Astronomers apparently are a lot like tax legislators.
Similarity #1: The U.S. tax code often seems as complex as the science of astronomy and also requires specialized tools and experts to help explain its workings to regular citizens.
Similarity #2: Like Members of Congress who are forever fighting over tax laws,
astronomers also like to debate (and debate and debate) arcane issues in
their specialized field.
Witness the latest issue roiling skywatchers worldwide: Members of the International Astronomical Union have spent the past two years defining what exactly is a planet. A vote on the new designation guidelines is scheduled for today in Prague.
If International Astronomical Union members vote to approve a proposed new definition of a planet, this artist's conception shows our new solar system. Instead of nine planets, we would have 12, with the three new orbs -- Ceres (between Mars and Jupiter) and Charon and 2003 UB313 (on the outer edges past Pluto) -- so small in this scale drawing that they are essentially the size of dust specks on your computer screen. International Astronomical Union/Martin Kornmesser
Similarity #3: This is the definitive, if you'll pardon the use of that word in light of the planetary classification contretemps, connection between astronomers and tax law writers. Both groups, at least in the estimation of some of their colleagues, like to make things harder than they need to be.
Don't take my word for it. Here's what Caltech astronomer Michael Brown told NPR radio about the proposed new planetary definition:
"It just doesn't quite work. … The goal should have been to simplify things rather than complicate things and I think they've just kind of made a mess."
Isn't that exactly what you've said many, many times as you've tried to
comply with a tax law that those folks on Capitol Hill came up with?
So it seems that the least astronomers can do the next time they discover a new planet, regardless of whether the new or old definition is used, is to name it in honor of the tax code.
Sorting out the solar system: The planetary debate centers on a definition that essentially says a celestial object must have enough gravity to make it round. There's also a discussion of a new category called plutons.
You can read more about the astronomical implications in this NPR story transcript (or use the link there to listen to the broadcast version); in this Associated Press article in the Washington Post; this piece at Scotsman.com; or this one at Space.com.
Where in the United States? Here on terra firma, the astronomers' decision shouldn't have any bearing on some communities that already share otherworldly names:
- Mercury, Nevada
- Venus, Texas
- Earth, Texas
- Mars, Pennsylvania
- Jupiter, Florida
- Saturn, Texas
- Neptune City, New Jersey and
- Pluto, West Virginia
Yep. One's missing. I guess no residents anywhere wanted to put up with the juvenile jokes that would come from having a municipality named after the seventh planet.