Pluto's hanging chad

A Times Editorial
Published August 22, 2006

As the big vote looms, both sides are growing testy. The candidates are out of this world, the politics out of control and only one thing is certain. "This will be the talk of the town in Prague," said Alan Boss, a planetary theorist at the Carnegie Institution of Washington.

No, it's not the upcoming Florida primary election. Later this week the International Astronomical Union meeting in the Czech Republic will ask 2,500 astronomers to answer this question: Is Pluto a planet?

On the ballot is a new definition, hammered out over two years of frizzy-haired debate, that boils down to this: Any celestial body that is round and circles a star is a planet. That would keep Pluto and add maybe a dozen more glorified frozen rocks to the list.

Sounds harmless, but tempers have already flared. "We're going to have more planets inside the solar system than we have outside," scoffed Boss. To which Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, riposted: "A Plutophile is well served by this definition."

Along with David Charbonneau, a researcher at the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, we fear the worst. "Perhaps astronomy will undergo a schism, with sects of astronomers proclaiming different numbers of planets," Charbonneau warned.

We've had enough of schisms and sects. Let the astronomers keep working on their definition until they find more unanimity. After all, Earth as we know it might not be around much longer, but Pluto is in no hurry for a vote tally.