Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Hold The Pizza, Hold The Pie

Whether you learned as a child to say ‘My very excellent mother just sent us nine pizzas’, ‘My very educated mother just sent us nine pies’, or some other equally nonsensical phrase, it was all about the handy use of a mnemonic. This particular mnemonic is used to help children remember the names of the planets in the order of their position from the sun. Of course, every 248 years Neptune drifts out past Pluto for 20 years before returning to its assigned spot; but 20 years out of 248 is not worth worrying about. Perhaps that’s why ‘My very excellent mother just sent us nine pizzas…extra oregano, pepperoni, anchovies, no sausage, peppers’ (except occasionally Pluto and Neptune switch places) never caught on. A good mnemonic can only take you so far. In any case, mum may want to hold off on ordering pizza or baking nine apple pies. The International Astronomical Union is about to demote Pluto from being a first class planet.

Almost three thousand astronomers are meeting in Prague for 12 days to test the effects of pilsner beer on telescope aiming and to decide the status of Pluto. Just like pilsner, this controversy has been brewing for some time. As they say down at the Budvar brewery, the discovery of a new and bigger object orbiting the sun about three times further away than poor old Pluto has brought the issue to a head. Michael Brown, of the California Institute of Technology, found the new wannabe planet and the fun loving guys at the IAU named it ‘2003 UB313’. The IMU (International Mnemonic Union) has spent 6 months in a Dublin saloon trying to work that into mum’s care package.

At first everybody ridiculed the idea of a new planet out there; but when the IAU realised that this particular Michael Brown was not the guy who managed the New Orleans hurricane response, everyone came around. There’s a good chance that the new arrival discovered by Brown, Pluto, and two other chunks of rock named Ceres and Charon will get lumped together in a new category called ‘dwarfs’. So it looks as if we’ll wind up with eight ‘classical planets’ and four also-rans.

Pluto is (or was, as the case may be) the only classical planet discovered by an American. Back in 1930, good old Clyde Tombaugh of Kansas discovered the little object after spending years looking at photographs of the sky. Photographs of the sky are really interesting compared to photographs of the earth if you are in Kansas. If Pluto is demoted, Mr Tombaugh takes a bit if a hit. Perhaps 2003 UB313 can be named ‘Brown’ to keep the Americans sweet on this deal. (Walt Disney already used the really neat dwarf names anyway; and a planet called Grumpy or Dopey lacks a certain scientific aura.)

This whole thing is now too complicated to teach to wide-eyed first graders. It’s time to move Solar System Studies to the high school curriculum. H I’s astronomy reporter, Bambi Van Allen, reports that the guys from the IMU are going through astronomical amounts of Guinness down at Cafferty’s Saloon in Dublin trying to come up with a meaningful mnemonic to help teenagers remember Ceres, Charon, Pluto and, possibly, Brown. Barman Seamus Finnegan said, ‘dey almost wrecked the feckin’ place arugin’ over UB 313. Dat’s a shite name if you ask me.’

Happily, at least the IMU has agreed on new aide memoire that teens can relate to for the eight classical planets: ‘My very exhausted mother just slipped us nembutol’.

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