"Stop Planetary Discrimination!"
"Pluto Was Framed!"
"Dear Earth: You Suck. Love, Pluto."
"Pluto is still a planet. Bitches."
So read a small sampling of the defiant T-shirt and bumper sticker slogans that emerged in late 2006 after the International Astronomical Union (IAU), meeting in Prague, opted to poke the public with a sharp stick. The union's general assembly voted to excommunicate the ninth planet from the solar system, thus abruptly stripping Pluto of a status as much cultural, historic, and even mythological as scientific.
In the astronomers' defense, it had become increasingly difficult to justify calling Pluto a planet without doing the same for several other more recently discovered heavenly objects--one of which, the distant freezing rock now known as Eris (formerly "Xena"), turns out to be larger. But that didn't mean the experts had to fire Pluto from its previous place in the firmament. In defining the word "planet," they were arguably not so much engaged in science as a semantic exercise, meaning that instead of ruling Pluto out, they could just as easily have ruled a few new planets in, as a group of scientists, historians, and journalists had in fact proposed. But the IAU rejected that compromise for a variety of technical reasons: Pluto is much smaller than the other eight planets; it orbits the sun in a far more elliptical manner; its gravitational pull is not strong enough to have "cleared the neighborhood around its orbit" of other significant objects and debris…
People were aghast. Not only did they recoil at having to unlearn what they had learned as children, and perhaps the chief thing they remembered about astronomy. On some fundamental level their sense of fair play had been violated, and their love of the underdog provoked. Why suddenly kick Pluto out of the planet fraternity after letting it stay in for nearly a century, ever since its 1930 discovery? "No do-overs," wrote one cartoonist.
Soon websites started sprouting up encouraging people to vote on Pluto's status and override the experts. A Facebook group entitled "When I was your age, Pluto was a planet" drew a million and a half members. New Mexico, the state where Pluto's discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, had built an astronomy program, took particular offense. Its House of Representatives voted unanimously to preserve Pluto's planethood and named March 13, 2007, "Pluto Planet Day." Surveying it all, the American Dialect Society selected "plutoed" as its 2006 word of the year--as in, "you plutoed me." The society offered this definition: "to demote or devalue someone or something, as happened to the former planet Pluto when the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto no longer met its definition of a planet."
Even many scientists were upset. "I'm embarrassed for astronomy," remarked Alan Stern, the chief scientist on NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond... (keep reading this excerpt)
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