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Mon, Sep 04, 2006

Picketers Protest Pluto's Planetary Panning

Say IAU Decision Doesn't Represent Entire Community

The demotion of lowly Pluto from planetary status has ignited a firestorm of controversy in academic and astronomical circles... including, understandably, from friends and colleagues of the late Clyde Tombaugh... who discovered Pluto in 1930.

The Associated Press reports about 50 New Mexico State students and faculty turned out Friday in Las Cruces for a good-natured protest of the International Astronomical Union's week-old decision to strip the ninth rock from the sun of its "classic" planetary title -- relagating it to mere "dwarf" planet status.

Clybe Tombaugh (right) worked at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, AZ when he discovered Pluto. He came to Las Cruces in 1955 -- founding the school's research astronomy department. Among those wearing t-shirts and carrying signs Friday reading "Protest for Pluto" and "Size Doesn't Matter" was Tombaugh's widow, Patricia, and their son Al.

Also attending was NMSU astronomer Bernie McNamara... who says the debate over Pluto is not over yet.

"This was not a statement by the astronomical community at large," McNamara said, adding the August 24 IAU vote represented only about 400 of the union's thousands of members -- only those who could make it to the conference in Prague.

More representative of the true feeling of astronomers worldwide, he said, is a petition now circulating among that community.

Others note Tombaugh was a groundbreaking astronomer -- as it took 60 years before much stronger telescopes could locate another object with an unusual orbit like Pluto's, and another 13 before a larger object was found in the area.

"Clyde Tombaugh was an American hero," said Tombaugh's former colleague Herb Beebe. "For that reason alone, Pluto's status as a full-fledged planet should be kept."

Beebe also suggested -- jokingly, we think -- the IAU's definition of a planet makes as much sense as the definition of continents on Earth. "Look at a map -- what's with Europe and Asia?" he asked the crowd. "I say let's eliminate Europe."

No word yet if protests like these may change the minds of the IAU when it comes to Pluto... but it appears a quiet groundswell of support is building for the lowly, well, whatever it is.

Don't rewrite the textbooks just yet... as we may not have heard the last from the Pluto Proponents.

FMI: www.iau.org, www.nmsu.edu


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