Saturday, December 12, 2009

CONTROVERSY! And Educational Folly...

My kids wanted to talk all about why Pluto is no longer a planet tonight.  I am not sure why this came up, though there was some vague indication that perhaps this was addressed in this morning's Saturday morning cartoons.  Or the new and improved Electric Company.  Z tells me that the name of the show was Zula Patrol.  "It talks about science."

As we talked about this for a while (seriously, it must have been ten minutes) I suddenly realized that the only reason I knew the order of the planets was because of a mnemonic device from my childhood in which a phrase had words the first letter of which corresponded in order to the first letters of the planets: My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizza Pies.

Several strange things:

1) By the time you memorize that saying, you might as well just memorize the order of the planets.  It's ridiculously long and saying "Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto" is pretty much the same length. 

2) Since the phrase was taught to us by way of a song on a video, it would have been fiendishly simple to take the same catchy tune and simply sing the names of the planets.

3) It bothered me, even as a child, that the outermost planets change order sometimes and yet we are taught this very specific order without so much as a throwaway "Sometimes Pluto is closer to the Sun than Neptune."  I mean we say that the letter Y is sometimes a vowel, why not admit that sometimes our very educated mother just served us pie nicely?

4) It's weird that the mnemonic device I was taught has two "P" words on the end.  Why not just nine pizzas?  Why nine pizza pies?  And who even said "pizza pie" in California in the eighties?  No one.  It's just strange.  Is there a tenth planet named Parnassus? 

5) Why not order the planets some other way?  Why not by size or density?  Why is proximity to the sun the most important thing?  If we did it by density we could have other cool sayings, like, "Every Man's Velvet Moth Privately Needs Juniper Umbrellas, Sadly."

6) I know that Pluto got demoted because someone found Eris, which is bigger than Pluto and the "tenth planet" and that scientists were concerned that if children had to add Eris, Ceres, Haumea and Makemake to the list of planets they had to memorize that their tiny little brains would probably explode.  But I think, man, just make the song a little longer.  "My very educated Mother just served us nine pizza eyes, cyclops has'm MMMMMM!"  Of course that might be the wrong order but we simply didn't have so many trans-Neptunian objects when I was a child.

7) Did you know that there are entire documents laying out the proper naming procedures for planets?  It's true!  Not just planets, but pretty much any astronomical object.  People get paid to make rules for how we name these things.  And that's why you can find awesome paragraphs like these on the IAU website:

The Jovian satellites have previously been named for Zeus/Jupiter's lovers and favorites but now Zeus' descendants are also included as an allowable source of names.  The satellites of Saturn have so far been named for the Greco-Roman Titans, descendants of the Titans, Giants and the Roman god of the beginning.  In order to internationalize the names, we now also allow names of giants and monsters in other mythologies (so far Gallic, Inuit and Norse).
Depending on the type of rock you discover in space there might be a lot of rules for you to follow.   You might have to choose from heroes of the Trojan war, or the most popular names for centaurs.  You might be forced to use Roman numerals.  You might have to choose a character name from Stephen King's "The Stand."

8) My kids think it is really wonderful that adults can't figure out whether Pluto should be a planet or not.  They were really giddy at the thought that so much time and effort has been put into the definition of planets.  This is because it is their first glimpse into the fact that adults are weak, and that perhaps their generation has a chance to overpower and devour our own.  My next post should be about how the names for generations of people are chosen.  As a member of Generation X (or is it Y?), I find the practice of being named by a previous generation unsettling to say the least.  And so I am planning to rename my generation... GENERATION AWESOME!

And that is all for tonight.