Daily Archives: March 10, 2007

New Mexico Hearts Pluto

New Mexico is considering passing legislation to declare Pluto a planet (here’s the text of the resolution). Suck it, International Astronomical Union! Your lane has been swept, my friends.

Speaking of “sweeping the lane,” here’s an interesting bit from the linked article:

The resolution has also been welcomed by other astronomers that do not agree with the demotion of Pluto or with the IAU’s definition. David Weintraub, a professor of astronomy at Nashville, Tennessee’s Vanderbilt University, pointed out that neither Neptune nor Jupiter would technically be considered a planet under the definition: Neptune has not cleared its orbit, because Pluto crosses its path, and Jupiter has objects in its orbit — the so-called Trojan asteroids that sit in stable gravitational pockets, known as Lagrange points.

Partisan though I am for Pluto, I think this is a specious argument; Pluto and Neptune are locked into a 3:2 orbital resonance which assures that never the twain shall meet; the resonance is undoubted due to the gravitational influence of Neptune. Likewise, the Trojan asteroids are locked into their Lagrange points; if not “swept” by Jupiter’s gravity, they’re nevertheless securely contained. In both cases, Neptune and Jupiter are gravitationally in charge of their respective lanes.

Back to New Mexico, the question to ask here is whether a state legislature has the right to name any particular celestial object a planet against the consensus of the competent scientific body that generally adjudicates such things. After all, if New Mexico passed a resolution declaring the Western Rattlesnake a mammal, the American Institute of Biological Sciences is not obliged to concur. Likewise, I suspect the IAU’s response will be to say “well, that’s awfully cute,” and then keep on doing what it’s doing. This is not to say I think the debate about Pluto is over, since even among planetary scientists Pluto’s status is still contentious; it’s to say that I don’t suspect New Mexico’s resolutions will have much impact on the scientific discussion.

Be that as it may: Rock on, New Mexico! Pass that resolution! You have my vote.