Is it a planet? And why do we care?

Friday, August 18, 2006

When I was in the eighth grade, I could name all 48 states and their capitals.

Then Ike came along, and the flag got two more stars.

I thought of that this week when a committee of astronomers drafted a resolution that says there are 12 planets, not nine, in our solar system.

More than 2,000 astronomers from around the world are getting ready to vote on the resolution. If two-thirds of them agree, every textbook in the country will be out of date just as school doors open for the fall semester.

The reports of this planetary development do not tell me if there are any registered delegates at the Prague assembly of astronomers from Charon. Or Ceres. Or 2003 UB313.

Get used to them.

Those could soon be the names you will have to memorize if you want to rattle off the names of all 12 planets.

I generally don't care for decisions made by committees. My experience tells me that committees tend to be cover-ups for 1. bad decisions or 2. someone who is supposed to make decisions but won't.

There are exceptions to the committee approach, of course. I'd like to see a committee take a crack at suggesting some appropriate names for our new federal building. Something that costs $60 million ought to have a name, and at that price it had better be a good one.

These committees -- the ones that are necessary and aren't cover-ups -- are usually called blue-ribbon panels. I like that. A blue-ribbon committee is bound to have the best minds and wisest thinkers available. Otherwise it would be a red-ribbon committee. Or maybe even a white-ribbon committee. Which is dangerously kin to a committee that produces a white paper.

Anyone who is asked to serve on a blue-ribbon panel ought to feel good about himself right off the bat. The blue ribbon is for getting the committee organized. Not all blue-ribbon committees produce first-place results.

We call those committees ad hoc committees so everyone understands from the get-go that the panel won't be allowed to make questionable decisions forever. That's a comfort to many who watch the deliberations and read the final reports -- well, at least the recommendations summary page -- of blue-ribbon ad hoc committees.

I'm sure the International Astronomical Union used a committee -- several of them, even -- to get to the point of drafting a resolution on new planets for a vote.

There probably was a committee to decide if objects somewhere in space most of us will never see, much less visit, are worth the effort. Call this the Planetary Fretting Committee. Then there had to be a committee to organize a meeting for nearly 2,500 astronomers in Prague. Call this the Czech-Off Committee. And there had to be a committee to alert the news media about the plan to add three more sun-circling objects to the official list. Call this the Planetary Recognition (or PR) Committee.

Perhaps the best thing to come of all this is its diversionary influence. On Wednesday morning, nearly half the front pages of newspapers in America prominently displayed the news about planets. No Lebanon. No Iraq. No warnings about the federal debt crisis. No twisted words from the stem-cell pros and cons.

And see what happened? The stock market skyrocketed -- an appropriate choice of words when you think about it.

If it's good for the stock market, it must be worth the effort.

Investment tip: textbook publishing.

And, looking back, I can't see that adding Alaska and Hawaii to the fold have hurt anything.

How could three more planets go wrong?

R. Joe Sullivan is the editor of the Southeast Missourian.

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