Remembering a fallen planet


Pluto and its moon, Charon (Wikimedia Commons)

Six years ago today, the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a normally dull, pro forma bureaucratic body convened. They held meetings and listened to passionate appeals. And then it rocked the world of schoolchildren and adults nostalgic for their school years:

They stripped Pluto of its planethood.

Or at least it seems like it rocked their world. For at least one contemporaneous account notes a very odd thing that happened: the nation's local papers (which there were more of, in those heady days) gave full local coverage to Pluto's stripped titles.

Take Andrew Kantor's telling, reported for the Roanoke Times in Virginia. Kantor glosses the history of the small planets: how, with the discovery of the larger-than-Pluto object Xena in 2003, some 50 or 60 space rocks could suddenly qualify for an up-to-that-point ill-defined planethood. He quotes Mike Brown, the California Institute of Technology professor who discovered Xena (and published How I Killed Pluto two years ago). Then he turns his local news attention to, well, a local:

"There are about 50 or 60 other large pieces of debris in the Kuiper Belt," said Mike Overacker, president of the Roanoke Valley Astronomical Society. If we started calling the larger objects "planets," he explained, "We'd be opening up a can of worms."

Kantor sought a local's opinion on Pluto. And so did, according to the same account, Grand Junction, Colorado's Grand Sentinel and the Northeast Mississippi Daily Journal. The Bakserfield Californian ran a well-reported account of Columbia Elementary School's rally in support of Pluto. Dan Shaughnessy of the Boston Globe proposed that the Red Sox' Manny Ramirez be anointed with celestial status, as "Planet Manny operates in his own orbit and hits baseballs into outer space. He's certainly no dwarf planet like Pluto."

Since then, Pluto's demotion has spawned t-shirts and Colbert appearances. Xena is popularly forgotten, but you still invite a semi-bizarre regret whenever the canine orb-formerly-known-as-a-planet comes up. But that August, in 2006 is a funny moment to remember: This outcry, not over science itself, but over a rare bit of public science-making, where the definitions humanity imposes over its models creaked and shifted. Were people upset because they learned about Pluto in school? Because it was diminutive, and we love to root for an underdog? Because any change upsets? ("Marv, Jim's retired from the firm! I know! And Pluto's not a planet anymore!")

A combination, likely. But, especially with its fervent local coverage, it does seem to propose a corollary to All poltics is local:

All politics is local. All science is universal -- and that means all science is local, too.

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