Things were looking so good for Pluto a couple of weeks ago.
Scientists meeting in the Czech Republic voted to admit three more heavenly bodies to the family of “planets” orbiting our sun. This pragmatic Planet Definition Committee only submits proposals deemed likely to win approval from two-thirds of the 3,000-member International Astronomic Union, so it appeared Pluto was about to gain some seniority in the Milky Way’s most exclusive club.
Of course, the absent-minded professors and eccentric scientists of the IAC proved to have minds of their own, and Pluto has been demoted instead.
It had a pretty good run among us Earthlings for an icy, gaseous ball 2.66 billion miles away. Discovered in 1930 at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., it was “born” at the right time to be immortalized in the name of Mickey Mouse’s dog, then as the main ingredient of most nuclear weapons (plutonium).
Appropriately, it’s now being labeled a “dwarf planet.” We’re guessing the provisional names for any additional moons would be along the lines of Sleepy or Grumpy — which makes the idea of a planet Xena seem much more palatable.
Now that Pluto has been plucked off the elementary-school ceiling mobile, you’d think people would be happy, or at least indifferent.
But many aren’t. As 10-year-old William Smith told a reporter in Mesa, Ariz., “I think all the scientists, after 76 years that they’ve been studying Pluto and they’ve been voting to say it’s a planet, I feel like everybody is kind of depressed now,” he said.
But why do we care, when so many of us are guilty of feeling, from time to time, like the universe revolves around us? Even “rational” scientists waved stuffed Disney animals around to show their support.
For one thing, Pluto is our solar system’s lovable oddball, floating in its unpredictable path beyond giant gasbags like Jupiter and Saturn, in a unique domestic partnership with its megamoon Charon — which would have finally been recognized as Pluto’s equal under the more liberal committee recommendation.
Pluto’s demotion was also momentous, “real” news, but not as distressing as the war in Iraq or as debasing as our fling with JonBenet Ramsey’s creepy pseudo-slayer.
Instead, it’s reigniting our curiosity about the heavens, forcing us to stop and see if we can remember just where Mars and Neptune fit into the scheme of things.
And so our crazy cousin Pluto will remain useful. As Patricia Tombaugh, the widow of the man who discovered Pluto, recalled: “Clyde finally said before he died: ‘It’s there. Whatever it is. It is there.’ ”