August 28, 2006

A bad week for the lord of the underworld

You'd think that Pluto had just lost a contract with Viacom. Everyone has been worrying about whether Pluto is a planet or not, thereby proving that planet or no planet, Pluto is still a star:

The Washington Post turned it around the other way, with "5 Things that Need a Downgrade like Pluto": Godfather III, Gluttony, Tour de France, Segways, and Tom Cruise.

Simon Beck in the Globe and Mail took a more conventional line with "A star and a dwarf crash in war of worlds":

This week was marked by two of the most famous pink slips in recent history, as Pluto lost its job in the solar system and Tom Cruise lost his corner office in the star system.

Bert Caldwell in Forbes used the same equation in the lead for an article about magazine rankings of this and that:

Astronomers disowning planets. Hollywood casting out stars. Washington ranked 41st among the 50 states for quality of life. Just what in the name of this cosmos is going on here?

And Matt Shurrie in the Woodstock Sentinel-Review really let it all hang out:

Yes, the elite eight have thrown their one-time sibling to the curb - simply because it doesn’t measure up.
How typical. How rude.
Sure, the astronomical union defended the move by expressing its deepest affection for Pluto - Jocelyn Bell Burnell, a specialist in neutron stars from Northern Ireland, even joked that some sort of new umbrella called ‘planet’ had been created, drawing laughter by waving a stuffed Pluto of Walt Disney fame beneath a real umbrella.
However, anyone could see right through those hollow feelings.
If our ninth planet - sorry, former planet - can be removed without much of a second thought, it makes one wonder what’s next.
If size has become such an astronomical issue, what about those of us back here on planet Earth that somehow don’t measure up?
Now that Pluto has been classified as a “dwarf planet” could those among us characterized by their “dwarf” size be next on the chopping block?
A quick look at the entertainment, music and professional sports industries reveals a number of potential candidates facing the axe. Dolly Parton, the five-foot country singer; Danny Devito, the five-foot actor/director and Theo Fleury, five-foot-six hockey player are only the tip of the iceberg.
There are plenty more including Michael J. Fox, Gary Coleman, Tom Cruise, Verne Troyer and rapper Ja Rule. Not even former quarterback Doug Flutie and former Toronto Maple Leafs captain Doug Gilmour could consider themselves safe.
What happened to a time and place where those smaller in stature were embraced - even celebrated - for who they are and not what society expects them to be? Has the interplanetary society really turned its back on that once proud tradition?

No, Matt, not as long as the gods still rule from Mt. Olympus.

Here's a small selection from the rest of the "Pluto as star gossip" stuff floating around in the media:

Tom Cruise, Pluto and Hollywood’s entrenched system for getting TV comedies on the air all took a beating this past week.
Tomorrow astronomers will vote whether Pluto retains its planet status. If Pluto loses, it will run as an independent.
We lost a planet from our solar system this week and it couldn’t get Jon Benet Ramsey off the front page. Talk about lack of respect for a celestial body!
Maybe the new rush of Pluto research will reveal a shocking truth: Cruise and Suozzi are actually visiting from the ninth planet - or the first ex-planet or whatever those indecisive telescope jockeys are calling Pluto now.
And even in these dog days of August, when Frank Quattrone shares the front page with Tom Cruise, JonBenet and the planet Pluto, there are serious opportunities for investors not at the beach.
'I don't care if Pluto's not a planet anymore. Pluto never did anything for me.'
While CNN's Breaking News alerts occasionally drift into the mundane — apparently Mel Gibson’s no contest drunken driving plea was urgent enough to warrant one — they are always reserved for headlines that will get people talking, like the foiled terrorist plot in Britain or the demotion of Pluto.
Now that Pluto's back in official planetary orbit, does Goofy need to hire a PR rep?
I have to think Thursday was a pretty sad day for stargazers -- and no, I'm not talking about Paramount Pictures punting Tom Clueless, er, Cruise.
Pluto was too small to be in the solar system. It will now be mounted on a ring and given to Mrs. Kobe Bryant.

Even some of the quotes elicited or chosed from people in the science biz have got a show-biz flavor:

"Pluto is a chunk of ice which controls nothing," says Michael Shara, curator of astrophysics at the Rose Center for Earth and Space at the Museum of Natural History. "Its orbit is a slave to Neptune's orbit."

All this suggests that the planets are still effectively personified, in a fuzzy sort of way. Would there be so much fuss, even in the silly season, over a decision that (say) tyrosine isn't really an amino acid after all? This is one of the many things that are left out of the kinds of "meaning" represented in traditional ontological taxonomies.

Posted by Mark Liberman at August 28, 2006 07:09 AM