Originally created 08/28/06

Pluto news sends columnist over edge



Dear readers: This is a quick note from Glynn Moore's physician because he is lying down, having taken rather badly last week's news about the downfall of Pluto.

His wife called me to report that he was jumping up and down on his sofa, his eyes glazed over like Tom Cruise's, his fists clenched in rage. She said he was screaming at the television set that "Pluto rules!"

I have placed him on bed rest and some horse tranquilizers, but he still hasn't been able to calm down enough to compose his thoughts for this week's column.

Why did this happen? As you no doubt know, the International Astronomical Union met last week in Europe and downgraded the status of the ninth planet from the sun, reclassifying it as a "dwarf planet" instead. As a result, it no longer is a member of the very select planets of the solar system, the ones we have all learned since Pluto's discovery in 1930.

The IAU's vote was controversial, of course, but most people realize that although Pluto has lost its planetary membership, it is still out there in space, a rocky dot in the heavens.

You and I can understand the astronomers' decision, but Glynn was flabbergasted. As his doctor, I can tell you that he has long been averse to change, and even more averse to daily exercise, but that is another matter entirely.

During his more lucid moments, I learned that he grew up studying the night sky, reading both science and science fiction stories, dreaming one day of becoming an astronaut. He is taking this news personally.

While I was sedating my patient, he was ranting wildly.

"How could they do that?" he demanded as I eased the needle into his arm. "Pluto still orbits our sun, doesn't it? It's large enough to let its gravitation pull it into the shape of a ball, isn't it? It even has at least one moon. Has any of that changed?"

"There, there," I advised him, waiting for the medicine to take effect.

"But no, that's not good enough for those people," he said. "They say that to be a real planet, a body must 'clear the neighborhood around its orbit.' What does that mean? Tell me, Doc, what does that mean?"

"I'm not an astronomer, Glynn," I told him. "From what I read, though, it's because Pluto has an elliptical orbit instead of the roughly circular orbits of the other planets; so elliptical, in fact, that Pluto actually crosses the orbit of its neighbor Neptune, making Pluto the eighth planet every couple of hundred years and Neptune the ninth."

"Is that any reason to demote a planet we've all grown up with?" Glynn said. "So Pluto wanders - big deal. Isn't that what the word 'planet' means anyway - 'wanderer'?"

"I'm not sure," I told him, but he didn't stop.

"It didn't seem to bother those astronomers that Pluto lies on its side, instead of having its poles on the top and bottom," he said. "That's because eons ago, it got hit by something that flopped it over and knocked off a big chunk to make a moon. That's how Earth got its moon, too: a big collision in space. Are the astronomers going to start getting rid of moons next?"

The sedative finally kicked in, and Glynn sank into a chair, mumbling: "Everyone takes the planets for granted. People even have to have use mnemonic devices to remember their names. The outrage! How could they not remember Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and ... Grumpy, Bashful, Prancer, Vixen ..."

That's where he finally nodded off. I'm sure he'll be back next week. Maybe.

Reach Glynn Moore at (706) 823-3419 or glynn.moore@augustachronicle.com.