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Planet vote might end tough times for Pluto

After more than 75 years, the whole planet Pluto debate appears to be headed for a resolution.

There are, of course, those of us who thought the matter had been decided some time back on account of when we were in school, we opened our science textbooks to full-color drawings of the solar system - one sun, nine planets, a few moons here and there, an asteroid belt and, occasionally, a nice comet with a fiery tail to add a little oomph to the overall aesthetics of the composition.

You learned which one was which. Earth wasn't hard to pick out because every schoolroom had a globe. Saturn had the rings, Jupiter was big with a red splotch, Mars was red all over, Mercury was closest to the sun, Venus was the one next to Earth that wasn't red, Uranus and Neptune were the big ones past Saturn.

That left Pluto, a little dark, icy rock that was sort of stuck out on the end and not very distinguished.

The name's probably where Pluto's public relations problem started.

The other planets were named for mythological gods who specialized in popular areas such as beauty, quickness, war, oceans and such. Uranus is even the subject of a joke that was once funny involving the starship Enterprise, a roll of Charmin toilet paper and Klingons.

Pluto, meanwhile, was named after the undertaker god. That's just not the kind of job that's going to endear you to other mythological deities and get you invited over to Venus's place for witty conversation and cocktails.

Pluto's simply not a name that garners a lot of respect, even from a fun guy like the late Walt Disney. Disney came up with Goofy, a dog who talks and wears a hat and, in a cartoon rarity, a shirt and britches, unlike Donald Duck, a sailor who runs all over the place showing off his tail feathers.

Pluto, on the other hand, also is a dog, only he can't talk, but he does bark at chipmunks, gnaw bones, live out back in a doghouse and have a rat for an owner.

So, I guess it's no surprise that scientists who fret over this sort of thing have been debating whether Pluto is even worthy of being called a planet. In fact, they tried to come up with a whole new category for it - pluton.

Unfortunately, geologists had already staked out that word for "igneous rock that has solidified below the earth's surface," a good thing to know if you ever get on "Jeopardy."

Foiled by the geologists, some members of the International Astronomical Union decided to resort instead to coming up with an actual definition for the word planet, which seems to have gone an inordinate amount of time without having a clear one.

The whole group is expected to vote this week on the recommendation that would instantly give our solar system three new planets - Ceres, which has been an asteroid until now; Charon, which has been Pluto's moon but it turns out they're sort of cohabitating, and UB313, a new one out around Pluto that some folks are calling Xena, which could be a popular decision because it could prompt Lucy Lawless to break out her old skimpy leather outfit and go on tour as its official spokeswoman.

While I think everyone is naturally congratulatory when an individual or celestial sphere gets a well-deserved promotion, we can only hope that these scientists realize the impact their decision will have on the world.

Schoolchildren, for instance, will have to memorize three more planets, a 33 percent increase over what their parents had to remember. This could cut seriously into PS2 time.

Plus, all the little foam ball solar system models will have to be recalled and redesigned. I made one out of coat hangers, fishing line and hand-painted Styrofoam balls in elementary school and it was difficult enough to balance 10 balls, much less adding three more.

I also wouldn't be surprised to find out that voting members of the science union have suddenly become popular on textbook publishers' guest lists for cocktail parties where attractive waitresses dressed up like Xena are bringing them free drinks and laughing at their jokes.

Even the one with Uranus, the Enterprise and those pesky Klingons.

Jim Hendricks is editor of the Albany Herald, sister paper of the Gwinnett Daily Post. E-mail him at jim.hendricks@albanyherald.com. Have any thoughts about this column? Share them with us at letters@gwinnettdailypost.com. Letters should be no more than 200 words and are subject to approval by the publisher. Letters may be edited for style and space requirements. Please sign your name and provide an address and a daytime telephone number. Address letters for publication to: Letters to the Editor, Gwinnett Daily Post, P.O. Box 603, Lawrenceville, GA 30046-0603. The fax number is 770-339-8081.