My contest goes to 11

My contest goes to 11

My contest goes to 11

Bad Astronomy
The entire universe in blog form
Feb. 28 2008 10:30 AM

My contest goes to 11

First, I will make a caveat. Then, I will froth. Then, I will find the silver lining which makes this all better.

Caveat:

Phil Plait Phil Plait

Phil Plait writes Slate’s Bad Astronomy blog and is an astronomer, public speaker, science evangelizer, and author of Death From the Skies!  

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This is a delicate situation here. I love kids, and I love kids who love astronomy. I want to foster that love, and turn it into a lifelong interest in the sky, in astronomy, and in science.

Froth:

So having said that, what the heck was National Geographic thinking?

They held a contest for kids to come up with a mnemonic, a memory-aid device, to help them remember the order of the planets. Like, My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas, which is the one I heard when I was younger.

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I'm all for this. That's a great idea. Except... in the rules it says this (emphasis mine):

Compose a mnemonic (memory trick) using the first letter of each of the planets in order from the Sun (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Eris) as the first letter in a word. The words must make a fun and memorable English sentence (Example: My Very Excellent Mother Can Jump Slowly Under Nelly’s Plastic Elephant.)

Um, NatGeo? I hate to break it to you, but our solar system, officially, has eight planets. Pluto was kicked out years ago. If you want to be a Luddite and still accept Pluto as a planet, that's fine, but really, Ceres and Eris too?

Nope.

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Eris is an object similar to Pluto, but slightly bigger and more massive, well out past Neptune's orbit (objects there are usually called Kuiper Belt Objects or KBOs). While it fits some of the new definitions of a planet, it doesn't clear out its neighborhood of smaller objects (it's too small, and the space it occupies out in the hinterlands of the solar system are too voluminous), and that's one of the rules planets follow.

Same with Ceres, the largest asteroid. With thousands, millions, of asteroids in the same region of space, Ceres doesn't hack it either. Besides, all three objects (Ceres, Eris, and Pluto) are smaller than our own Moon. If you include those three, there will be dozens more, hundreds more, you have to include as well. You might even have to include Pluto's moon Charon (note; some of the things I said in that post were superseded by later rules imposed by astronomers on the definition of a planet).

So in the end, NatGeo would have done a lot better to leave Ceres and Eris off -- they're just not planets by anyone's definition -- and to be consistent they should have left Pluto off as well.

Silver lining:

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Having said all that, I want to heap praise on the ten-year-old girl won the contest. The phrase she came up with is excellent:

"My Very Exciting Magic Carpet Just Sailed Under Nine Palace Elephants."

It's cute and it's memorable (and it certainly follows the rules of the contest).

And in reality, what is very cool about this is we now have a little girl out there in Montana who not only knows the order of the planets, but she also knows a little something about asteroids and KBOs, too. How many ten-year-olds can say that? And I wonder, what's in her future? Maybe eventually she'll take an interest in the planet-naming controversy and help settle it. Maybe she'll grow up to be an astronomer who discovers Earth-like planets orbiting other stars.

Where will her interests lead? For now at least, they've taken her billions of kilometers to the edge of the solar system, and for that, I am glad, and I congratulate National Geographic on holding the contest and doing something terribly, terribly important: igniting a spark for science.

Tip o' the Whipple Shield to BABloggees John Phillips, Jeromy Labit, and Richard Velez for emailing me about this!