Where’s the ninth planet?

When we were in schools, we studied that our solar system had nine planets- Mercury, Mars, Venus, Earth, Jupiter, Uranus, Saturn, Neptune and Pluto. However, somewhere down the line, Astrophysicists decided that Pluto was not a planet and since the year 1999, we have only 8 planets. This immediately brings to our mind a recent development in our Country with number of states reducing from 29 to 28 and number of Union Territories increasing from 7 to 9 consequent to status change of the state of Jammu and Kashmir and its bifurcation into two UTs – Kashmir and Ladakh. I distinctly remember that in our Chemistry classes in High School, we studied that periodic table had 104 elements, a number that has gone up to 118 today.

Kashmir is a fairly recent big disruption, the news is probably on everybody’s mind. Chemistry is no longer being studied by me and I am really not in a circle comprising many chemists. Therefore, periodic table related information is really not very important except from the point of general knowledge. This means, changes are happening in a dynamic world- some affect us and we are abreast of them while a few others do not reach our radar unless specifically looked for. However, de recognition of Pluto as a planet in 1999 was really a very momentous and emotional occasion as I gathered from some of the material I recently got exposed to. Monday, May 24, 1999 was a night of revised cosmic map. The night Pluto fell from grace. The astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, who was at the centre of the Pluto controversy, brainstorming on the definition of planet with his scientific brethren, recounts playfully and poignantly the history and transition of Pluto from the jubilant discovery to its classification wobble to its redemption in this dossier of a book titled “Pluto Files”.

As the book reads, Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto’s at Percival Lowell Observatory in 1930, the third and the last person ever to discover a planet in our solar system, initially earmarked as Planet X by the astronomers who conjectured the presence of an interfering planet to explain the perturbations of Neptune. The name Pluto was first suggested by Venetia Burney, an 11-year-old schoolgirl in Oxford.

The farthest planet Pluto composed of rock and ice inspired poetry and aroused curiosity among the observers who peered at the tiny blip of the wanderer, so distant and so clandestine that it merely grazes above us withholding its tantalising secrets. But one secret that it protected for years was its identity. What is that tiny disk even doing in that farscape? That secret was busted with the discovery of similar iceballs in the frontier of our solar system, very pluto looking, but what are they? As more iceballs, the size and separation of Pluto were discovered rapidly, the fate of Pluto swung precariously in the altercation and voting of the plutophiles and pluto demoters, with the Rose Center for Earth and Space sounding the death knell to Pluto’s planetary rights when it opened its door to the public on a Saturday morning in the year 2000 with Pluto removed from the planetary exhibits and shoved among the newly discovered objects in Kuiper Belt and Oort Cloud.

The book recounts the events leading up to the critical decision and the aftermath and the backlash from public supporters who decried that the unarmed and defenseless Pluto floating as a shirt-tail relative of the otherwise well-formed family was unceremoniously kicked out of the planetary alliance. Pluto lost its patrician status and given the mundane citizenship of kuiper belt object. Further in 2006, owing to immense public fallout and scientific review, Pluto was slightly uplifted and officially designated as “dwarf planet” with newspapers either rallying or condemning this revision as seen in this rhyme published in Oregonian:

𝘋𝘦𝘢𝘳 𝘗𝘭𝘶𝘵𝘰,

𝘛𝘩𝘦 𝘯𝘦𝘸𝘴 𝘪𝘴 𝘲𝘶𝘪𝘵𝘦 𝘣𝘢𝘥

𝘠𝘰𝘶𝘳 𝘳𝘦𝘤𝘦𝘯𝘵 𝘥𝘦𝘮𝘰𝘵𝘪𝘰𝘯 𝘪𝘴 𝘴𝘢𝘥

𝘌𝘢𝘳𝘵𝘩 𝘴𝘤𝘪𝘦𝘯𝘵𝘪𝘴𝘵𝘴 𝘮𝘰𝘳𝘱𝘩𝘦𝘥 𝘺𝘰𝘶

𝘛𝘩𝘦𝘺 𝘥𝘰𝘸𝘯𝘴𝘪𝘻𝘦𝘥 𝘢𝘯𝘥 𝘥𝘸𝘢𝘳𝘧𝘦𝘥 𝘺𝘰𝘶

𝘓𝘪𝘵𝘵𝘭𝘦 𝘉𝘶𝘥𝘥𝘺, 𝘐 𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘬 𝘺𝘰𝘶’𝘷𝘦 𝘣𝘦𝘦𝘯 𝘩𝘢𝘥.

The public outcry ranged from the plea of a 59-year old who has lived his supervised life under the auspices of nine planets to an ultimatum from a 6-year old who petitioned affixing the poll result of his fellow six-year-old scouts who all unanimously agreed that Pluto, their favourite planet, should be reinstated without much brouhaha as their collective knowledge decreed that Pluto was a REGULAR REAL PLANET, just colder than the rest which you cannot hold against it.

The book captures the protests, letters, recordings, debates and online mobilisation to protect the dignity of Pluto inquiring whether it could be considered as an exceptional planet for sentimental and historical reasons with one loyalist claiming that stripping Pluto of its planethood was like stripping George Washington of his citizenship because the US wasn’t really a country when he was born. The judgement to demote Pluto by the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in the August of 2006 had little or no effect on steadfast states like New Mexico and California which continued to ennoble Pluto in its undiminished respect declaring March 13 as “Pluto Planet Day”, since 2007, to uphold its entitlement in planetary confederacy.

Pluto achieved something unparalleled in clamour and distinction that no planet in living memory has ever been able to provoke, with American Dialect Society announcing the word ‘pluto’ as their 17th annual ‘word of the year’ in 2006.

𝘵𝘰 𝘱𝘭𝘶𝘵𝘰/𝘵𝘰 𝘣𝘦 𝘱𝘭𝘶𝘵𝘰𝘦𝘥: 𝘵𝘰 𝘥𝘦𝘮𝘰𝘵𝘦 𝘰𝘳 𝘥𝘦𝘷𝘢𝘭𝘶𝘦 𝘴𝘰𝘮𝘦𝘵𝘩𝘪𝘯𝘨

Wonder, if Pluto in its itinerant 248-year orbit would snicker at us, or be grateful to us, shrug unobvious, or show defiance in our havering to typify it as a planet vs belt object, proclaiming itself to be the self-styled: I am the small yet mighty Pluto! Don’t mess with me.

This is only curtain raiser of what certainly seems to be an interesting read. There’s something in these planets and their configuration or placement may or may not decide our fate or destiny, but whether it’s the names of the days kept after them or the afore stated love for Pluto, the relationship with mankind is special.

2 thoughts on “Where’s the ninth planet?

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