-and-one-half meter diameter Sloan digital sky survey telescope; and

WHEREAS, New Mexico state university has the state’s only independent, doctorate-granting astronomy department; and

WHEREAS, New Mexico state university and Dona Ana county were thelongtime home of Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto; and

WHEREAS, Pluto has been recognized as a planet for seventy-five years; and

WHEREAS, Pluto’s average orbit is three billion six hundred ninety-five million nine hundred fifty thousand miles from the sun, and its diameter is approximately one thousand four hundred twenty-one
miles; and

WHEREAS, Pluto has three moons known as Charon, Nix and Hydra; and

WHEREAS, a spacecraft called new horizons was launched in January 2006 to explore Pluto in the year 2015;

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF NEW MEXICO that, as Pluto passes overhead through New Mexico’s excellent night skies, it be declared a planet and that March 13, 2007 be declared “Pluto Planet Day” at the legislature.

It sounds like it’s only a planet when it’s over New Mexico according to that last line, but I think they mean that when that happens, as of that moment, they will declare Pluto a planet. I guess they can do that if they want (their government must have solved all other problems in the state), but that leaves me wondering: just what does the size of the orbit have to do with anything?

Tip o’ the dew shield to Alan Stern (yes, the Alan Stern) for sending me the copy of the memorial.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, Humor, Politics, Science

Comments (46)

Links to this Post

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  1. Grand Lunar

    If they are using the size of Pluto as an indication, then they ought to count Eris as a planet as well.

  2. Brian

    Finally: a genuinely bipartisan bill.

  3. Dave Kary

    Great. Now, if they can just push through that legislation making pi = 3, they’ll solve another thorny problem as well.

  4. Paul Clapham

    Pluto is in Sagittarius right now, which means it is somewhere around declination -25. So it can’t pass over New Mexico, which is at thirty-something north. At the speed Pluto moves through its orbit I would think it can’t pass over New Mexico for around 100 years. I leave the calculations to professional astronomers.

  5. Tukla in Iowa

    Glad to see that New Mexico has solved problems like poverty and violence.

  6. Lauren

    Wow. This sounds to me like it’s a waste of time. I didn’t realize that Pluto’s demotion was such a huge thing to some people. So it’s been declared to be a dwarf planet. Can’t people just leave it at that?

    So now kids in New Mexico will be taught that there are nine planets, and in the rest of the country, there will be eight?

  7. Cameron

    I think New Mexico also contains a reservation that does not recognize DST, but don’t quote me on that…

  8. iFire

    This isn’t so much that big of deal. State legislatures pass bills like this all the time, and it takes a whole of five minutes. The donut shop I used to work at received a “good for you” from the Missouri legislature, as well as the St. Louis Hurling Club… Although, I have to say, this one doesn’t come close to California’s bill regarding Pluto… that one was hilarious.

  9. Troy

    Sort of like a legislative Descartes…”I legislate there for it is”
    Alan Stern is certainly an awesome guy but he’s wrong on this one, and he himself was calling Pluto a dwarf planet in his New Horizon updates before the decision.

    One way to look at it at this point in time dwarf planet is a more exclusive club than the major planets (there are 3 Eris, Ceres, and Pluto) Actually I’m not sure did Charon and Quouar make the list yet?

    At the end of the day Pluto is Pluto, amazing thrills await. I’m just glad we’re going.

  10. Ed

    Well, it’s not as inaccurate as declaring pi=3, that’s just wrong. It’s already known that the planet designation is arbitrary. So let the new mexican’s declare it a planet. We all complain about legislatures wasting their time on fluff Bills. But, come on, who doesn’t blow off a little steam a work with some fluff? I’m at work right now wasting my time reading a blog, not that this blog isn’t valuable ;)

  11. Cameron Says: ” I think New Mexico also contains a reservation that does not recognize DST, but don’t quote me on that”

    You may be thinking of Arizona, which does not recognize DST at all. From April to October (well, starting this year from March to October) it is technically the same as PDT. You can drive almost 600 miles from the coast to the New Mexico border and still be in the same time!

    This brings up another point. Shouldn’t Arizona be the one doing this declaration? After all, that’s where the planet, uh, body was discovered.

    - Jack

  12. Michael

    One interesting side effect from this, which nobody seems to notice, is that it has stimulated discussion on astronomy in people who would probably not even think about such things. At least it has that much going for it.

  13. Brian

    Maybe they are just having fun – spoofing, as it were. Maybe we are mistaking fun and satire for stupidity – taking the tongue-in-cheek seriously. As far as wasting precious time goes, the whole escapade probably only took a few minutes of collective time. Every good boy deserves fun.

  14. Plutocrat

    I’m honestly taken aback by the negative reception that this is getting. A body of legislators decided to look up from their pork filled desks, wonder about their place in the universe and say, “You know, I liked it better when Pluto was a planet” and, “Hey, astronomy is important to our state.”

    They got involved, if only just a little bit. In Astronomy. Shouldn’t we support that, instead of picking apart the details?

  15. Isn’t this sort of like legally declaring ketchup a vegetable?

  16. ioresult

    BA said: “just what does the size of the orbit have to do with anything?”

    I think they’re just being thorough. Making sure we know of what body they’re taling about.

  17. Gary Ansorge

    No, it’s an arbitrary designation, which anyone is free to call whatever they wish. Personally, I prefer the Mars of Conan Doyle,,,let it be so!

    I think on the orbit they were just showing off,,,

    GAry 7

  18. Buzz Parsec

    Yay Pluto! Way to Go, New Mexico! Now if we can get California to declare Eris a planet and Sicilly to do the same for Ceres…

    Seriously, lots of bills like this are passed every year, doing things like declaring an official state muffin (I forget whether Massachusetts is Cranberry or Blueberry. Probably cranberry.) Usually it starts as a kid’s project in a civics or social studies class. This time they learn about astronomy as well as about government.

  19. It’s not the size of one’s orbit, but how you use it.

    Of course, the only planets that say that have small orbits.

  20. Matt Haffner

    Our city did something similar last year, although sliding a bit more into the humorous realm:

    http://legistar.cityofmadison.com/DetailReport/Reports/Temp/972006122548.pdf

    The best part is at the end:

    “BE IT FINALLY RESOLVED that the City invites any representatives of Pluto (should any exist) to an upcoming Common Council meeting where they will receive the keys to the city, passes to the Goodman Pool, an honorary membership in the Chamber of Commerce (to ensure that the folks on Pluto realize how business-friendly Madison really, REALLY is) and, finally, an autographed CD from the Dixie Chicks.”

  21. So I guess the next IAU meeting will not be at Madison ;)

    BE IT FURTHER RESOLVED that the City requests Neptune modify its orbit to assist Pluto in qualifying
    for planetary status and that Neptune declare this to be a reasonable astronomical accommodation.

    And of course for all the old Soar-heads amongst us, the most important part of that of all.

    Fiscal Note
    No expenditure required.

    I am tempted, were we to have a parish council, to put in a similar resolution to it. Maybe when I visit my parents I will see if their parish council will pass such a resolution.

    The more that I look at this, the more I see this as machinations by a small cliche at the IAU. This subject was arousing a great deal of interest, so when did they schedule the vote, right on the last day when the majority of members had to leave to catch flights home, leaving the kabal behind to stick the knife into poor Pluto. Why were they doing Micky Mouse’s dirty work? Was Pluto getting on and Minnie Mouse complaining about puddles left behind and so ordering him out of his home to the outer suberbs of London – Oops sorry thinking about poor old Humphrey (sob)

    Anyhue – If all the members could have been present, the vote could have gone another way and we would have had a 12+ planet solar system. Of course it could have been the same result, but at least it would have been a bit more democratic and would not have the smell that it does.

    When they booted out Pluto, suddenly the universe became a much bleaker place (Sniff) :(

  22. Next item on the agenda: the value of pi equals 3.

  23. George

    The most important part of the blog is the last line. I look favorably forward to hear more of Alan Stern’s involvement. His clout has grown, too. :)

  24. Tony Dethier

    Great, politicians declare Pluto is a planet forever and maybe the sun isn’t a star. We in Europe look with disbelief at the Pluto fight in the US. I would like to propose a “scientific” argument: from now only emotion and tradition are valid in the sciences. No progress anymore and new observations and facts wille be brush under the carpet.

    Yours faithfully,

    TD

  25. Magnum

    Great. I vaguely remembered the “pi = 3″ bill was actually a pi = 4 or pi = 3 1/7 bill, so I searched a bit on google and wikepedia to check it out, and got MASSIVELY sidetracked on transcendental numbers, a ton of other things, and now I’ve ended up on the Banach-Tarski paradox. What a glorious waste of time.

  26. I live in NM and this is kind of embarrasing..

  27. Rich

    Having worked in governement in New Mexico, I can safely say that as far as they’re concerned, they are on another planet.

  28. Zeke

    I am embarrassed by my state legislature, they cannot pass a law to stop DWI (one of NM biggest issues) but they waste time doing this. Maybe they should concentrate on passing (and enforcing) a law which pertains to one of the many problems with New Mexico i.e. drug use, DWI, poverty, increasing funding for better education system, or even if they wanted to do something for astronomy… LIGHT Pollution!!!! I could go on and on but the list would be infinitesimally long. Another thing, as if the NM state Legislature has the merit to pass such a bill! Most astronomers don’t even accept the current definition by the IAU, I thought that was ladasical, but apparently NM can always top the list as far as stupidity goes. All they have to do next: ‘WHEREAS the state of New Mexico accepts the geocentric model of the solar system as a completely feasible model…”

  29. Zeke Silva

    Joseph
    Says:

    March 9th, 2007 at 10:05 am
    I live in NM and this is kind of embarrasing..

    I second that…

  30. Did Clyde Tombaugh ever receive an honorary degree in Astronomy?

  31. Brant D

    It looks like satire to me, too.

  32. “Sticks” has come out with the “secret conspiracy” / “only a minority were present at the vote” thing … which I have heard a number of times now ….AAAGHHHH. I was there, and this is b***s. Of the 450ish there on the last day, Pluto was voted out by an overwhelming majority – about 420 to 30 if my memory serves me right. So if in truth the proportion of all astronomers wanting to demote Pluto was say only 40%, whats the probability a random sample would vote 420 to 30 ? You do the maths. And yes we were a random sample.

    There are good possible arguments for and against putting the label “planet” on Pluto. But as this is the Bad Astronomy site, lets not descend into conspiracy theory or poor statistics…

    p.s. lets get Ceres voted back into planethood before the Dawn mission arrives !

  33. New Jersey scientists today unanimously pronounced New Mexico a permanent territory of “old” Mexico to settle the age old question surrounding the state’s ownership. Film at eleven (formally known as leveneay following the official mandate of the Manitoba piglatin society).

  34. Paul Spring

    I don’t understand all of the complaints about the state of New Mexico “wasting time” on this. As one previous poster said, it probably took all of 10 minutes to pass this, and state legislatures do it all the time. It’s essentially symbolic, with no practical effect. Problems like poverty, educational spending, crime, and light pollution are “real world” problems that are vastly more difficult to address, so of course they aren’t solved by a simple resolution!

  35. Landa

    I’m not an english native speaker, so maybe I’m missing something, but why do they use such strange phrases?
    I mostly refer to starting every paragraph with “WHEREAS….”.

    Is this the english version of legalese, or is it to comply with some sort of requirements for house memorials?

  36. Irishman

    Landa, yes, it is legalese. “Whereas” is the official designator for assumptions, predecessors, and other justifications that are not a part of the actual declaration/resolution statement. They’re assumed to be statements of fact that relate to the issue to justifiy the conclusion at the end, the part that begins “Be it resolved”. Again, legalese, which is customary form owing to tradition and thus the antiquated feel of the structure and wording.

  37. Stevo R

    Good on ‘em!

    I gotta say on this issue I agree with New Mexico and NOT the IAU.

    I’d like to see the undemocratic and scientifically inadequate definition of planet and the whole “Classical planet” versus dwarf planet” mess overturned. The sooner the better and if an Amercian state government or anyone else wants to point out the (IAU) emperors nudity well .. Well done Madam’s &/or Sirs!

    To me, ‘Dwarf planets’ deserve to be counted as true planets every bit as much as ‘dwarf stars’ deserve counting as stars.

    Moreover, we already qualify one such object as as an exoplanet or extrasolar planet : There’s one with 1/5th of Pluto’s mass -PSR1257+12 e the fourth and smallest of the “Pulsar planets” discovered in 1991.

    Moreover, the last criteria the IAU imposed that “planets must clear their neighbourhoods” strikes me as utterly ridiculous. It is unscientifically vague and complex as well as being totally needless and confusing. Hello, haven’t they heard of plnaetary-orbit crossing asteroids and comets to say nothing of Pluto coming inside Neptune’s orbit and the Trojan asteroids?

    Okay we should define the term ‘planet’ – silly not to know what we’re talking about! So here’s my suggestion compiled and considered from many other people’s thoughts and contributions :

    “A planet is a gravitationally-forced spheroidal, non-fusing object (ie. not just round by happenstance & allowing for rotational oblateness) directly orbiting a star or fusing object.”

    Simple. Effective. Clear. Isn’t it?

    Then we can break the planet category usefully down further into :

    Gas Giants (Jupiter & Saturn)

    Ice Giants (Neptune & Ouranos)

    Terrestrial or Rocky dwarf planets (Earth, Venus, Mars, Mercury)

    &

    Ice dwarfs / Dwarf planets (Pluto, Eris nee ‘Xena’ /UB313, Sedna, Ceres, Quaoar, Varuna etc .. )

    We can then say our solar system consists of 20 odd planets – 4 gas & ice giants, 4 rocky or terrestrial planets and 10-15 or so ice dwarfs the largest and most remarkable being Pluto, Eris, Ceres etc … (& we can discuss only those most remarkable cases in school classrooms if the ‘kids can’t memorise more than 9 names’ argument is really so incredibly salient a point. Which is, frankly, a pretty dumb.)

    BTW. In case people are wondering; Ceres is also apparently composed mostly of ice thus qualifying as an ice dwarf, unsure of the composition of Juno and Pallas but Vesta is rocky so not all asteroidal ‘minor planets’ would fit in the dwarf category but then most are too small to do so anyway falling off on the ’roundness’ criterion.

    That orbits – clear or otherwise – don’t define ‘planet’ seems apparent to me by considering the hypothetical case of a Jupiter-sized world found in the Kuiper Belt. Would _it_ be denied Planetary status? Surely NOT! What then of a Neptune sized body? Ditto! An earth? Ditto! A Mars? Ditto! etc ..

    Why then not Pluto (or Eris) if they meet the other planetary criteria? Non-fusing -yep, orbiting the Sun directly -yep, round -yep – Its a planet!

    That seems a fair way to go to me – clear and concise and okay so kids may have to memorise a few more names – does that hurt that much? Is it really so hard to come to terms with?

    Now if only someone here can inform the IAU I’ve solved their little problem for them … ;-)

    ————————————–
    Reinstate Pluto! Of course they should!
    Redefine planet in a way that makes sense (eg.as above) – ditto.
    Pay me a commission for coming up with this? Hey why not! ;-)

  38. A few minor points. First off, tomatoes are officially vegetables, although any good scientist would know that they’re actually fruit. Therefore, if you’ld like to keep calling Pluto a planet, then I won’t quibble. And by what authority are we allowed to declare what is or what isn’t a planet? B612 may be an asteroid to us, but to the Little Prince it was HIS planet.

  39. Steve R., I second your comments wholeheartedly. Subdividing the larger category of “planets” into various subcategories, all of which still are full fledged planets, is what makes the most sense. The IAU decision does not even make linguistic sense, as it claims a “dwarf planet” is NOT a planet at all. And only 424 out of 10,000 IAU members voted. No absentee voting was allowed, meaning any members who didn’t attend the conference or left before the last day couldn’t vote at all. The group that voted was not clearly a random sample. It was a heavy concentration of dynamicists over planetary scientists; most who voted study astronomical topics other than planets.

    New Mexico is not the only state where children are still being taught that Pluto is a planet. Teachers in many school districts across the country are still including Pluto. Some are adding a caveat that this issue is still very much undecided. I have made sure to teach my four-year-old nephew that Pluto and Eris are both planets, albeit small ones.

    The IAU decision was a fiasco for multiple reasons, and the fact that Alan Stern, one of the leading authorities on Pluto in the world decried it as “sloppy science that would never pass peer review” shows just how flawed both the process and the outcome were. I wholeheartedly look forward to this being overturned in 2009. If we end up having 20, 50, or even 100 planets as a result of a more sensible definition, so much the better.

  40. Elena

    Have the scientists discovered so little they have to resort to degrading objects in the sky.
    I believe Pluto is a planet because frankly, to be a planet you have to orbit the sun—which Pluto does—-you have to have your own space in the sky—-which Pluto obviously does—–Have your own moon or moons—-which Pluto does. I mean God! Just because its small doesnt mean its not a planet. Just because someones only four foot tall does that mean that they cant be 16 years old? Everything comes in different sizes–uranus is a planet yet it spins on its side and is the only planet to do so! Shall we say Uranus isnt a planet but a rolly-polly planet!!!

  41. Deniz

    I commend New Mexico for speaking out against the IAU’s decision to demote Pluto. Not only should they not have done that, but they never had the authority to do so. No government gave the recognition or authority, nobody voted in representatives to the IAU. In fact, New Mexico’s declaration has more authority because their government was elected. And many scientists devalue the IAU’s authority.

  42. Steve_from_the_future

    Makes me glad you idiots (the commentators) have no actual say what happens in the scientific community.

    Keep on trucking.

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