Yalies conflicted 5 years after Pluto death

Photo by Kat Oshman.

Five years after the fact, some Yale students are still reeling from Pluto’s official downgrade to the category of “dwarf planet.”

In an informal student poll conducted in Berkeley and Silliman colleges and in Bass Library Sunday night, more than half of the 50 respondents said they disagreed with the International Astronomical Union’s controversial 2006 decision to remove Pluto from the official list of planets in the solar system.

Still, even Alex Gutierrez ’14, who spent the summer studying at the Cerro Tololo Inter-American Observatory in Chile, said that while Pluto had some meaning to him growing up — teaching him as a child that it was “okay to be cold and distant” — he does not find the reclassification to be as bad as some people say.

Like Gutierrez, 28 of the students polled said that Pluto holds some sentimental value for them, while the remainder said the dwarf planet’s status is of little or no consequence to them.

A few students were downright dismissive of the small celestial body.

“I mean, it’s still there,” Isabel Napier ’14 said. “It’s a planet, not a teddy bear; I don’t have any fond memories of my time on Pluto.”

“The change involves the classification of an icy sphere spinning through space billions of miles away from the Earth,” Gutierrez added. “No, this has not impacted my life.”

But for some, the issue of Pluto and its deplanetation is far more nuanced. Students like Larry Huynh ’14 said they were concerned about the effect Pluto’s demotion has had on classic mnemonics about the solar system such as “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas,” which spells out the first letters of the nine planets. These important learning tools will need to be completely reworked in order to fit this new planet paradigm, he said. Jessica Rosenthal ’12 agreed.

“I mean, now it ends with ‘Served Us Nine!’” Rosenthal said. “‘Served Us Nine’ what?”

Pluto’s end became a possibility with the discovery of the Kuiper belt, a collection of frozen celestial bodies of which Pluto seemed to be the largest member, in 1992. Then Kuiper belt searchers, including Yale researcher David Rabinowitz, found Eris, a planetoid slightly larger than Pluto, which led to the IAU’s decision to rename these objects “dwarf planets.”

This discovery, as well as Pluto’s extremely eccentric orbit (by astronomer’s standards), led astronomy and physics major Ilya Uts ’13 to believe that astronomers reached the correct decision in reclassifying Pluto, he said.

“As a child, I was never too fascinated by Pluto — it always appeared too far away,” Uts said. “To be honest, it doesn’t seem like astronomers ever cared too much for Pluto.”

Students interviewed described Pluto as “cute,” “distant,” “just a rock,” and, as Obaid Syed ’14 said, “the tiny, goofy planet that was never meant to be.”

Another student compared her favorite planet’s demise to that of the Brontosaurus. The student, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, presumably out of fear of retaliation from the scientific community, said that scientists killed Pluto in a similar manner to the dinosaur when it was discovered in 1975 that the dinosaur never existed.

Pluto fans may find some solace in the IAU’s 2008 ruling declaring objects like Pluto to be plutoids — large, round bodies beyond Neptune. While this might not be enough to mollify die-hard Plutoites, many take it as an admission by the IAU that it incorrectly redefined what it means to be a planet when they excluded Pluto.

Pluto was first discovered in 1930, giving it a planet lifetime of 76 years, three fewer than the average life expectancy in the United States.


  • Yalie

    Pluto lost its status as a planet but now has an entire class named after it. Not a bad deal! More importantly, we will get a close look at it in 2015, when the New Horizons mission flies by.

  • Jaymin

    Pluto never even existed. It was just a fabrication of the leftist lamestream media so the socialist muslims could funnel more money into NASA.

  • laurele

    First, Eris is not larger than Pluto; this was first discovered in November 2010 when Eris occulted a star. It actually is marginally smaller than Pluto. The IAU definition is highly problematic for many reasons. First, it completely ignores exoplanets, most of which would never fit its requirement of “cleairng their orbits.” Second, it was adopted by four percent of the IAU in violation of the group’s own bylaws, and most who voted are not planetary scientists. An equal number of professional astronomers led by New Horizons Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern immediately signed a formal petition rejecting the IAU definition. The primary problem is that the definition is solely based on dynamics to the exclusion of geophysics. In other words, it defines an object only by where it is while ignoring what it is, thereby resulting in blurring the important distinction between shapless asteroids and Kuiper Belt Objects and geologically complex objects such as Pluto, which are shaped by their own gravity, have weather, and are differentiated into core, mantle, and crust just like Earth is. This complexity is characteristic of planets. Also, the IAU definition is inherently biased against objects further from their parent star, because these have larger orbits to clear. If Earth were in Pluto’s orbit, it would not clear that orbit either. A definition that takes the same object and makes it a planet in one location and not a planet in another makes absolutely no sense. Plus, science is not determined by decree. As a graduate student in astronomy at Swinburne University, I encourage all interested in this issue to view the transcripts of the Great Planet Debate, held in 2008 as a reaction to the IAU decision: http://gpd.jhuapl.edu/

  • Frashizzle

    I love that this article exits. It’s humorously trivial, and the YDN needs more pieces like this one.

  • antiydn

    it’s isabelle napier, not isabel napier.