As promised, in anticipation of the book release, we’re now going to dribble out part of the first chapter of Unscientific America, entitled “Why Pluto Matters”:
Why Pluto Matters
“Stop Planetary Discrimination!”
“Pluto Was Framed!”
Dear Earth: You Suck. Love, Pluto.”
“Pluto is still a planet. Bitches.”
Thus read a small sampling of defiant T-shirt and bumper sticker slogans after the general assembly of the International Astronomical Union (IAU), meeting in Prague in late 2006, voted to excommunicate the ninth planet from the solar system. The union’s action abruptly stripped Pluto of a status as much cultural, historical, and even mythological as scientific.
In the astronomers’ defense, it had become increasingly difficult to justify calling Pluto a planet without doing the same for several other more recently discovered heavenly objects, one of which, the distant freezing rock now known as Eris (formerly “Xena”), turns out to be larger. But that didn’t mean the experts had to fire Pluto from its previous place in the firmament. In defining the word planet, they were arguably engaged not so much in science as in semantic exercise. Instead of ruling Pluto out, they could just as easily have ruled a few new planets in, as a group of scientists, historians, and journalists had in fact proposed. But the IAU rejected that compromise for a variety of technical reasons: Pluto is much smaller than the other eight planets; it orbits the sun in a far more elliptical manner; its gravitational pull is not strong enough to have “cleared the neighborhood around its orbit” of other significant objects and debris; and so forth.
People were aghast….
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