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.

29 Comments on “New Mexico Hearts Pluto”

  1. IAU won’t do anything…except make sure students from New Mexico won’t be able to get into any college because they believe that Pluto is a planet.

  2. I’m glad to see they’re focusing on the real issues in New Mexico. I’d hate to see them waste their time on something that wasn’t important.

  3. I found an instance wherein Pluto’s demotion works to someone’s benefit. Dance Kaleidoscope, a modern dance company here in Indy, is opening next season with a collection of pieces set to Gustav Holst’s The Planets, which includes music for Mars, Venus, Mercury, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune — but no Earth or Pluto. The piece is opening with a reprise of the Earth section from last season’s “Four Elements” show, and they’ve no longer got to worry about fitting in a Pluto section….

  4. If they’re voting on Pluto, they’re not passing laws to prevent same-sex couples from marrying or making it OK to shoot illegal immigrants, so it’s all good.

  5. Alex R:

    I doubt the New Mexico legislature is spending any real amount of time with this. It’s also relevant for them in that the discoverer of Pluto, Clyde Tombaugh, was from New Mexico and lived in the district the resolution’s author represents. I would be very surprised if the particular resolution is seriously debated.

  6. I suspect that it is this “WHEREAS” which is the real reason for the pluto resolution.

    WHEREAS, New Mexico state university and Dona Ana county were the longtime home of Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto;

    I.E. Clyde Tombaugh.

    The legislature has done a few interesting things this year. It has passed a bill which makes cock fighting illegal which Presidential candiate Govenor Bill Richardson will sign. An anti smoking bill just passed although wheher Richardson will sign it is not known yet.

    It seems to have beaten back several attempts to include Intelligent Design in the school curiculum which is a good thing.

    No ethics bill it looks like.

    Of course lots of states adopt silly resolutions. In 1996 the N.M legislature created the offical state question, “Red or Green?”


  7. There is no “correct answer. You have to have spent some time in Nex Mexico to know what the question refers to.

    Chile, note the spelling, is a very standard condiment with many meals in New Mexico. It comes in two varieties, red and green, the red being the rippened chile pod. So if you order a meal, you might be ask “Do you want red or green with that?

    A standard tourist question in New Mexico is “Which is hotter, the green or the red?” The standard answer is “The red is hotter except when the green is.”


  8. George: I got suckered in by the “Red or Green” question in a little restaurant outside Cimerron a number of years ago. I like hot food, but the green chile chili damned near killed me, I’m breaking out in a sweat just thinking about it. I don’t think that stuff is even on the Schofield scale. For you neomexicans to called that stuff a “condiment” is a crime against nature.

    Was damned tasty though.

  9. I was going to email you a link about this the other day (possibly yesterday; my calendar is fuzzy) and decided not to because I didn’t want to waste your time. Now I know better: all pluto-related legislation should be emailed immediately to Scalzi.

    Anyway. I personally support all efforts to return Pluto to the place of honor from which it was so wrongly dethroned.

    Pluto prevails! The king of the Kuiper Belt will have his revenge!

  10. One more comment, Pluto this time, not chile. I’m not an astronomer. But I understand from someone who
    was at last year’s General Assembly of the IAU, that at the next General Assembly in 2009, the planet question will be on the agenda again


  11. While the state legislature of New Mexico debates how many angels can dance on the head of a pin manufactured in New Mexico, the other 6bn of us will carry on with our lives, blissfully unaware such momentous decisions are being taken for our benefit.

  12. I see the New Mexico state legislature doesn’t have anything better to do. They should go see 300 their time will be better spent (that Movie was off the Meat Rack).

  13. “George: I got suckered in by the “Red or Green” question in a little restaurant outside Cimerron a number of years ago. I like hot food, but the green chile chili damned near killed me, I’m breaking out in a sweat just thinking about it. I don’t think that stuff is even on the Schofield scale. For you neomexicans to called that stuff a “condiment” is a crime against nature. ”

    If it doesn’t make you sweat you might as well just be using salt.

    Old Jarhead

  14. IAU won’t do anything…except make sure students from New Mexico won’t be able to get into any college because they believe that Pluto is a planet.

    I should think the IAU (and scientists generally) would worry more about dealing with people who believe that the Earth is only ~6000 years old.

  15. The difference between this and the hypothetical NM naming of rattlesnakes as mammals is vast: what a mammal is was already well-defined, whereas what a planet was was NOT well-defined, and, in fact, the IAU had to come up with a definition for planet to eliminate Pluto as such. There is no dispute (that I know of) for what defines a mammal is the bioscience community. There is STILL dispute in the astronomical community as to what defines a planet.

    I say, good on NM! And I hope their Governor becomes our next President (though not because of this)!

  16. Anything which keeps politicians from meddling in actual real issues should be applauded IMO. Can they be ersuaded to rename it yuggoth too do you think? Actually, I’m gonna see if I can create a petion for that at

  17. I am all for this resolution! Pluto will always be a planet to me, no matter what the pedants at the IAU may say.

    Arizona should get on the team and pass a similar resolution (“WHEREAS Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff…”)

  18. I wonder if you would have the same reaction if the city council or state government were making some negative pronouncement about Bush. Doubt it.

  19. It’s absolutely ridiculous to use the Trojan asteroids as an example of Jupiter not being able to clear it’s orbit. The L4 and L5 Lagrange points where these asteroids exist are actually some of the most stable points in a 3-body system. A 3-body system is defined as a system consisting of 2 very massive objects (such as the Sun and Moon) and a 3rd object with negligible mass compared to the other two (i.e. an asteroid). The strength of the Lagrange points depends wholly on the mass ratio between the two massive objects. The closer they are in mass, the stronger the Lagrange points. The fact that the Sun-Jupiter system actually has asteroids at the L4 and L5 Lagrange points speaks volumes as to how massive Jupiter is when compared to the Sun.

    Newtown’s law of gravitation basically states that the more massive an object is, the greater the gravitational pull it has on other objects (I’m really simplifiying it here). The greater the gravitional pull an object has, the easier time it will have sweeping it’s orbit.

    Jupiter won’t be able to sweep asteroids from it’s L4 and L5 Lagrange points. The only thing that would really get the asteroids out of these points would be if there was a large external force which pushed them out of these points.

    I think that Dr. Weintraub needs to brush up on his Orbital Mechanics…or, at least, he needs to stop mis-characterizing the Lagrange points as areas which should be sweeped by a planet.

    If you’re interested, here is a link to an article on a Nasa website with a nice explanation of Lagrange points and some real nice pictures:

    I’m done geeking out now. Sorry about that but it’s not often that I can comment about Orbital Mechanics in a blog.

  20. Quick correction…

    When giving examples of 2 very massive objects, I said the Sun and Moon. Meant to use the Sun and Jupiter in that example.

  21. I really need to read through what I’m saying before I post a comment…

    The assertion that “the closer the two massive bodies are in mass the stronger the L4 and L5 Lagrange points” is completely wrong. In fact, the mass ratio between the two needs to be greater than 24.96 in order for the L4 and L5 points to exist.

    However, 3-body analysis still assumes that you have two very massive objects and the 3rd object is much smaller than the other two.

    I shall now go and hide in the corner and only post comments when I have my facts straight.