Sat, Aug 26, 2006 - Page 6 News List

Demotion of Pluto causes consternation among fans

NY TIMES NEWS SERVICE , SAN FRANCISCO

Models of the planets in our solar system are suspended around the Hayden Sphere at the American Museum of Natural History's Rose Center for Earth and Science in New York on Thursday. When the museum constructed the model, it left Pluto out because scientists at the museum did not consider it a planet. Now it's official.

PHOTO: AP

Sitting in Pluto's, a salad and sandwich shop in San Francisco's Marina District, John Neal summed up his -- and many other Earthlings' -- feelings about the sudden shrinking of his solar system.

"Pluto gets no respect, man," Neal, 23, said. "I mean, I took an astronomy class in college, and I still don't know anything about it."

Pluto, we hardly knew you. Indeed, across the US, and presumably the universe, the news that Pluto was no longer considered a full planet was met with a mix of surprise and shrugs, even as people struggled to eulogize a cosmic entity that most know very little about except its size (small), its distance from Earth (great) and its weather (terrible).

The main effect, in fact, seemed to be to mystify further a populace that already seemed almost universally confused about the former planet.

"I think it's probably a star," said Nick Sbicca, 22, who was visiting the Exploratorium, the well-known children's science center, on Thursday. "I really don't know. But I think there's definitely more than eight planets."

Or, at least there were, before Pluto was demoted Thursday to "dwarf planet" status by a vote of the International Astronomical Union in Prague, in part because of a wonky orbit that periodically puts swerves into that of Neptune.

None of which mattered to fans of Pluto, many of whom, like the ex-planet itself, were little.

"I like Pluto," said Ashleigh Sundquist, eight, who was at the Exploratorium. "Nobody lives there."

Among the elders of the third planet from the Sun, of course, there were some practical concerns. The World Book Encyclopedia had been holding the presses for next year's edition until Pluto's status could be clarified. With the fall semester looming, some school districts were already looking at updating their science textbooks, and even planetariums staffs had started rethinking planetary models.

"I woke up this morning, and there was one less planet," said Al Whitaker, a spokesman for the US Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville, Alabama. "But I understand that Pluto wants a recount."

Other groups were defiant, including the American Federation of Astrologers, which said the astronomers' decision would have no effect on their charting of futures.

"It doesn't really matter what you call it," the president of the group, Patricia Hardin, said from her home in Knoxville, Tennessee. "As far as I'm concerned, Pluto is still an effective energy source that's [sic] influence is felt on this Earth."

Sure enough, some people also asked the existential questions that the cosmos typically inspires. Why did this happen? What does it mean? And, of course, how does this affect Mickey Mouse's dog?

Sure enough, soon after the announcement from the astronomical union, Disney executives were peppered with questions about whether Pluto's planetary status would affect Mickey Mouse's sidekick. The answer was no.

"He's taking the news in stride," said Lisa Haines, a spokeswoman for Walt Disney Parks and Resorts.

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