Sentinel of the
Outer Solar System

Barrie W. Jones
(Cambridge University Press)
Pluto is the vagrant beast in our planetary system. In fact it got so vagrant that the International Astronomical Union assembled in 2006 and kicked it out of the club. Not only was Pluto wandering about like a drunken fool, but it was found to be a dwarf if not a half-assed planet.

Astronomers were content with this new state of affairs, but the astrological folk got in a dither: how could Pluto be in ascendance if it had been dismissed from the fraternity? And if you look at it --- you can't: they can barely see it even upstairs with the Hubble telescope --- through artist's renderings, you can see that it looks like nothing more than what my friend Jeremy used to call "a trash farm." He was referring to undeveloped property alongside the highway in Sonora or Baja California Sur, but you get the picture.

Pluto was always evasive, much like someone who has just pinched your wallet or taken your silverware. Astronomers needed more than three decades just to nab the bastard. In 1911, William Henry Pickering proposed that, because of variations in the orbit of Neptune, there were six other planets lollygagging about there in the Skid Row of outer Space.

Not being of the Shakespearian persuasion, he named them O, P, Q, R, S, T, and U. Wrong, wrong and wrong. Only O turned up, and when it did, it showed itself to have a drunken flight plan that put it on a collision course with Neptune ... who wasn't driving much better.

Finally, in 1929, Clyde William Tombaugh, "a farm boy from Kansas" (as Jones styles him) went to work with the director of the Lowell Observatory, Vesto Melvin Slipher, I don't believe any of these names either, and within a year, Tombaugh had found, among the images of a million or so stars, a blip he called, in prescient 1950s TV fashion, "Planet X."

They didn't have computers in those days, so Tombaugh had to spend his days and nights looking through the stars he had captured on his plate and dreaming of his boyhood in Kansas and wondering why he had taken such a stupid job with somebody called Slipher.

When it was time to name the new planet, the staff there at Lowell liked the name "Pluto," suggested by an insistent letter-writer named Venetia Phair and I don't believe that name either. We are told that "Pluto is the Greek god of the underworld, very appropriate for a planet so far from the Sun." But we suspect that Ms. Phair wasn't thinking of the gods, much less a Greek one ... but was rather angling to immortalize a character that had turned up in "Steamboat Bill" by Walt Disney in the person of a saccharine mutt of a dog who was perpetually smiling ... if dogs can be said to have a smile.

To make matters even more raffish, Jones posits that Pluto is mostly made up of carbon tars, "Common Earth rocks," iron, CO, CO2, NH3 (Ammonia) and CH4 (Methane). As if we didn't have enough of this trash floating around on earth, we have to appropriate more of it from a demi-planet which no one can see, much less grasp. Thank god the IAU kissed this one off.

If you are planning to study up on Pluto, Pluto possibly would work for you, though it didn't for me. Dr. Jones says that he wanted to write a treatise that you and I and the guy down on Broadway could pick up and comprehend. There is a little poetry here, but mostly it comes from exotic names like the Oort Cloud, the Titius-Bole Rule, and the comet Hale-Bopp (which always sounded to me like a bad punk rock band).

Too there are solids that "sublime" (turn directly) into gas ... and numbers that are so grandiose that they threaten to turn the brain into petroleum jelly: "Estimates of the total number of bodies in the Oort Cloud range from about a million million (1 000 000 000 000), to ten million million (10 000 000 000 000)." This along with the fact that there are a hundred thousand million billion humptulip stars out there to make our concerns about this month's mortgage payment a little less oppressive.

Jones has gone to all the trouble to set the more complex texts off to the side in boxes marked [PLEASE READ] or [FOR THOSE WISHING TO GO DEEPER] or [FOR THOSE COMFORTABLE WITH ALGEBRA]. Since I am uncomfortable even adding up my dwarfy monthly balance in what is left of my checkbook, it is mostly Greek to me ... and we're not talking Ms. Phair's Greek gods either.

--- Richard Saturday
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