Tag Archives: astronomy

Plutoed: Fakename Studies Astronomy

Well, not exactly. 

The occasion for the post is that I’m reading the novel Percival’s Planet; the link is to a review of the book in the Washington Post, and I’d say it’s very accurate.  The book is described as being “inspired by” the true story of the discovery of Pluto in 1930.    The problem with these “based on/inspired by” stories is that unless you know enough about the real story, it’s hard to tell who is a real person and who is fictional, or what really happened or didn’t.  I decided I needed to educate myself further about the real story, and therein lies the problem (math and physics are involved).  So in the process of my online investigation, I found I had bitten off a bit more than I could chew, but nevertheless, I feel more illuminated anyway.

Try to follow along here with Fakename.  First let’s review the position of the planets: 

Note the absence of Pluto

Pluto isn’t included, because in 2006, Pluto was plutoed.  Plutoed was a new word, designated that same year as the “word of the year” by some organization or another that does that sort of thing.  It means to be “demoted or downgraded in value”.  It went from being a planet to being a dwarf planet, one of five.  The book review notes that the decision by the International Astronomical Union to downgrade Pluto was met by a popular outcry, leading to the creation of several T-shirts, including one that said “That’s OK Pluto.  I’m not a planet either”.  Fakesister told me about one that reads, “Back when I was your age, Pluto was a planet”.

Now we move to the history.  Prior to the discovery of Neptune, it was noted that something seemed to be causing disruptions in the orbit of Uranus (please refer to diagram above).  Neptune was postulated, then found.  Once found, it was determined that Neptune alone was not sufficient to explain the problem with Uranus, so there had to be something else.  That something else was the theoretical “9th planet”, which Percival Lowell, the Percival of the book, called Planet X.  The last years of his life were spent trying to find it, in vain. 

The guy who did discover it did so using something called a “blink comparator”, technology not available to Lowell.  He tried to do it with math.  The comparator process involves taking photographs of the same portion of the sky about a week apart, putting them side by side, then looking at them back and forth rapidly (blinking, I guess) to determine if something seems to have moved.  This seems silly to us today, when you have digital photographs and computer analysis and so on, but to me, that’s what makes the discovery of Pluto all the more amazing.  This guy did it with his eyes and his brain. 

So since 2006, Pluto and it’s largest moon Charon have been designated part of the Kuiper Belt, a ring of stuff outside the solar system.  I’ll spare you from talking about the asteroid belt (between Mars and Jupiter) and the centaurs (between the asteroid belt and the Kuiper Belt).  Here’s the position poor little Pluto holds today:

Poor little Pluto, at least it has company

One of the things I discovered is that astronomers are both very whimsical and contentious people.  There are still arguments going on about whether Pluto is a planet or not, and whether or not the Kuiper Belt should really be named after Kuiper.  I think all that math and physics addles their brains.