Tuesday, September 18

When I was your age ... A million Pluto fans!

I've already ranted at length in this space on my feelings about the IAU's decision last year -- in my opinion, silly and misguided -- to demote Pluto from planetary status (For example, my postings here and here). And I knew that it was an issue that had attracted a lot of interest from the public, and especially students, far beyond the level of public interest in most astronomical subjects. I was struck at the time by how quickly it became fodder for cartoons and even songs written about the ex-planet.
But I hadn't realized just how powerful that level of interest was.
Last week, I joined the popular online social networking site Facebook, because I had read about some other journalists joining the site and finding it useful. Almost immediately, my page on Facebook began showing me the names of "groups" on the service that I might be interested in, based on the groups I had already signed up for. And the very cute name of one of those groups immediately caught my eye: "When I was your age, Pluto was a planet."
As soon as I went to that group's page, it blew my socks off. The other groups I had joined had a few dozen members, or a hundred or so. One of them even had a few thousand. But the Pluto group already had 950,000 members! In the days since then, it has now surged across the million-member mark.
Talk about striking a nerve!
I later read an article about the group (here ) that says within a few weeks of its founding last year, it had become the second-most-popular group on the whole Facebook site. Most of the top groups have more predictable subjects -- political or social causes -- but this one was a big surprise. Passions run very strong about poor little Pluto -- as I had predicted, but even more than I expected.
Alan Stern, lead scientist for the New Horizons mission that's on its way to Pluto and now a top NASA official, has been leading the charge to overturn the IAU's misguided decision, and I wish him well. I think nothing substantive is likely to happen until the IAU has its next general meeting in 2009, but maybe the movement will have gained enough steam by then to get the decision changed.