Get Pluto out of Here!

Why it's not a planet, Europe is no continent and W. isn't 43

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ILLUSTRATION FOR TIME BY ROB DUNLEAVY

History has no record of Grover Cleveland and Grover Cleveland ever sitting down together. That's odd, since the two Presidents occupied the Oval Office just four years apart--Cleveland from 1885 to 1889, and Cleveland following him there in 1893. Had it not been for the four years Benjamin Harrison served as President between them, the country could have transitioned from one Cleveland to the other without even changing the monogrammed bathrobe in the White House residence.

Had Cleveland and Cleveland ever spoken, it would have been a decidedly one-way conversation, since they were the same man. But you wouldn't know it from American history books. Right there in the great march of Presidents, from Washington at No. 1 to Bush at 43, is Cleveland clocking in at 22 and then again--like a presidential whack-a-mole--at 24. We're a country with 43 Presidents, but only 42 men have held the job. The two President Bushes affectionately refer to each other by the nicknames 41 and 43, but the fact is, they're really 40 and 42.

It was last week's coverage of the controversy concerning the planet Pluto that brought Cleveland to mind (and, no, not because of his physique; that was Taft). Much the way 19th century pundits no doubt fought over which numeral to assign the inconveniently nonconsecutive Cleveland, astronomers have spent the past few years debating whether or not Pluto is in fact a planet or whether new findings place it in a family of smaller, humbler objects. The problem is more complex than just firing a planet and downsizing the solar system from nine to eight. If you keep your definitions loose enough to retain Pluto, then you have to award the planet label to at least three similar objects in our solar system. Think Congress gets into a slapfest over the problem of immigrant workers? That's civil compared with astronomers' catfights over immigrant worlds.

So let's be clear: Pluto has to go. Clean out your locker, turn in your playbook and go see the coach. Oh, and on your way out, tell the other walk-ons and wannabes that the roster is frozen. We're sticking with the original eight.

There's sound scientific reason to return the solar system to what it was before Pluto the poseur was discovered in 1930. True planets form in roughly the equatorial plane of the sun, occupying specific, permanent orbits. That's not Pluto. It is a tiny joyrider from the rubble stream surrounding the solar system that broke free and orbits the sun in a tilted, elongated orbit.

But astronomers don't see things so simply. Instead, they've appointed a committee that met in Paris in June and July and drafted a proposed solution that defines a planet by shape, center of orbital gravity and more. Committees and clarity don't go together, and the proposal is just what critics feared: science as tax code, with the cosmos codified in such elaborate ways that, never mind nine planets, we could end up with dozens.

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