Because it apparently doesn’t have anything better to do — like figure out how to reduce an estimated $9 billion budget deficit — the State Senate declared Friday, March 13 “Pluto Day” in Illinois.
The “holiday” resolution was proposed by my state senator, Gary Dahl, whose legislative district includes Streator, near where Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh was born. It states “that as Pluto passes overhead through Illinois’ night skies, that it be re-established with full planetary status.” New Mexico previously passed a similar resolution because Tombaugh lived there for many years (and his widow and children still do).
You may recall that in August 2006, the International Astronomical Union caused a controversy by reclassifying Pluto as a dwarf planet. I covered Streator for the local newspaper at that time, and believe me, the IAU’s decision was a big deal to people there. The city took the downgrade as an insult to its honor and subsequently organized Planet Pluto Expo to teach citizens about the stars. The two-day event was a neat idea, and even drew a big-name speaker: Dr. Alan Stern, the principal investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto and the Kuiper Belt. (Click here to read what Stern said about the IAU’s decision in an interview I did with him in May 2007.)
I understand why Streator residents reacted the way they did to the IAU’s decision, and I agree that more than 4 percent of the international organization should have voted on the matter, but isn’t the resistance a bit misguided? Downgrading Pluto’s planetary status doesn’t take anything away from Tombaugh’s accomplishment. Just because Pluto was thought to be a full-blown planet in 1930 doesn’t mean new discoveries can’t change that “fact.” And new facts shouldn’t be ignored just because they disagree with what several generations of people were taught in elementary school.
Yet, as the Chicago Tribune noted, the Pluto Day resolution contains inaccuracies:
The resolution claims that Tombaugh is the “only American to ever discover a planet,” which would be true were it not so wildly false. For one, Geoffrey Marcy at the University of California at Berkeley — an American — has discovered at least 70 planets. The list goes on.
I suppose the resolution is harmless enough, unless it means Illinois residents are supposed to legally consider Pluto a planet when the celestial body passes through the state’s night skies. In that case, teachers may find themselves in a bind. Will they be required to cross out the word “dwarf” in every textbook reference to Pluto? Is that what they do in New Mexico now?
It seems silly to me that lawmakers even bother with such resolutions. If Stern and others who work in the astronomy field want to protest the IAU’s ruling, that is their prerogative. They are knowledgable about space and should be allowed to weigh in on the topic. I know I may be asking for a lot here, but Illinois lawmakers ought to stick to fixing their state’s many financial and political problems instead of worrying about Pluto’s planetary status.