States have Rights, but I don't think this is one of them

By Julianne Dalcanton | March 8, 2007 1:47 pm

In a remarkable display of scientific federalism, a member of New Mexico’s state legislature introduced legislation that when Pluto is in New Mexico’s airspace, it’s a planet:

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.

I just do not get this. We gave up the brontosaurus without a whimper. A whole dinosaur just disappeared without protests or heartfelt letters to the Museum of Natural History — and not a minor dinosaur either — one of the big ones that even those who don’t have kids knew about. But people just can’t let Pluto go. Just check out the t-shirts alone! (My favorite is the one that says “Pluto. Never Forget.”, but has a picture of Jupiter. I guess they forgot.)

Really, the situations are analogous. The brontosaurus was misclassified because the first prototypical skeleton was missing a head, so they guessed and put the wrong one on. Eventually they figured it out and lumped the brontosaurus back in with apatosaurus where it was supposed to have been all along. Likewise, Pluto was misclassified because we didn’t know enough about the outer reaches of the solar system to recognize that it had much more in common with a different class of objects than the inner planets. Same deal. But poor old brontosaurus never got the press, while Pluto has the New Mexico legislature weighing in. Baffling.

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Miscellany, Science and Society
  • DeltaPunch

    So, does this apply whenever it is visible from New Mexico, or when it actually passes through the boundary of its airspace, as extrapolated 3 million miles out into space?

    The former would imply that New Mexico is overstepping its juridical bounds, while the latter would imply that we have nothing to worry about!

  • John

    I think that “overhead” means exactly that – and Pluto, I don’t believe, will ofthen pass directly above New Mexico.

    Pluto has a rather eccectric orbit, and it is inclined by a full 17 degrees with respect to the Earth’s orbit. If there were no such inclination, and if the earth’s axis of rotation were perpendicular to it’s orbital plane, then Pluto would *never* be directly above New Mexico.

    The southernmost populated town in New Mexico, is, I believe, Antelope Wells, at a latitude of 31.3 degrees. The earth’s axis is tilted by 23.5 degrees, and so for Pluto to be above New Mexico, you would have to have that:

    1. It’s winter, at night, probably near midnight, in New Mexico.

    2. Pluto is on the “high” side of its orbit (I am not sure where that is or where Pluto is now with respect to it, but Pluto’s orbit is nearly 250 years.)

    3. A line passing from the center of the earth through some point in New Mexico intersects Pluto.

    Wow, it seems like it could happen, but I am going to guess that it happens no more than a few seconds every million years or so if at all…

  • Moshe

    It is amusing to contemplate how bored the legislature must be to weigh in on this question. Then again, one can also recall the inordinate amount of time astronomers spent discussing this fascinating linguistic exercise…

  • Navneeth

    Wow…I never knew about the brontosaurus thing! Although I did know about apatosaurus’s (-sauri?), I didn’t realise they were the same!

  • Allyson

    I think it’s likely that this is in loving memory of Clyde.

  • brontobrontobronto

    I don’t think most people know that we ever gave up the brontosaurus. It’s still one of the most popular dinosaurs with the playground set. The difference might be that a handful of those dino-obsessed rugrats know that the apatosaurus and the brontosaurus are the “same” dinosaur.

  • Montgomery Burns

    Whoah, slow down. There’s a new Mexico?

  • George Musser

    The New Mexico legislature is hardly alone. A not-inconsiderable fraction of the astronomical community resists the new planet definition. Was the same true of paleozoologists when the brontosaurus roared for the last time?

  • dennis

    According to the clerk’s office in the New Mexico House, this resolution was tabled a month ago and is presumably dead. If anyone knows differently, I’d love to hear about it.

  • Julianne

    According to the clerk’s office in the New Mexico House, this resolution was tabled a month ago and is presumably dead. If anyone knows differently, I’d love to hear about it.

    That agrees with the on-line information from the NM legistlature’s web site. I’ve edited the entry accordingly.

    The link does contain the gem that there was a “Fiscal Impact Report” prepared for the proposed legislation!

  • Analyzer

    This is the best Pluto T-shirt.

  • rejewvenator

    I remember a hue and cry over the brontosaurus!

    In any case, I think it’s interesting to compare the Pluto-savers with the Young Earth Creationist types. The attitudes aren’t all that different – the Creationists and the Pluto-savers are both trying to co-opt scientific categories and ideas in order to arrive at a preselected conclusion – that the earth is young, or that Pluto is a planet. Maybe what divides people is not so much their thoughts on religion as much as their woefully inadequate understanding of what science is about.

  • Analyzer

    The attitudes aren’t all that different – the Creationists and the Pluto-savers are both trying to co-opt scientific categories and ideas in order to arrive at a preselected conclusion

    I think that’s a bit unfair. Pluto’s “planetness” is not really a scientific question. Calling it a planet or not calling it a planet changes absolutely nothing about any scientific model or theory. It’s pure terminology, and it’s purely for our convenience.

  • Mike Batchelor

    If you check this finder chart for Pluto, you’ll see that it stays near 17 degrees South Declination for all of 2007. Declination on the sky corresponds exactly to latitude on the ground. Both are measured in degrees of arc, with the poles at 90 degrees and the equator at zero degrees. So Pluto will spend all of 2007 “over” the tropics south of the equator. It will also spend the next year, and the next and the next after that near 17 degrees south declination. Pluto does not move on the sky very much from year to year. It will be nowhere near “overhead” in New Mexico for a very long time, centuries if ever.

  • mollishka

    Waaaait … the brontosaurus isn’t a dinosaur? When did that happen, and how did I miss it???

    And I seriously don’t get the whole Pluto fuss. I’m scared to tell people on planes I’m an astronomer now.

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  • andy.s

    Of course the States have the right to declare Pluto a planet. See the 10th amendment to the Constitution:

    “The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved for the States respectively, or to the people.”

    So not only are the States allowed to declare things as planets, so are the people!

    You see, the list of planets is often the only bit of science that most people know, and now you eggheads took it away from them. Hell, even Bart Simpson could name the planets.

    Let’s burn down the observatory so this will never happen again!

  • Navneeth

    We gave up the brontosaurus without a whimper.

    Now that this info is out on the internet, in one of the popular (science) blogs, with silly news media all around us, we’re probably going to witness a delay…ed hue and cry on this issue.

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  • Amara

    Upon applying the dynamic definitions set in Prague last August, not only is Pluto not a planet, but Earth is not a planet, Mars is not a planet, Jupiter is not a planet, and neither is Neptune.

    Anyone up for writing this entry in Conservapedia?

  • Risa

    My favorite comment on this was on a T-shirt that my cousin’s 8th grade academic team created — “That’s okay, Pluto. I’m not a planet either”.

  • Sacha

    Apparently the Fiscal Impact of the bill was “NFI”. Seems fairly accurate.

  • Andy

    Was it New Mexico that once ruled that the value of pi was four? Or was it Ohio?

  • andy.s

    That was a bill in the Indiana legislature in the 19th century.
    I don’t think it ever got out of committee.

    See the Straight Dope website.

  • Stephen Uitti

    …brontosaurus isn’t a dinosaur?

    According to this:
    … the brontosaurus is alive and well, as a synonym. I still don’t see how the name apotosaurus should have priority.

    The story i’d heard was this: The apotosaurus body was mated to the skull of a Camarasaurus. The animal got renamed when this mistake was discovered. This story makes sense, but doesn’t really cover it.

    Really, the issues, the Brontosaurus, and Pluto, are similar. Politics, and hyperbola, not reason, have guided decisions.

    My interpretations of the new IAU definition of the word “planet” lead to one of two results.

    1. There are no planets in our solar system.


    2. Only Jupiter is a planet. It’s the big bully. Nothing else matters.

  • Laurel Kornfeld

    In no way are supporters of Pluto’s planethood similar to creationists. Science has NOT sufficiently established a definition of the term planet on which experts can agree nor has a consensus of astronomers agreed that evidence shows without a shadow of doubt that Pluto does not meet the qualification for planethood. Instead, we have a divide with some of the leading planetary scientists in the world rejecting the IAU definition and the exclusion of Pluto as a planet. That’s hardly co-opting scientific ideas to arrive at a pre-selected conclusion. If anything here is to be questioned, it is the political and highly surreptitious process by which a fraction of the IAU, mostly not planetary scientists, presumed to make a decision for not only their entire field, but for the whole world.

  • linlin

    i think, pluto is still a mystery to us. any pre-classification probably prove later a big joke.

    as for the legislature, i don’t think they know anything about science, astronomy….


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