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Posts Tagged ‘IAU’

Pluto no go

Thursday, September 7th, 2006

“Even as the finite encloses an infinite series, and in the unlimited limits appear, So the soul of immensity dwells in minutiae. And in the narrowest limits, no limits inhere. What joy to discern the minute in infinity! The vast to perceive in the small, what Divinity!.”
Jakob Bernoulli

It seems the controversy over Pluto’s demotion as a planet is not going to go away just yet awhile. Many astronomers (from Gr. astro-nomos, literally “naming, arranging, regulating of stars”) feel that a decision like this shouldn’t have be made by only 4% of the International Astronomical Union’s membership, and that given the cultural ownership of the word, perhaps even wider consultation is necessary. Dr. Tony Phillips is one. As NASA‘s website production editor and webmaster at Spaceweather.com, his views have a higher profile than most and he’s now running a poll on the subject which you can vote in and contribute your comments to.

Astronomers at the IAU’s General Assembly voted on August 24th to define a planet as:

“… a celestial body that (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.” (full text)

Clause (c) in the IAU’s definition seems most unsatisfactory. While appreciating that it attempts to define in some vague way a gravitational threshold above which a large body is either able to attract matter into orbit or repel it (“clearing the neighbourhood”), it looks very shakey in the instance of Mercury who’s clear neighbourhood likely has far more to do with its proximity to the Sun than its own gravitational strength, which isn’t even sufficient to create an atmosphere. At only 4,880km diameter, compared to Pluto’s 2,296km and 2003 UB313’s 2,400km, Mercury looks much more comfortable amongst the dwarf planets than it does next to Earth (12,756km) and Venus (12,104km), let alone Saturn (120,034km) and Jupiter (142,740km). And even taking into account its considerably greater density, giving it a higher mass and proportionately much stronger gravitational pull than Pluto, the exclusion of Pluto still seems somewhat arbitrary and not wholly justified.

It seems absurd in any case to try to draw rigid group distinctions between a collection of heterogeneous bodies. While Pluto plainly is something of a maverick in the company of the larger outer planets, it’s still about drawing a notional line on a continual sliding scale of magnitude. The decision on whether something is a planet or not consequently has to be as much cultural as scientific. Possibly even psychological and philosophical into the bargain.

The discovery of new planets has proceeded in tandem with human progress and scientific exploration, and has come to be associated with it, so it feels instinctively “wrong” that the number of planets should become fixed. It’s tantamount to saying we can go no further. Trying to define “planet” scientifically purely to satisfy our desire to be “scientific” about something when it’s clearly not very appropriate to do so is poor reasoning and would seem to indicate a retrograde step in our progress. How pertinent that this should be reflected in the IAU shrinking our solar system from 9 to 8 planets! While Pluto was in retrograde motion relative to the Earth at that.

The IAU’s inital draft proposal didn’t, on the face of it, seem much better since this would have resulted in an increase in the number of planets from 9 to 13 (or 12 if Pluto-Charon is considered a unit). It felt like too great a step … increments of one seem to make far more sense.

IAU's proposed solar system before the vote

But it’s pertinent to consider (from L. con-siderare, literally “with the constellations”) all that Pluto represents symbolically, whether purely by association with the Roman deity it’s named for, or in astrological terms (from Gr. astro-logos, literally “the word, intelligence, reason of the stars”), in relation to the collective psyche. From the time of their first discovery, the planets have represented archetypes in the collective psyche (which indeed the Roman and Greek gods they are named for also did). The Plutonic is something that’s been emerging into the light of day out of the Jungian shadow of the collective mindset since its discovery in 1930. That year saw a sea-change in German politics with the rise of National Socialism, and all it precipitated, with its eventual revelation to the world of the depths of depravity humankind was capable of sinking to. Society’s greatest danger to itself and to the Earth lies in that shadow territory – what lies buried in the unconscious underworld – and we are still largely unconscious of what potential resides in all of us, and of all that’s going on behind the scenes in our name. (As it happens, Jung’s perceptions of the human psyche were also coming to prominence around the time of Pluto’s discovery.) This step by the IAU seems to symbolise a wider scale attempt by those in positions of “authority” to bury the Plutonic back down in the depths out of sight again. Highly pertinent in view of all the questions that are being asked of the events of 9/11 and beyond, but a backward step for the cause of ethical open government, even a disastrous (from L. dis-astrum, literally “against the stars”) one.

“I’m saying that we should trust our intuition. I believe that the principles of universal evolution are revealed to us through intuition. And I think that if we combine our intuition and our reason, we can respond in an evolutionary sound way to our problems.”
Jonas Salk

It’s not just Pluto we need to bring back into the light of consciousness either. 2003 UB313, codenamed “Xena” by her discoverers, has been waiting for her official name for an unprecedented amount of time now – over a year. To demote her from planetary status before she even received her official name (= conscious recognition) seems like the greatest of insults, not to mention having ominous implications for our future psychological wellbeing and the health of the planet. Is it any accident that the demotion of the giant asteroid Ceres (the Roman Earth Goddess) from planet to asteroid coincided with the Industrial Revolution and the consequent rape of the Earth? “Xena”‘s formal recognition and restoration to planetary status seems crucial. We really could do with the services of a warrior princess around the place right now.

In the light of this more symbolic interpretation of the IAU’s original proposal, it’s beginning to look as if the conference would have been better advised to accept that considerably more enlightened vision of our solar system. For it was also to have admitted Ceres, symbolically bringing back to consciousness a need to care for the Earth, and Charon (Greek for ‘fierce brightness’) who, as ferryman of the newly dead across the Acheron to Hades, is the link between Mercury/Hermes (= conscious wordly rational mind) and Pluto/Hades (= the primordial underworld of the collective unconscious).

So we’ve kept Mercury (how indeed could we let it go?) but denied Pluto and ourselves the opportunity for the fierce brightness of an enlightened and compassionate appraisal of our collective shadow and what it’s doing to ourselves and the planet. Perhaps it’s some deep unconscious recognition of this that’s bringing out so much mourning for this decision?
One of 2003 UB313’s discoverers Mike Brown also has some interesting comments on the controversy, and his thoughts about his discovery in the wake of the IAU’s decision.

“Everything you see has its roots in the unseen world. The forms may change, yet the essence remains the same. Every wonderful sight will vanish; every sweet word will fade, But do not be disheartened, The source they come from is eternal, growing, Branching out, giving new life and new joy. Why do you weep? The source is within you. And this whole world is springing up from it.”
Jalal al-din Muhammad Rumi

Thanks to the current insanity revolving around homeopathy in this country, in both media and blogosphere, it's become necessary to insult your intelligence by explicitly drawing your attention to the obvious fact that any views or advice in this weblog/website are, unless stated otherwise, the opinions of the author alone and should not be taken as a substitute for medical advice or treatment. If you choose to take anything from here that might be construed as advice, you do so entirely under your own recognisance and responsibility.

smeddum.net - Blog: Confessions of a Serial Prover. Weblog on homeopathy, health and related subjects by homeopathic practitioner Wendy Howard