We all look up into that big night’s sky sometimes and long for the days of the nine planet solar system. Many of us even liked some variation of the Like If You Wish Pluto Was Still A Planet page on Facebook. Yes, we’re all still doing what we can to cope with the loss of Pluto as the 9th planet, but now we have even more to cope with. As it turns out, our beloved Penn State was involved in this life-changing decision in 2006. On top of our grief, there is betrayal.
In 2006, CalTech Professor Mike Brown discovered Eris, a big hunk of land floating out there in space. Because the “planet” was so small, roughly 2,000 km in diameter, there was great debate about whether or not it should be called a planet at all. Then, somebody made a pretty good point. Eris was very similar to Pluto. Why should Pluto be a planet if Eris was not?
The matter was brought up that year in Prague at the International Astronomical Union General Assembly. The last two items on the day’s agenda were titled “Definition of ‘planet,'” and “definition of Pluto-class objects.” By the time the Assembly actually got around to discussing it, though, their numbers were dwindling and only about a hundred people remained, according to Professor Chris Palma from the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics. Still, one Penn State professor, Professor Mercedes Richards, also from the Department of Astronomy and Astrophysics, remained in the fight.
Professor Richards was in complete agreement that Pluto shouldn’t be classified like other planets. “It was obvious that Pluto didn’t belong with the larger planets,” Richards explained. The vote was nearly unanimous. Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet. Life as we know it changed forever.
Okay, so maybe it’s not as bad as it sounds. Actually, Palma assures me that it is not. “I think the 2006 discussion was kind of silly,” he laughed, “it’s not like this is a scientific term.”
According to Palma, there’s really not much scientific basis to the name “planet.” He explained to me that if I decided to call planets by a completely different name tomorrow, and enough people decided to follow my lead, they’d no longer be called planets. In other words, the term planet is simply a label and not a technical term.
So, following Palma’s line of thought, if we all agree that Pluto is a planet, there’s really no way to stop Pluto from being a planet. Looking at it this way, the IAU–and Penn State–are easy enough to forgive. Still, the hurt of Pluto’s original demotion will forever sting, just a little bit.