I've spent a lot of time over the last few years trying to understand the astonishment that people feel over the demotion of Pluto. I mean: it's really really really really tiny, compared to most of the real planets in the solar system. So what's the big deal? Some people have blamed the outsized affection for the undersized ice ball on Walt Disney, others on American nationalism, and still more on the general tendency to root for the underdog. Whatever the reason, for many people, a solar system without Pluto as one of the nine major members feels wrong. But why?
Recently, I think I finally had the flash of insight that allowed me to understand how the rest of the world feels. The solar system that many people have in their minds looks something like this picture (above, at top of post) I took of a placemat that my daughter uses daily.
How could you possibly say that Pluto deserves the boot? It's about the same size as Mercury, and, really, not that much smaller than Earth or Mars or the rest. Astronomers, clearly, are just mean.
Interestingly, even I would agree about Pluto in this picture. But, sadly, this picture and the solar system are very different places. Here is a picture which shows the actually sizes of the eight planets along with the sizes of the largest few asteroids between Mars and Jupiter and the sizes of the objects in the Kuiper belt beyond Neptune.
See Pluto? You don't? That's because in this solar system – which is, in fact, the real solar system – Pluto is not one of the large special things dominating the solar system, but, instead, one of the (fascinating, in my opinion) collection of ice balls marking the unconsolidated outer edge.
We are inundated with images of planets from an early age, but almost all of these give such an egregiously wrong view of the way the solar system really is it is no wonder at all that many people are confused.
The solar system – the real solar system – is an intricate and beautiful place which shows deep meaning in its order.
I think I need to go out and find my daughter a new placemat.
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