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Black Sky Affair

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Let us focus on a cosmological topic fraught with no small measure of in- censed passion: Pluto.

Confused, even angry expressions... At least that was the scene at my bar. Beloved Pluto, no longer a planet? Even in the ever-dynamic realm of science such banishment plucks the cords of our fondness for the “little planet that could,” though other circumstances surrounding Pluto’s detection also relate closely to the heart.

Discovered in 1930, Pluto was the only planet to be found by an American, 24-year-old assistant astronomer Clyde Tombaugh, and was named shortly after by 11-year-old Oxford native Venetia Burney, giving the schoolgirl the honor of being the only person to name a planet. Fancy a young lady from England christening our solar system’s then-outermost realm for the Roman god of the underworld—brother to Jupiter and Neptune and judged by the ancients to rival the lords of both heavens and sea as every bit equal in eminence and authority.

Fast-forward to 2006. The International Astronomical Union meets in Paris amid much contention and spirited debate, drawing upon over two decades of fresh data confirming the existence not only of Eris (a spheroidal body beyond Pluto’s orbit, closely competitive in size and of similar eccentric orbit) but of an entire solar system-encompassing group of objects known collectively as the Kuiper belt. In light of new and constantly expanding data, IAU members in a split decision resolve to redefine Pluto’s astronomical categorization along with these other trans-Neptunian bodies rather than expanding our planetary family to include Eris, the planetoid Ceres, and other remote and newfound objects. Said Dr. Peter Shull, Oklahoma State University Associate Professor of Physics Emeritus and IAU member, “It was a good decision. Our solar system actually has two asteroid belts: the rocky-metallic one between Mars and Jupiter, and the rocky-icy Kuiper belt. The largest objects in both belts are roundish instead of irregular in shape, a consequence of gravity and the strength of materials.”

Thus was Kuiper belt constituent Pluto classed a dwarf planet; cue fifteen years of disenchantment by the layman. I was no exception, though I accepted it as I learned more about how the evolving findings fitted into our conception of this tiny corner of the universe, the star system we call home. Things change. They must, as we explore, study, and move toward a greater comprehension. To deny change on one hand is to accept a static and therefore perpetual condition of ignorance on the other. Such is not the way of science, or of its method.

And perhaps young Venetia’s choice of namesake was more auspicious than we might have imagined. Pluto’s current status sets it as the prototype of a novel ordering of unique worlds, a benchmark, the king of its class as distinguished from the footman of the former. As Satan ruled Tartarus, so does Pluto now command its own new netherworld, and as Milton said, “Better to reign in Hell, than serve in Heav’n.” Here’s to clear minds, and meeting change.

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