Author J. M. Barrie is best remembered for creating Peter Pan, but I’m extremely fond of his comic play The Admirable Crichton – especially when he has Ernest Woolley whine, “I’m not young enough to know everything!”
I’ve concluded this quote isn’t just about the confidence that naivety gives to the young. It’s also about the fickle nature of science. Far too many things I once learned have now been relegated to the same Neverland where Old Wives’ Tales are stored!
There’s a whole bunch of un-memorizing I have to do and I’m not certain I’m up to the job.
I have a recurring nightmare. In it, the only thing standing between me and my inevitable position as a judge at the New England Patriots’ cheerleader tryouts is the Keeper of the Bridge of Death from Monty Python and the Holy Grail. You know his rules — its like a game of Jeopardy — get three answers right and you get a lifetime supply of Rice-a-Roni; but get one wrong and – seeya! — you get dropped into the Gorge of Eternal Peril!
The script for my nocturnal visage always goes something like this:
Bridge Keeper: Stop! Who would cross the Bridge of Death must answer me these questions three, ere the other side he see.
Me: Ask me the questions, bridgekeeper. I am not afraid.
Bridge Keeper: What … is the atomic weight of caesnium?
Bridge Keeper: Why … that’s right! Who… was the first actor to play James Bond?
Me: Barry Nelson!
Bridge Keeper: Wow, you’re good! How … many planets are there in the solar system?
Bridge Keeper: No soup for you! Into the gorge now with you ….
Awakening in a cold sweat, I leap out of bed demanding a do over! I know there’s now only eight planets!
Uhhh … right? Or is it 12? .. or maybe its 24 … or 53 ….
The deposed planet Pluto has become the symbol of all the knowledge I’ve lost over the years, not because of a failing memory, but because The-Powers-That-Be keep changing the rules!
It wasn’t too long ago we recited a clever mnemonic as a guide to know which SPF lotion or overcoat to pack as we traveled outward from the sun: take “My Very Energetic Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas”, send it through a Geek-speak translator, and out comes “Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto”.
Perfect! As mnemonics go , this one was fantastic! It was simple, easy to learn, and – OMG! — it mentioned Pizza!
Pluto’s relegation to the planetary scrapheap is the fault of radical young whippersnappers serving as members of the International Astronomical Union. Apparently bored, they kept tweaking and massaging the definition of a planet until poor Pluto was thrown to the dogs.
I haven’t figured out who died and made the IAU boss back in 2006, but their quick releas of a bunch of evolving planetary definitions, seemed to have only one purpose — to kick Pluto out of the Planet Club!! Under their new rules, Pluto first became a dwarf planet (maybe?); then, a double planet (possibly?); but never again, it seemed, would it be a true planet like I was taught!
Things were so much simpler before these annoying astronomers got involved in the definition business. They should have stuck to their formulas and equations and kept their noses out of nomenclature, leaving that task to those of us more adept at name calling. When I rule the Universe, becoming a planet will be like becoming a queen or a pope – you hold the title until you go all dust-to-dust.
As a Planetary Society member, I watched the definition of a planet evolve as the IAU’s semantics were tweaked again and again. Multiple combinations of shape, orbit, and mass were bandied about, and the number of wannabe “planets” climbed to 12 … then 24 … then 53 … and finally peaked around an impressive 200!!
200!!! That was clearly unacceptable if our Earth was to remain a member of an elite group. Besides, noone could expect students to learn the names of this many objects wandering merrily about the sun if they outnumbered iPhone apps!! Heck, most couldn’t even remember to call home when they were going to be late!
The number of “true” planets had been a manageable 9 ever since 1930, when Clyde Tombaugh at The Lowell Observatory spotted Pluto lurking way, WAY out there.
But even back then, there were rumblings that Pluto shouldn’t have been knighted, which would have spared me from getting acquainted with it. Pluto was an oddball from the start, much like the uncle who embarrassingly shows up at family weddings wearing a clip-on bow tie over a Kristy McNichol T-shirt with his golf shoes. It was just a floating clump of ice, some said, neither a bloated gas giant nor a lean hunk of rock be. Even it’s orbit was so extreme that it sometimes moved within that of Neptune and became the 8th planet in order from the sun!
“My Very Energetic Mother Just Served Us Pizza Nicely” still worked pretty well, though, and nobody who mattered a whole bunch wrote a scathing New York Times editorial or carried torches to their local observatory demanding the head of Carl Sagan. So Pluto got to hang around with the Big Boys for 76 years.
Fearing angry reactions from Pluto’s fans (and the Disney Corporation), the IAU temporarily backtracked, and tried to shoehorn it back in. But that tinkering forced the inclusion of objects you likely can’t even pronounce, like Haumea, Borasisi, and Quaoar. Go ahead – try coming up with a witty phrase using H, B and Q in the proper order!
That expansion caused even more trouble, and angered astrologers armed with heavy crystal balls and syndicated columns. Forced to cast horoscopes for folks born on the cusp of Ixion [with Teharonhiawako rising], they threatened lawsuits for lost wages and defamation of character.
As I said, under my more logical rules, planets get life! No group of bored astronomers could come along and unceremoniously send them packing. Next thing you know, they could do this to anything, or anyone. Where would this end? What other factoid pounded into my skull by authoritative teachers could be sacrificed next?
Pluto’s planethood is just the most well known un-fact in our Solar system. I learned Mercury had just one side facing the sun – nope, now it rotates like every other planet. They taught me Venus had a planet-wide ocean; sorry, kids, its now waaay too hot and its clouds are acidic. My textbooks said Mars had canals for water; then they said it was arid, but now it has water again. They’re making me dumber by the day.
I doubt it’ll stop with unlearning astronomy. There’s more pesky upstarts out there conspiring and I can’t get too comfortable. I fear one day I‘ll open my browser to read:
The international organization, NYUK, has taken it upon themselves to approve a resolution defining a movie Stooge. To pacify film historians, the group has decreed that only Moe, Larry and Curly can now be referred to as Stooges.
Shemp Howard , Joe Besser, Emil Sitka and Joe DeRita have been given a new classification and are now referred to as Dumbasses.
When asked if they would appeal, the deposed comedians’ families collectively responded “soitenly!” The Shemp clan noted he was “a victim of soicumstance” and Joe Besser’s offspring said “that huuuuurts!” The DeRita’s son grumbled “Why I oughta…” before muttering “You knuckleheads!”. The Sitkas, like most everyone else, weren’t even aware Emil had once been a Stooge.
In a related story, Tom Cruise is no longer a Star, per Paramount‘s new definition.
So starting today, I’m taking a stance on Pluto’s behalf, as the first defensive gesture to protect the rest of my education. Astronomers – knock it off! I like Mexican food as much as the next guy, but the new-er “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos” lacks the proper cadence – and pepperoni and a cheese filled crust.
Pluto is dead; long live Pluto!