Planetary Politics: Protecting Pluto

When the IAU voted to demote Pluto from the pantheon of planets, they generated a storm of protest from the public. Reclassifying Pluto as a "dwarf planet" did little to stem the criticism. From kindergarteners to grandparents, people love Pluto. Why do they love this tiny, icy globe? I'm not entirely sure, but it probably has a lot to do with third-grade science fair projects and an animated dog.

How did Pluto get its name? To the surprise of many people, Pluto wasn't named after Mickey Mouse's pet. In fact an 11 year old girl, Venetia Burney, suggested that the newly discovered planet be named Pluto. Venetia loved Greek and Roman mythology, and contacted Clyde Tombaugh to suggest the name. Earlier this year, the BBC interviewed Mrs Venetia (Burney) Phair, the only living person to have named a planet. Or, at least, to have once named a planet.

The IAU decision was political. Scientists voted to demote Pluto to the status of "dwarf planet." While it can be argued that science is an evolving understanding of the natural world, and definitions have to change, public reaction varied from dismayed to amused.

In California, of course, the real politicians found a reason for action in Pluto's demotion. While there are many more serious problems--over crowded schools and universities, decayed freeways, and the health care crisis, just to name a few-fifty-four of our esteemed elected officials found the time and energy for a Resolution that supports Pluto's status as a full-fledged planet.  They call the IAU "mean-spirited" for dissing Pluto, and that's just the start.

Is this a veiled advertisement for the Magic Kingdom? Or is this simply a legislature that has a sense of humor? You can decide for yourself, just as you can decide how you wish to think about and talk about Pluto. For now, it's officially a dwarf planet. On the other hand, the planetary scientists will continue to debate the definition of a planet as the census grows. We know of more than 200 extrasolar planets, and as we learn more about these other planetary systems, the new definition will require further refinement. That's all a part of science.

Pluto, on the other hand, is now a part of politics. Here's the text of the resolution for your consideration and amusement.

August 24, 2006, Sacramento, California.

Introduced by Assembly Members Richman and Canciamilla
Coauthors: Assembly Members Aghazarian, Bass, Benoit, Berg, Bermudez, Blakeslee, Bogh, Calderon, Chan, Chavez, Cogdill, Cohn, Coto, Daucher, DeVore, Emmerson, Frommer, Garcia, Goldberg, Haynes, Jerome Horton, Shirley Horton, Houston, Huff, Karnette, Keene, Koretz, La Malfa, Laird, Leno, Lieber, Liu, Matthews, Maze, Mountjoy, Mullin, Nakanishi, Nation, Negrete McLeod, Niello, Parra, Plescia, Ridley-Thomas, Sharon Runner, Ruskin, Salinas, Strickland, Tran, Walters, Wolk, Wyland, and Yee.

August 24, 2006

Relative to Pluto's planetary status.


WHEREAS, Recent astronomical discoveries, including Pluto's oblong orbit and the sighting of a slightly larger Kuiper Belt object, have led astronomers to question the planetary status of Pluto; and

WHEREAS, The mean-spirited International Astronomical Union decided on August 24, 2006, to disrespect Pluto by stripping Pluto of its planetary status and reclassifying it as a lowly dwarf planet; and

WHEREAS, Pluto was discovered in 1930 by an American, Clyde Tombaugh, at the Lowell Observatory in Arizona, and this discovery resulted in millions of Californians being taught that Pluto was the ninth planet in the solar system; and

WHEREAS, Pluto, named after the Roman God of the underworld and affectionately sharing the name of California's most famous animated dog, has a special connection to California history and culture; and

WHEREAS, Downgrading Pluto's status will cause psychological harm to some Californians who question their place in the universe and worry about the instability of universal constants; and

WHEREAS, The deletion of Pluto as a planet renders millions of text books, museum displays, and children's refrigerator art projects obsolete, and represents a substantial unfunded mandate that must be paid by dwindling Proposition 98 education funds, thereby harming California's children and widening its budget deficits; and

WHEREAS, The deletion of Pluto as a planet is a hasty, ill-considered scientific heresy similar to questioning the Copernican theory, drawing maps of a round world, and proving the existence of the time and space continuum; and

WHEREAS, The downgrading of Pluto reduces the number of planets available for legislative leaders to hide redistricting legislation and other inconvenient political reform measures; and

WHEREAS, The California Legislature, in the closing days of the 2005-06 session, has been considering few matters important to the future of California, and the status of Pluto takes precedence and is worthy of this body's immediate attention; now, therefore, be it

Resolved by the Assembly of the State of California, That the Assembly hereby condemns the International Astronomical Union's decision to strip Pluto of its planetary status for its tremendous impact on the people of California and the state's long term fiscal health; and be it further

Resolved, That the Assembly Clerk shall send a copy of the resolution to the International Astronomical Union and to any Californian who, believing that his or her legislator is addressing the problems that threaten the future of the Golden State, requests a copy of the resolution.

This text is available on the California Legislature website:

Full Coverage: The Debate and the IAU Vote

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Edna DeVore
Director of Education and Public Outreach, SETI Institute

 Edna DeVore is a science and astronomy educator and the former Director of Education and Public Outreach for the SETI Institute. She earned an undergraduate degree from the University of Pacific followed by a master's degree in instructional technology from San Jose State and a master's in astronomy from the University of Arizona. In 1992, Edna joined the SETI Institute, where she wrote features on space exploration, astrobiology and more, some of which appeared on She was among the first principal investigators to propose projects to NASA's Office of Space Science and receive funding for educational programs. Edna went on to work on education and public outreach for NASA's Kepler space telescope and SOFIA flying telescope missions. Edna received numerous awards during her tenure at SETI, including NASA Honor Awards for her work on Kepler and SOFIA, and Aerospace Awareness Award for Women in Aerospace in 2005. Edna retired in 2013.