Thursday, August 24, 2006

A Plutonic Relationship


It isn't you -- it's me. But I hope we can still be friends.

I minored in astronomy in college, a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away. The subject's appeal to me was fueled by the tantilizing prospect of other intelligent (or intelligent) life in the universe. SETI was a hot topic a generation or so before SETI@Home made us all universe scanners and way before Aricebo graduate Jodie Foster made Contact -- or did she? -- with a race that also liked TV too much. The prospect that we are not alone and the seeming inevitability, a mere half-dozen years after "Star Trek" got cancelled, of long-distance human space travel was enough for me to read astronomy books even on school breaks.

Long after my academic days ended we did in fact find evidence of life, or at least evidence of evidence life, right here in our own solar system. That was cool, but fosilized remains of microbes and places water might have been doesn't pack much dramatic punch.

There is, on the other hand, something ironically sensational when a planet is voted off the island. Here is this, well, thing out there now that many of us have ever only known as a planet and it isn't any more. Just the best-known ice cube in space.

This is going to take some getting used to. But maybe we can turn this into a learning opportunity. I'm sure the many mnemonic devices teachers have used to help students remember the order and names of the planets will just need a little tinkering, and maybe in the process we can improve them.
  • My Very Excited Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas
Well, pizza isn't very good for you anyway. We should make no references to fast food which, by the way, shouldn't be served in schools. Or soda. How about "My Very Excited Mother Just Served Us Nectarines?" Gives fruit a plug. Too bad we can't slip in "five servings".
  • Merlin’s Very Extravagant Mother Just Sent Us Ninety Parrakeets
Don't hang out with people named "Merlin." And what the heck are we supposed to do with 90 birds? Gee, thanks. Perhaps we should discourage the trade in exotic animals and give Merlin's mom a personality makeover when we re-write this one. Let's go with "Merlin's Very Extravagant Mother Just Seems Utterly Normal"
  • Mother Very Early Made John Some Unusually Nice Pies
OK -- knocking mom and pie and moms who make pie is a no-no. And they are said to be unusually nice pies. And she got up very early to make them. And my name is John. But we have to draw the line. "Mother Very Early Made John Some Undercooked Nachos" Well, that brings us back to fast food. And it sounds like mom had been drinking. Let's stick a pin in that one and move on for now.
  • My Very Educated Mother Just Showed Us Nine Planets
This one is a total loss.

Some of this will be easier. For example, songs that feature the planets could probably just be shortened, like this one, sung to the tune of "The Farmer in the Dell".
Saturn has great rings.
We wondered what they were,
Now we know they're blocks of ice
which we saw as a blur.
Ummm ... when was this ditty written? Oh well. It continues:
With atmospheres that swirl
& wispy white clouds too
Uranus and Neptune
are so cold that you'd turn blue.
You'd turn blue. Yeah. That'd be your big problem.
Pluto's last in line.
It's farthest from the Sun.
It's small and cold and icy too.
To land there won't be fun.
Well kid, you won't have to fret that one any more. Would all the planets in the solar system please take one step forward -- not so fast there, Pluto!

I'm guessing my my period of adjustment will be relatively painless, though perhaps less so for others. Pluto doesn't come up in coversation much anymore, and probably a lot less starting tomorrow when it gets stopped at the door of the planet union hall.

But pity nineplanets.org, which is the top hit when you Google "Pluto". They are so going to need to get a new domain. And eightplanets.org is so taken.

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