A Down-to-Earth View of the Planet Debate
DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:
Astronomers will vote next week on whether to change the definition of a planet. NPR editor Marcus Rosenbaum sees the discussion as a sign of something bigger.
MARCUS ROSENBAUM reporting:
Editors here at NPR are the last defense. Before something goes on the air it's the editor's job to make sure it's okay. Mushy facts? We make them sharp. Bad grammar? We fix it. We see ourselves above all else as the defenders of standards. Standards change, of course, but that change should come slowly.
When I had my first job in journalism many, many years ago, I was told that I could never use the word contact as a verb. Contact, my editor said sternly, is a noun. Today, of course, we all contact our friends to tell them the latest joke, or contact our psychiatrist to set up an appointment. These days those of us who are still in the business are fighting the same losing battle against using impact as a verb.
So now I hear that they're going to change how we define planets. For decades we've been told nine planets. We all know my very excellent mother just sent us nine pizzas or some similar mnemonic that helps us remember them. No more, it seems. If the International Astronomical Union approves the proposal, it will change not just that old saying but textbooks and toys and all the other things that rely on nine planets. It seems there are now going to be two kinds of planets: the real thing, like Earth and Mars and Jupiter, and then something called plutons, which are funny things that are kind of planets and kind of not planets.
What bothers me about all of this is not that Pluto is getting kicked into the pluton category; after all it got a whole category pretty much named after itself. And it's not even that Pluto's twin, Charon, is going to be a planet too. We've known about Charon for years and it was only a matter of time before it was elevated. And then we just have to go: my very excellent mother just sent us nine pizzas with cheese, although there would be ten planets for nine pizzas.
No, the problem is much more serious. It's all the riff-raff that's being allowed in, like Ceres. It's not even a pluton but a real honest to goodness planet-planet, sitting right between Mars and Jupiter. It's tiny, just 600 miles in diameter. That's less that a third the diameter of the moon. I mean if you let in something as small as Ceres, who else are you going to let join the family? Some fly by night piece of space junk that doesn't even have a name? How do you fit 2003 UB13 into a mnemonic? What kind of solar system is this anyway? Is nothing sacred?
ELLIOTT: Marcus Rosenbaum is an editor at NPR. You can meet the celestial bodies under consideration for planet status if you travel to our Web site npr.org.