Monday, August 28, 2006

Pluto Demoted

Seventy years after the discovery, of what everybody thought was a small planet on the outer edges of our solar system; scientists have decided to demote this thing we call Pluto, from planet, down to dwarf planet.

Just like that. After almost four generations of teaching elementary school students that our solar system has nine planets, teachers will begin teaching children there are only eight. As another comic once said, "You should go back to your grade school teacher, and demand that your test be re-scored, because you might have gotten an A." There isn't even enough time to get textbooks re-printed before the school year starts.

I didn't know that the International Astronomical Union had the authority to do this. I thought the Nine Planet Solar System was a hard rule -- more fact than theory. Nine planets are what I always imagined extra-terrestrial astronomers were observing, from their craggy faraway telescopes. In every science fiction movie I've ever seen, the aliens refer it as "A Nine Planet Solar System, full of creatures you call 'Humans'". Turns out, it was just a simple bureaucratic convention, subject to change without notice.

Astrologers are highly dismayed, since Pluto plays a very important part in Astrological charts for the Scorpios. Astrology supposedly dates back to the ancient civilizations of Egypt and Mesopotamia, but the practitioners ascribed great powers to this planet, that wasn't even as old as Laurel and Hardy films. How powerful can it be, when it is invisible to the naked eye? (I imagine the decision to downgrade Pluto would have been different if Astrologers had a seat or two on the IAU board.)

Science is obviously a highly flexible and constantly changing group of theories. Rather than being a hard discipline like Mathematics, it is based on continual questioning, discovery, and revision. In just the past 150 years we've learned that our ancestors were monkeys, there are particles smaller than atoms, and a huge explosion started it all.

Many things that were taught just a few generations ago, are now disputed. When Pluto was discovered in 1930, Geologists still believed that the Continents were fixed and immobile; today we know that they ride around the Earth on tectonic plates. Time was regarded as a constant, until Einstein suggested that it could actually be slowed down, by traveling very fast. (Standing in stark contrast to the adage: "Slow down, you'll live longer.") Dinosaurs, were once thought to be cold-blooded reptiles like Robert Blake, but are now considered the warm-blooded ancestors of birds.

So too, will our perceptions change about Global Warming. The modern theory is that CO2 has been warming up the atmosphere. Perhaps years from now, when the current upward temperature trend reverses, scientists will change their opinions. I suspect such is the motivation to replace the term "Global Warming," with "Climate Change." The Environmentalists are all repositioning themselves, in case they have to make an abrupt U-turn.

Scientific consensus may seem slow, but it reverses quite quickly relative to Government. In 1898, back when time and continents were fixed in an eight planet solar system, Congress came up with a novel idea to fund the Spanish American War. A penny tax, was placed on each American phone call. Since only the rich people had phones back then, it was never supposed to affect the Average American, and passed through Congress, quicker than a diseased hog through a Chicago slaughterhouse.

One hundred years after that Nine Month War was over, in a Nation under Pluto, the tax was still being collected. No longer just a luxury tax, since phone ownership is practically universal, it cost consumers over six billion dollars in 2005. The tax was not rescinded until June of this year, after decades of pressure and lawsuits, from public interest groups and phone companies.

Right now, there are some who claim that scientific consensus has determined that Climate Change is a hard fact, and the government must take immediate measures to avert catastrophe. Since those measures will likely last a Century or more, perhaps, we should exercise patience. There is a very good chance that any legislation passed today, will far outlive any scientific consensus. Hence, caution demands we move at the speed of the Continents.

As Teddy Roosevelt used to say, "Remember the Maine.


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