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 Heavenly Turmoil  

August 17, 2006 
paragraph indentA new and unexpected dispute threatens to rend further the already tattered fabric of American civility: Is Pluto a planet?

paragraph indentOnce Today's column is "Heavenly Turmoil" -- Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.again the battle lines are being drawn between Red and Blue states, with all the fury of Sunnis and Shi’ites. And as usual, the media are weighing in with their entirely predictable liberal bias.

paragraph indentOne hopes the matter can be peacefully resolved, despite the deep prejudices involved. So far, Pluto has retained its planetary status in a vote by the Planet Definition Committee, but the issue may not be amenable to a democratic solution.

paragraph indentThe Committee has in fact added to the turmoil by electing three new planets, Ceres, Charon, and Xena (which you may know as 2003 UB313). Unless reasonable criteria are adopted, we may soon be dealing with literally hundreds of putative planets.

paragraph indentMore than astronomy is at stake. So is its parent science, astrology. As a Pisces, I find uncertainty about the heavenly bodies deeply unsettling. When I read my horoscope in the morning, I want to be able to feel that all relevant data have been consulted. Earlier generations of astrologers, such as the great John Dee (1527–1608), had to deal with only a few planets, stars, the Sun, and the Moon. It was a simpler, happier time.

paragraph indentSuperficially, the opposing parties in the controversy seem well defined. The “Plutophiles,” including millions of letter-writing schoolchildren, passionately affirm Pluto’s planethood. They tend to be traditionalist and sentimental, and my own first impulse was to cheer them on.

paragraph indentBut the other side, who I suppose must be called Plutophobes, offer seemingly powerful arguments: Pluto is a tiny object, perhaps made of ice rather than mineral, only 1/50 the size of the Earth. It is cold and uninhabited, perhaps uninhabitable (though President Bush may have something to say about that after he sends a man to Mars). Its orbit is, allegedly, more elliptical than strictly circular.

[Breaker quote for Heavenly Turmoil : The war for Pluto]paragraph indentBut here is where the issue of media bias comes in. Nearly all reporting of the issue is framed by a loaded term: the solar system. Notice that this phrase presupposes the Copernican theory, the idea that all the planets revolve around the Sun. This threatens to become the whole premise of the debate. Question this theory, and you’re effectively shut out of the controversy, disfranchised, “outside the mainstream.” So much for pluralism.

paragraph indentThe Copernican theory is just that — a theory, not a fact. It has a strong appeal to those who are too lazy to do the complex calculations required by the older, commonsense Ptolemaic view. But for generations, the simplistic Copernican spin has been tirelessly inculcated in our public schools — to captive audiences of impressionable children — by secular humanists and other self-hating Earthlings. Parents have had little say in the matter.

paragraph indentAs a result, both sides in the Pluto debate are accepting a dubious premise. Yet as the eminent mathematician Bertrand Russell long ago observed, there is no logical necessity to believe that the Earth revolves around the Sun rather than that the Sun revolves around the Earth. And as Sherlock Holmes asks pointedly, what practical difference does it make? In a free society, one should be able to remain aloof from the current debate without being dismissed as Plutophobic.

paragraph indentWe also have to consider a linguistic angle. It must be remembered that Pluto wasn’t even discovered until 1930, when it was named for the Roman god of the underworld — a forbidding figure. But a few years later, Walt Disney gave the name to Mickey Mouse’s dog, who was, by contrast, the most lovable canine in the history of cinema, with the possible exception of Lassie (whose name has never been given to a celestial body). And Lassie’s popularity owed much to her co-stars, the great child actors Roddy McDowall and Elizabeth Taylor (who in my opinion has been going downhill ever since). But I’m digressing.

paragraph indentIt seems indubitable that the emotions in this debate, especially those of children, are fueled by the positive associations of the name Pluto among Americans of all ages who are more familiar with Hollywood cartoons than with classical literature. Again, much of the blame lies with our educational system. Surely a debate over whether Mercury or Saturn (also named for Roman deities) are planets would be far less inflammatory.

paragraph indentThe sad truth is that neither Ptolemaists nor classical scholars have a dog in this fight.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2006 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
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