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Adios, Pluto

The Journal of Prevarication
In a decaying orbit since 1999

By Jim Cook, Official State Liar of Arizona

Clyde Tombaugh decided in 1930 that the light source he had found in photographs of the heavens was coming from a new planet.

A surprised colleague at Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff said, “The hell you say!”

And that’s why they named the planet Pluto, for the Greek god who ruled the underworld.

Yesterday, the International Astronomical Union, meeting in Prague, declared that Pluto is no longer a planet. It is now a “dwarf,” like Dopey, Bashful and Sleepy. (Can you name the other four?)

After years of arguing about what was a planet and what was some other kind of thing hurtling through time and space, the astronomers set out a new list of guidelines. The decision was not unanimous, but in the end, Pluto didn’t make the cut. They can’t be Sirius.

We could always claim Pluto as Arizona’s own, like the Grand Canyon, Barry Goldwater and twenty-nine varieties of cholla cactus.

“Did you know that Pluto was discovered in Arizona?”

“Yeah? What was it doing out there?”

Astronomers started coming to Arizona in the 19th Century because of the then-clear air for viewing the heavens. Dr. Percival Lowell, of the Boston Lowells, founded Lowell Observatory at Flagstaff in 1894, to pursue his belief that there was life on Mars.

He was spurred by the fact that in the years immediately following 1894, Mars would be at its closest point to Earth, and therefore easier to observe. Does this sound familiar?

During my formative years in Flagstaff, we knew that the observatory was one of the cultural institutions that rival towns did not have, and that so much intellect made our town a little odd. We lived in a world of Buck Rogers comics and a Disney dog named Pluto, but most of us had little idea what was going on up on Mars Hill.

Teachers, perhaps trying to instill in us the proper respect, occasionally brought up John Collins Bossidy’s famous toast:

And this is good old Boston,
The home of the bean and the cod,
Where the Lowells talk to the Cabots
And the Cabots talk only to God.

Knowing that Pluto was discovered from Flagstaff was one of those brags that boosted a little town, in a state that still had only one congressman (and no idea what a lucky thing that was).

We knew about Meteor Crater, a large impact crater about forty miles east of Flagstaff, but we didn’t know much. Scientists were still studying and arguing. It is believed to have been punched into the ground about 50,000 years ago by a nickel-iron meteorite 150 feet in diameter, traveling at 28,000 miles per hour. Pow!

We learned that Dr. A.E. Douglass, an astronomer at Lowell, invented the science of dendrochronology in his spare time. Dendrochronology has nothing to do with dandruff. It is the science of tree ring dating. Kinky, huh?

Later on, after a I became a newspaperman, I was fortunate enough to interview the scientist for whom the Kuiper Belt is named, and one of the scientists for whom the Shoemaker-Levy Comet was named.

Gerard Kuiper and Eugene Shoemaker were kindly men, and pretended that I was capable of comprehending the numbers and theories they talked about. That was some years after I left Flagstaff.

I also learned about the Tucson meteorites, which Spanish settlers discovered in the Santa Rita Mountains. Iron was hard to come by in the New World, so they dragged the meteorites to the Presidio of Tucson. Armorers for the Spanish soldiers used at least one of the meteorites as an anvil.

I tried that brag out during a conversation in California a couple of weeks ago, and was accused of making it up.

Although Pluto has lost its planethood, it is still out there, a lumpy rock making an ellipitical orbit around the sun once every 247 years. Its temperature is minus-538 degrees Fahrenheit, so global warming is not yet an issue.

Its oblong orbit cost Pluto points in Prague, because its orbit crosses that of Neptune. According to the new rules, a real planet would not cross another planet’s path.

In summers in the 1950s, Flagstaff was packed with tourists traveling Route 66. At night, we’d cruise the curio shops on Santa Fe Avenue, hoping to meet out-of-town chicks.

One night when I was 16, I actually did connect with a pretty girl from Cleveland, Tennessee. Her parents said we could be out of their sight for one hour. She told me I was pronouncing “Tennessee” wrong; she pronounced it “TENN-essee.” We hit it off pretty well, and I wish I could remember her name.

I had my father’s Oldsmobile that night, and I drove up Mars Hill to show her the lights of the town below. I told her about Pluto being discovered from right on that very hill.

I had no idea where Pluto was in the heavens. But as we sat and gazed at the stars, I picked out one that was a little brighter than the others, and said, “That’s Pluto right there–see that little one to the left there…”

She got starry-eyed. She seemed really impressed that I would know right where the planet was. Thanks, Pluto.

Last 5 posts by Jim Cook

1 comment to Adios, Pluto

  • Can I assume that your comment about naming the dwarves was a reference to the fact that 75% of Americans can name two of the seven dwarves but only 25% can name two of the seven Supreme Court Justices? Read the sad poll results in Yahoo! News.