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.