Wednesday, September 13, 2006

It never fails. Just when you have your brain wrapped around a certain universal constant or principle, Life has a way of changing paths...

For example, my son Leo's first simple classroom English composition exercise was to write out a step-by-step process for the eating of an Oreo cookie. His composition went something like this:

  1. Pull the top off.
  2. Lick the cream off.
  3. Eat the cookies.
  4. Then burp.

I am familiar with the first three steps from the famous Oreo commercials, but the fourth step is a new twist. Even more so, when purchasing snacks for my son's school lunch, I noticed that the Nabisco company has expanded their product line to now offer Oreo Cookie Sticks and Creme. No longer do you have to carry out the famous Oreo ritual of "pull apart, lick and eat." Now it's simply a matter of dipping and eating. What is the world coming to?

As well, you may have read that the International Astronomical Unionn recently downgraded the ninth planet Pluto to simply "dwarf planet" (see detailed story below). What was once nine is now eight. So much for teaching my younger children the children's television show Blue's Clues Planets Song. What is the cosmos coming to?

Perhaps, my friend, it is not a matter of universal constants changing at all. It may very well be a matter of our expanding understanding and approach to Life in general. From the simplest way of eating a cookie to the much more complex way of exploring our galaxy, we are destined and called to look at Life in new and fresh ways. Does another approach to eating Oreos take any fun away from our childhood memories and present practices with that wonderful cookie? Does the reclassification of a planetary body change the orbit or existence of the ninth rock from the Sun? Not at all. It's the nature of our existence - to explore and expand and rediscover all of Life.

So pull up to your table today and eat your Oreo any way you would like. And tonight pull out your telescope and explore the skies in any manner that you choose. For as one astronomer states, "Many more Plutos wait to be discovered..." And by the way, if you're daring enough, dunk your Oreo in chocolate milk for a change. I hear from credible sources (my son) that it's yummy.


PRAGUE, Czech Republic (AP) - Leading astronomers declared Thursday that Pluto was no longer a planet under historic new guidelines that downsize the solar system from nine planets to eight.

After a tumultuous week of clashing over the essence of the cosmos, the International Astronomical Union stripped Pluto of the planetary status it has held since its discovery in 1930. The new definition of what is - and isn't - a planet fills a centuries-old black hole for scientists who have laboured since Copernicus without one.

The historic vote officially shrinks Earth's neighbourhood from the traditional nine planets to eight. But the scientists made clear they're as sentimental as anyone about the ninth rock from the sun.

Jocelyn Bell Burnell - a specialist in neutron stars from Northern Ireland who oversaw the proceedings in Prague - urged those who might be "quite disappointed" to look on the bright side.

"It could be argued that we are creating an umbrella called 'planet' under which the dwarf planets exist," she said, drawing laughter by waving a stuffed Pluto of Walt Disney fame beneath a real umbrella. Later, she hugged the doll as she stood at the dais.

"Many more Plutos wait to be discovered," added Richard Binzel, a professor of planetary science at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The decision by the international group spells out the basic tests that celestial objects will have to meet before they can be considered for admission to the elite cosmic club.

For now, membership will be restricted to the eight "classical" planets in the solar system: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

Much-maligned Pluto - named for the god of the underworld - doesn't make the grade under the new rules for a planet: "a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a . . . nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit."

Pluto is automatically disqualified because its oblong orbit overlaps with Neptune's.

Instead, it will be reclassified in a new category of "dwarf planets," similar to what long have been termed "minor planets." The definition also lays out a third class of lesser objects that orbit the sun - "small solar system bodies," a term that will apply to numerous asteroids, comets and other natural satellites.

Experts said there could be dozens of dwarf planets catalogued across the solar system in the next few years - handing the world's school teachers a challenge.

Neil Crumpton, a science teacher at Mountfitchet High School in Stansted Mountfitchet, north of London, called the announcement "very exciting."

"To be honest, this has been brewing for a while. Pluto has always been a bone of contention among astronomers because of the odd way it orbits the sun," Crumpton said. "For a start, we'll have to change all the mnemonics we use to teach children the lineup of the planets. But Pluto has not disappeared and it doesn't hurt children to know about it."

NASA said Thursday that Pluto's demotion would not affect its $700-million New Horizons spacecraft mission, which earlier this year began a 9 1/2-year journey to the oddball object to unearth more of its secrets.

"We will continue pursuing exploration of the most scientifically interesting objects in the solar system, regardless of how they are categorized," Paul Hertz, chief scientist for the science mission directorate, said in a statement.

The decision at a conference of 2,500 astronomers from 75 countries was a dramatic shift from just a week ago, when the group's leaders floated a proposal that would have reaffirmed Pluto's planetary status and made planets of its largest moon and two other objects.

That plan proved highly unpopular, splitting astronomers into factions and triggering days of sometimes combative debate that led to Pluto's undoing. In the end, only about 300 astronomers cast ballots.

Now, two of the objects that at one point were cruising toward possible full-fledged planethood will join Pluto as dwarfs: the asteroid Ceres, which was a planet in the 1800s before it got demoted, and 2003 UB313, an icy object slightly larger than Pluto whose discoverer, Michael Brown of the California Institute of Technology, has nicknamed "Xena."

Charon, the largest of Pluto's three moons, is no longer under consideration for any special designation.