My Very Elegant Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Porcupines

Speech #9 - January 17, 2008

I was born into a world where there were only 48 United States. But in 1959, Alaska and Hawaii were admitted as states, making the total of 50 that we know today. Alaska and Hawaii are unique. Neither one of them physically contact another state. Alaska, our largest state, is large enough to be a country on its own; only 18 countries in the world are larger than Alaska. Hawaii, on the other hand, is completely surrounded by ocean and ranks among the smallest states. You cannot drive to Hawaii, and when in Alaska, you cannot drive to its capital. You must fly or boat to either destination.

What if Congress were to pass a law declaring Alaska and Hawaii to be "extra-contiguous states" and no longer a part of the United States, denying their populations basic rights available to the remainder of us "contiguous" citizens? Hmmm?

I was born into a world where there were nine planets in the Solar System: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto. My Very Elegant Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Porcupines is one way, perhaps eliciting painful thoughts, to recall their order. On August 24, 2006, fewer than 5% of the world's astronomers voted to change the classification of Pluto to be known as a dwarf planet, eliminating it as a full-fledged planet in the Solar System and leaving us only eight. The International Astronomical Union for the first time created an official definition for the term "planet," even though the original Greek translation of "wanderer" has served us for centuries. In their new definition three main conditions need to be met:

  1. The object must be in orbit around the Sun
  2. The object must be massive enough to be a sphere by its own gravitational force.
  3. It must have cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

The astronomers stipulated that Pluto fails to meet the third condition, since it falls within what is known as the Kuiper Belt, a collection of objects beyond the orbit of Neptune much like the Asteroid field between Mars and Jupiter. However, some astronomers considered that definition flawed. As it turns out, Mars, Jupiter and Neptune occupy orbits which include "trojan" asteroids, and another planet is known to have thousands of asteroids in its orbital path. That planet? The Earth. Are we next to lose our status as a planet?

One of the supporting arguments for declassifying Pluto was that if was was considered a planet, then potentially hundreds of objects also in the Solar System would have to be classified as planets. In reality, that number is likely closer to four similarly-sized objects also found in the Kuiper Belt.

I believe that Pluto should be restored to full planetary status, despite the scientific reasoning behind its current classification as a dwarf planet.

  1. Most of the people living today likely recognize Pluto as the ninth planet. Popular conception is a strong counterpoint to scientific definition.
  2. Most textbooks include Pluto as a planet as do planetarium displays of the Solar System. Do we just go around and change them all?
  3. Plutonium, the chemical element named after Pluto, follows Uranium and Neptunium in the periodic table, the two other elements named after planets.
  4. The Pioneer and Voyager space probes included images of the Solar System which pictured Pluto as a member. How are we going to explain that to the extraterrestrials when they eventually come visiting?
  5. Author Donald Wollheim is unlikely to discredit his popular Science Fiction novel "The Secret of the Ninth Planet."
  6. Pluto the pup is such a cute dog and doesn't deserve the fate of being associated with a "dwarf planet."

As for Alaska and Hawaii, we can probably consider them safe, their continued statehood is assured. And I hope that Pluto will be restored to it planetary status as well. But, in the meantime, what about a new phrase to help us remember the remaining planets? It seems that "My Very Elegant Mnemonic Just Stops Under Nine."

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