What's Pluto got that we haven't got? Try standards
By Michael Lewis
I've long stated that my first editing was for a Michigan weekly. Reminding me otherwise was the earthshaking news that astronomers are to vote in Prague this week to dub three more objects planets, meanwhile rescuing Pluto from expulsion.
With that, I recollected my real first editing task: to produce the Astronomer's News in a storage room next to Miss Gilliland's fourth-grade classroom.
Our team dutifully published highlights in astronomy, copied from books in the storeroom - including one that predated Pluto's 1930 discovery. Thus, my first news error was to indoctrinate fourth-graders with the outmoded notion that only eight planets revolved around our sun. We inadvertently started the movement to exile Pluto.
Pluto's planetary salvation came when seven astronomers in Paris hammered out the first clear standards for what constitutes planethood, removing the ambiguity that left every Tom, Dick and Einstein free to determine what is or isn't a planet.
That pleased even a leading Plutophobe. Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York, who had drawn ire with an exhibit that separated Pluto from the other planets, said the proposed standards are "about the only way you could define planethood that would include Pluto. So I find it a little suspicious. But I'm happy to finally have an unambiguous definition, so I don't have to worry about it after this."
We'll soon know if the unambiguous definition sticks. The vote is to be today (8/24), according to most media - though ambiguity remains because the authoritative New York Times tells us the vote is actually set for Friday. Whatever.
If astronomers can agree to clarification cosmic rivals will accept in the name of global understanding - eradicating the reporting gaffe of the Astronomer's News - why couldn't we use the same process to solve dilemmas far closer to home than Pluto or the far-more-distant UB313, which has yet to get a formal planetary title?
In doing so, we'd be accepting that neither definitions nor clarifications are forever, but we'd all be agreeing to abide by the latest vote of experts, even if we couldn't agree on the day of the week the vote would take place.
We'd be acknowledging that knowledge is changing and that the book I uncovered in a storeroom was too old to have been relied on.
We'd be certified that classroom learning is all about ideas, not about memorizing facts. The old mnemonics we learned for the planets' order from the Sun outward - including My Very Earnest Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas, to remind us of Mercury Venus Earth Mars Jupiter Saturn Uranus Neptune Pluto - will fade into memory like a Pluto-cold slice of pizza. But the principles of astronomy will remain.
We'd also be accepting that definitions, be they in science or daily life, are set by those in power. Mr. Tyson may hold no brief for Pluto as a planet, but he's willing to accept the definition of star astronomers.
Would that we were so accepting elsewhere.
Take nationhood. The very existence of Israel is at the root of conflict now under a tenuous Middle East ceasefire. But what if we had agreed-upon ground rules for what constitutes a nation?
Try population. Earth's 230 nations range from 1.3 billion or so in China to 67 people in the Pitcairn Islands. If we cut off at 80,000, we'd leave 200 nations, a nice number as round as the proposed rule that a planet must be spherical.
But look out: Like Pluto and UB313 and the others, new contenders would vie for nationhood. Remember, for example, when in 1982 residents of the Florida Keys got so upset at border-patrol roadblocks that they tried to form their own Conch Republic? Well, they retain that sobriquet in the Keys, and guess what? The population in the 2000 Census was just 465 people short of 80,000. By now, the Keys would qualify for nationhood.
OK, maybe the standard ought to be land area, not people. If we cut off at 350 square kilometers, we'd again trim the list of nations from 230 to a round 200, ranging from Russia's 17 million-plus to 388 square kilometers in Saint Vincent and the Grenadines and 374 in France's Mayotte. Seems pretty unambiguous.
But again, look out: The Conch Republic comes in at 355.6 square kilometers and would squeeze in as the 201st nation once again. There's just no keeping some people out, so, like Mr. Tyson, we'd have to accept the inevitable and include the Florida Keys as a separate nation.
The business of defining a new universal order wouldn't stop at nations, of course.
Take states. North Florida has always thought of Miami-Dade County as another planet and would, if it could, carve us out of the state. Call it rivalry or lack of understanding of a place that has both multiple cultures and multiple languages. Call it whatever. They'd want us out.
Well, guess what? If we defined statehood by population, Miami-Dade would be the 34th-largest state, with 2,376,014 people in the 2005 Census estimate. That would bring us in just behind Arkansas and just ahead of Utah, which would be bumped back to 35th place with its 2.3 million residents.
Okay, maybe population isn't the right yardstick. How about area?
Miami-Dade's 2,431 square miles isn't huge, but it's still far larger than either Delaware's or Rhode Island's. We're in!
Think of the new advertising slogan: Miami: More Than Just a State of Mind.
It's better than the old one: Miami: The Rules Are Different Here.
Other rating committees would of course convene. Think about college degrees and those here who have been overstating their credentials. One can name a very prominent former banker to start with, not to mention the school administrators with diploma-mill certificates.
Why not categorize education a different way, by differentiating those who read with comprehension, write with clarity and think perceptively from those who don't? We'd have a new order as different as a nine-planet solar system is from a size 12 in planets.
Remember what the Wizard of Oz told the Scarecrow: "Why, anybody can have a brain. That's a very mediocre commodity." The Wizard then handed out a diploma to the brainless Scarecrow that certified that he was educated. Perhaps we need new standards.
Maybe we could decide local issues by setting new standards, too.
Does the county's Urban Development Boundary trouble you? Instead of deciding one by one which proposed projects should be allowed to rise on the other side of the line, why don't we set a standard? We could have an absolute number - as we tried with the 200-nations rule - that a developer would have to exceed in order to get a development permit.
If that number were created by the county commission, it would be computed by multiplying the applicant's certified political clout by the number of dollars in campaign donations in the past decade, which doesn't seem any smarter than giving the Scarecrow a diploma. Like Mr. Tyson, the folks who've made the past decisions shouldn't be setting these standards.
Ditto the decisions on where to add mass transportation. In the past, the county has divvied up the pie based on ethnicity and political muscle, putting these decisions, too, in the Scarecrow class. Even a huddle of astronomers would make better choices on how we should plan to get around on Earth.
Issues on the ballot this fall might also be decided by using thoughtful standards.
One vote would raise pay for county commissioners from $6,000 per year to almost $90,000. Another would create a new strong-mayor job.
What if standards defined a county commissioner and a strong mayor?
In the proposed International Astronomical Union definition, a planet "must be in orbit around a star without being itself a star" and be "massive enough for its own gravity to pull it into a nearly spherical shape."
The 13 commissioners, in order to orbit, would have to leave their own districts and serve the whole solar system of Miami-Dade County. In a county where most commissioners have the parochial vision of a microscope instead of the telescopic perception to spot both problems and opportunities beyond district lines, this might limit the raise to a handful. The others would fall into a former category the new astronomical definition expressly excludes: dwarf planets.
As for strong mayor, the incumbent lacks the gravity to pull together commissioners to work for the good of the whole - yet he's the best candidate spotted so far in the firmament. Stronger lenses are needed.
New standards also are vital in judging fitness to hold office. The old yardstick that defines honesty is as outdated as the eight-planet solar system in the Astronomer's News.
Today we judge politicians' honesty by whether they have been convicted of crimes. We think of innocent until proven guilty, which is correct, and use it as a qualifier, which is incorrect.
Holding office today are dozens of persons who have not been convicted of crimes, have not been charged with crimes and probably have broken no laws but are unfit due not to criminality but to a deficit of integrity - too little gravity.
The standard ought not be lack of either conviction or criminality, but whether the officeholder has done and is doing the right thing.
Being cleared of ethics violations by others in government isn't enough, either. Holding office requires integrity, period.
Astronomers haven't ruled out planethood for dozens of objects that float around the sun because of some planetary violation. But they still aren't named planets: They lack all the needed attributes.
The mayor whose business partner holds a valuable city lease and whose other business partner got him a raise and whose other business partner oversaw the city for him has been charged with no crime and probably won't be. But criminality shouldn't be the only disqualifier.
The county commissioner who took a free vacation with a boss who gives him only a salary, not responsibilities, and with a developer over whose economic vitality he holds sway may also have broken no laws but falls in the same category.
The county commissioner who got free home improvements from persons who could benefit from his votes falls there, too. Not to pick on this trio alone - the list goes on and on.
Wouldn't a qualifier based on integrity make sense?
There's a key yardstick for any leadership position: What has that person done to approach greatness? Pluto and its largest moon, Charon, passed gravity and mass tests to become planets, as did Ceres, the largest asteroid, and even newly discovered UB313. Could we use such standards, too?
In fact, just who are our local heroes? Miami's history books list many, but what about current history? Who is our powerful Jupiter, 318 times the size of Earth? Our Venus? Listing them would be guideposts to proffer civic knighthoods, just as listing the 12 planets (or nine, if this week's vote fails) provides a framework for future considerations for planethood.
We might well nominate our community's best for stardom in the heavens. After all, UB313 needs a name, one that stands for greatness. Who is our favorite son or daughter to orbit the sun?
Send me your nominees. Address those who are OK with you to firstname.lastname@example.org. The name of the winner will grace either a new if somewhat distant planet or the pages of the Astronomer's News. Whatever.