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Science: Once There Were Nine

Science: Once There Were Nine

Once There Were Nine The declaration last week by the International Astronomers Union (IAU) at its Prague convention demoting Pluto from its status of a planet, thereby changing the definition of the solar system itself, has been greeted with dismay. Only a few of these protesting voices come from the ranks of the academics who make up the IAU; the critics claim that the vote on Pluto was taken on the convention

SCIENCE

Once There Were Nine

T
he declaration last week by the International Astronomers Union (IAU) at its Prague convention demoting Pluto from its status of a planet, thereby changing the definition of the solar system itself, has been greeted with dismay. Only a few of these protesting voices come from the ranks of the academics who make up the IAU; the critics claim that the vote on Pluto was taken on the convention’s last day when many members of the association were absent. Unlike the more abstruse, esoteric issues often associated with

Sankho Chaudhuri (1916-2006)

Economic and Political Weekly is deeply saddened at the passing away of Sankho Chaudhuri, eminent sculptor, on August 28 in New Delhi.

Profoundly inspired by Ramkinkar Baij, professor Chaudhuri produced such masterpieces as Shringar, Cock, MusicandChemist. He was on the Faculty of Arts of the MS University, Vadodara, during the 1950s and 1960s. He had been chairperson of the Lalit Kala Akademi and was architect of the Lalit Kala Akademi Artists Studio in Garhi. Professor Chaudhuri was awarded the Padmashree in 1972 and the Kala Ratna in 2004.

Sankho Chaudhuri, brother of Sachin Chaudhuri, founder editor of the Economic Weekly and the EPW, had been on the board of Sameeksha Trust since December 1991.

A bust of Sachin Chaudhuri, delicately carved by this stalwart of Indian sculpture, adorns our office at Hitkari House.

Economic and Political Weekly September 2, 2006

science in the popular imagination, the planets have exercised a far more universal influence. They have been “claimed” for diverse reasons by many more than just scientists: by students, amateur sky watchers, and even astrologers. Perhaps this has to do with the very manner Pluto was discovered and named

– a process accompanied as much by romantic accident as by careful scientific observation and inquiry.

The search for Pluto began soon after Neptune was discovered in 1846, 60 years after Uranus was discovered in 1786. The presence of Neptune was given away by the extra perturbations that appeared on Uranus’ orbit that did not conform to the laws of Newtonian physics. It was the deviation in turn of Neptune from its expected orbit that prompted the search for a planet beyond it. The story of Pluto’s discovery initiated in the early 20th century follows a similar trajectory of adventure, scheming and rivalry between Robert Scott and Roald Amundsen that led to the discovery of the South Pole, which began around the same time. Neither the astronomer Percival Lowell nor his rival William Pickering found success in identifying the new planet. In 1930, it was Lowell’s assistant, a self-taught amateur astronomer, Clyde Tombaugh, who after long days spent in an unheated observatory, taking repeated exposures of the sky, spotted the minute shift in one among several thousand points of light that gave away a planet’s presence. Forty times farther away from the sun than the earth and circling the sun every 248 years, Pluto was named after the god of the underworld in Greek and Roman mythology, on the suggestion of 11-year-old Venetia Burney.

But doubts over Pluto’s status as planet surfaced early, in 1956, when the then world’s largest telescope at Mount Palomar measured its diameter as being half the earth’s. And in 1978, Lowell’s calculations about its mass were proved wrong when Charon, Pluto’s satellite, was discovered. Pluto’s mass was found to be 1/400th of earth’s and only one-fifth of the moon’s mass. The debate on Pluto’s planethood began two decades ago, initiated by the astronomer Brian Marsden but that such a move could perhaps affect the sentiments of its discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, stalled the debate at that juncture. But the solar system and the universe beyond have always been in a state of revision, knowledge added and modified, following years of dogged and meticulous scientific research. Ceres, for instance, discovered in 1800 as an object in orbit between Mars and Jupiter, was declared a planet, demoted to an asteroid some years later after the discovery of similar sized objects in its vicinity and will now be reclassified a “dwarf planet”. This definition will also hereon accrue to Pluto and the object 2003 UB313, or Xena, discovered only a few years ago in the outer regions of the solar system beyond Neptune and Pluto.

In reclassifying Pluto, 76 years after its discovery, the IAU also for the first time arrived at a more certain definition of a planet. The solar system, as we once knew it, now stands to be reclassified – besides the eight planets, there are the dwarf planets and other “small solar system bodies” that include asteroids, comets and other natural satellites. In the not too distant future, the asteroids too could be reclassified, based on their orbital parameters, into Kuiper Belt Objects, Trans Neptunian Objects, Centaurs, Plutinoes, Near Earth Asteroids, etc. Of course, there are those who still argue that the decision about Pluto could have awaited the findings of the National Aeronautical and Space Administration mission “New Horizons”, scheduled to reach Pluto by 2015 and study the former planet’s nitrogen rich atmosphere. Meanwhile, the solar system is suddenly abuzz with new knowledge as celestial objects continue to be discovered and older, more familiar objects re-present themselves with new understanding. Pluto with two new moons no longer appears as lonely as it did 76 years ago. A planet has been lost and textbooks stand to be automatically revised. This can only be a continual process as the frontiers of knowledge keep expanding. The universe, in every sense, encapsulates the limitations of existing knowledge and the ever-expanding boundaries of what remains to be discovered.

EPW

Economic and Political Weekly September 2, 2006

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