Public Laughs and Shrugs at 12-Planet Proposal

New Yorkers are notoriously hard to impress, so it wasn't a surprise that many of them accepted with little fanfare the news that our solar system could soon be welcoming three new planetary members if a new proposal is accepted by astronomers.

An admittedly unscientific poll of people on lunch break revealed that many New Yorkers are aware that something is afoot in the astronomy world and that Pluto's planetary status hangs in the balance, but the possibility of adding three new planets was a surprise to many.

The plan, put forth this week by the International Astronomical Union (IAU), would essentially use the word planet to describe any round object that orbits the Sun and isn't orbiting another planet.

No joke

After being assured that the proposal was not a joke, 25-year-old sunbather and law student Daniel Cohn didn't mind adding a few more planets. Cohn, like many of the other people interviewed, said he would've been more upset if Pluto had lost its planetary status.

"There's a lot of history behind it," said Ilan, a 32-year-old IT manager taking a break outside his Midtown office building. "You can't decide now that it's not a planet when it's been a planet for all this time," said Ilan, who declined to give his last name.

Emika Watanabe, a Tokyo preschool teacher vacationing in the city, was also glad that Pluto got a reprieve from the planetary chopping block.

"That would've been kinda sad," she said. "It's my favorite planet."

Watanabe said having a 12-planet solar system was a great idea and thinks her school kids will take to it quickly.

"They're young so you just give them this new information. You just tell them we have 12 planets," said Watanabe, 26.

However, it's possible that under the new guidelines, hundreds or even thousands more objects could be classified as planets in the future. Adding three new planets to our solar system is one thing, but what about hundreds more?

"For the sake of kids learning it for the first time, a hundred and something planets might be a little more difficult to remember than nine," said Mark Ramos, 22. "So in that respect, they might want to take it easy." 

Ramos, who is a student at the Rochester Institute of Technology, said it made little difference to him whether our solar system had nine planets or twelve. 

"I guess astronomers must be getting bored and running out of things to do," he said.

Funny names

Not everyone was crazy about the new monikers being considered for our solar system's new members, however. Under the new proposal, Ceres, previously considered an asteroid, would be called a "dwarf planet."

Pluto, it's moon Charon, and 2003 UB313, a Pluto-sized object located at the fringes of our solar system, would be reclassified as planetary "plutons."

"A pluton?!" said Watanabe, before breaking off into laughter.

A magazine editor who preferred to remain anonymous said the names sounded silly. "That's cute. It's more like a joke than a real name," she said.

Susan Seegmuller, a 37-year-old engineer on lunch break in Madison Square Garden, said she wasn't aware of any debate about planet definitions, but that she had no problem with a 12-planet solar system.

"It won't really change my life," Seegmuller said.

Madeline Tress said she didn't mind more planets as long as there was a scientific reason for them.

"I believe in evidence," said Tress, a 55-year-old policy analysist taking lunch in a park. Tress said she also wouldn't have been surprised if astronomers decided to go with an eight-planet solar system and demote Pluto.

"I've always thought Pluto was an exception," Tress said.

The exception

Between bites of her sandwich, Tress recalled how as a young girl, her father took her to Hayden Planetarium in Manhattan to show her a model of the solar system.

"I asked where Pluto was in the solar system and he said it's not in the display," she said. "I asked why and he said 'if they showed Pluto, they'd have to go all the way to where we live in Brooklyn.'"

Shevon Herry, an 18-year-old student and babysitter, said she was unaware of any debate going on about Pluto or adding new planets.

"I had no idea. I'm not going to like say 'wow,' but that's cool," Herry said.

Herry's charge, a little girl named Talin Moine, seemed uninterested in the whole affair. Moine, 5, didn't even know there were nine planets.

The proposed definition has been sharply criticized by some astronomers. A vote is scheduled for Aug. 24 at the IAU meeting in Prague.

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Staff Writer

Ker Than is a science writer and children's book author who joined as a Staff Writer from 2005 to 2007. Ker covered astronomy and human spaceflight while at, including space shuttle launches, and has authored three science books for kids about earthquakes, stars and black holes. Ker's work has also appeared in National Geographic, Nature News, New Scientist and Sky & Telescope, among others. He earned a bachelor's degree in biology from UC Irvine and a master's degree in science journalism from New York University. Ker is currently the Director of Science Communications at Stanford University.