Cthulhu Can Eat Me

John Scalzi and I have been warring for the last few months (seems like years) over the subject of whether Pluto is a planet or not.

Of course, it is not. Even the Pluto-sympathetic IAU, which is meeting this month to discuss such matters, will probably politely demote it to “dwarf planet,” “ice dwarf,” or some other humiliating category.

But in his slavish devotion to schoolchild memorization exercises, Scalzi will not give up the fight. Now he’s even impressed his charming daughter into the doomed struggle.

Watch in awe as Cthulhu eats me, Scott Westerfeld, in effigy.

Okay, I’ve avoided the subject on this blog, because it’s Last Days Month, after all. But enough is enough! Because when in the course of human events it becomes necessary for one heavenly body to dissolve the astronomical bands which have connected it with another and to assume among the powers of the solar system the separate and superior station of “planet” to which the Laws of Nature entitle them, and to demote the other to the station of “ice dwarf,” a decent respect to the opinions of humankind requires that the inhabitants should declare the causes which impel them to the separation. So . . .



Hey, look! One of these things is not like the others. That’s right, the purple one. It’s all over the place: inside Neptune’s orbit one decade and then outside the next; topsy-turvy and crooked. Or as an astronomer might say, “Several orders of magnitude more elliptic and eccentric than the eight real planets.”

By the way, that red splodge in the middle is the four terrestrial planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars.

And see how neat the eight real planets are? Why are they all in a plane like that? Because they all formed from the same disk of material (known as “the accretion disk”) and are therefore all cousins. They are related.

Pluto is just a crappy piece of leftover, non-accretion-disk ice. Which brings us to . . .


Pluto’s exact composition is not known, but a third to a half of the dwarf is almost certainly composed of ice. That’s right, it’s almost equal parts rocks and water, and we have a name for rock + water objects in space: comets.

Pluto is compositionally a comet. And that’s why its orbit is incredibly eccentric. A little more eccentric, and it would be lighting up our skies as it melted away, and would be called “Tombaugh’s Comet” or something like that.


Now here’s where the Plutophants always get nostalgic. They think that the millions of plastic Denny’s placemats printed over the last 70 years that call Pluto a planet somehow legitimate the term. Pluto should be “grandfathered” in, or maybe we should make a special name like “minor planets” for Pluto and its numerous Kuiper Belt pals.

Image courtesy of Northwest Nature Shop. Get them while they still make ’em.

But here’s the problem with that, Plutophants: we’ve been down this road before. And your side LOST!

In 1801, Guiseppe Piazzi discovered a new “planet” called Ceres Ferdinandea. The lame last name was soon dropped, but otherwise everyone was thrilled and excited. Then a second “planet” was spotted in Ceres’ orbit, called Pallas. Then two more: Juno and Vesta.

Now, some folks immediately suggested downgrading Ceres and its buddies to non-planets, and suggested the term “asteroids.” But the Ceres-lovers refused, because planets are wonderful and pretty and Denny’s had already printed up some lovely placemats!

In 1828, a book called First Steps to Astronomy and Geography listed the planets as, “Eleven: Mercury, Venus, the Earth, Mars, Vesta, Juno, Ceres, Pallas, Jupiter, Saturn, and Herschel.” (Herschel is the old name for Uranus, changed to facilitate the snickering of generations of schoolkids.)

That’s right, we had eleven planets, and that was before Neptune or Pluto hit the scene.

From 1845 to 1851, 11 more “planets” were discovered in Ceres’ orbit. It was pretty clear to everyone that things had gotten out of hand. But the always optimistic planet-o-philes didn’t want to outright demote anyone, because that would be mean.

So they came up with the lame idea of “minor planets.”

In 1866, the Paris Observatory first used the description “petites planets” to describe the ever-more-numerous asteroids. Tellingly, Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta were “grandfathered” into the ranks of full planets at first. (I didn’t know they had Denny’s in Paris back then.)

The U.S. Naval Observatory went psycho for a few decades, using the word “asteroids” until 1868, then switching to “small planets,” then back to “asteroid” in 1892, then to “minor planets” in 1900, and at long last to “asteroids” in 1929, only a year before Pluto was discovered.

Phew. Close call there.

Other organizations used various wordings, but by the beginning of the twentieth century, the Denny’s-eating, planet-loving lobby had been largely defeated.

This, my friends, is exactly what will happen to Pluto. Yes, the IAU may come up with “minor planet” or “dwarf planet” or some such drivel, but as new discoveries mount, and the list of “planets” get longer and longer and more and more embarrassing, we’ll slowly stop using that word. And by the way, we’re not talking about mere dozens of planets here; some estimates put the number of significant Kuiper Belt objects in the tens of thousands. But long before we find that many, we’ll be calling Pluto what it is:

The King of the Kuiper Belt!

Which brings me to my final point . . .

Common Decency

Why would Pluto want to be a planet?

As a planet, it’s a tiny little, out-of-whack runt! As a Kuiper Belt Object, it’s a rocking big heavyweight bruiser. Okay, not quite as big as UB313, but it’s got more moons!

So as a matter of common decency, we should realize that Pluto would rather rule in the icy reaches of the Kuiper Belt than be subject to mockery in the warm glowing warmth of the inner solar system. It’s named after the god of the underworld, after all.

But the Cthulhu doll was cute.

For even more detail on the “minor planets” of the nineteenth century, written by people who (unlike Scalzi and me) actually know things, check here.

64 thoughts on “Cthulhu Can Eat Me

  1. i LOVE being first poster.

    scott, i am in ITALY right now on vacation and i am checking your blog. does that show you how much i love you?? see? see? jk…I think Pluto should be a non-planet, you’re right. It would be so impressive as a non-planet!!

  2. Kuiper rhymes with wiper…

    Pro: According to Google via Wikipedia, a planet (from the Greek πλανήτης, planÄ“tÄ“s which means “wanderer” or more forcefully “vagrant, tramp”) is an object in orbit around a star that is not a star in its own right. Much like “continent,” “planet” is a word without a precise definition, with history and culture playing as much of a role as geology and astrophysics.

    By this definition, Pluto can and should be called a planet (along with Vesta, Juno, Ceres, Pallas, et al).

    Con: According to Wikipedia, Luna (our moon) has a diameter 1.5 times that of Pluto. There are some who say Earth-Luna should be properly called a binary planet. But there really isn’t much support for this designation and I don’t see it happening any time soon.

    So if Pluto is smaller than other non-planets (Luna, 2003 UB313, etc), then why should we call it a planet?

  3. Your arguments would be quite convincing but for one obvious flaw. You can’t spell Cthulhu. How can I respect someone who doesn’t respect the Great Old Ones.

    Fixed, oh, dread one!

  4. Scott, I’m not agreeing or disagreeing with “anti-pluto” but was it really nessasary to make a little girl cry?

    *Points* Hey look Scott Westerfeld got eaten by a space monster! You don’t see that everyday!

  5. I didn’t even get to see you get eaten *tear*. The video stopped at 16 seconds for some reason. I don’t disagree, and I don’t agree, but you do make a good point.

    But it’s kind of sad-making how some weirdly spelled ?god? ate you over whether Pluto is a planet or not. Why not talk about something on this planet? Like global warming, the War on Terrorism, or…McDonald’s Premium Coffee?

  6. Scott,

    Stopped by from Scalzi.com to see the rebuttal. Pretty good and convincing. Worse still would be the argument to keep an object named “Herschel” in the solar system. Herschel? Like any eldritch gods would come from Herschel.

    Seriously, I think you’re jealous because there’s no kid on your site making their pet monster eat a Scalzi effigy. Prove me wrong, but…

  7. it was a very dramatic…meal for the lovely green creature, not that i would want to eat you or anything… cannabalism isnt really respected in colorado…

  8. Okay, you make a good argument, but without Pluto, the mnemonic device is just: “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine…” Nine WHAT!!!??? NINE WHAT???

    You won’t get my support until you post your own anti-pluto video.

  9. i have always liked pluto.
    i thought it was cute.
    and a sailor scout was named after it!!!
    (from sailor moon!!!!)

  10. Scott! You made a little girl CRY. I refuse to side one way or another on this matter, but seeing as I love you best I may be with you. And I’ll repeat something that was posted on the other comment board: Why does Scott have a German accent?

  11. It makes sense that pluto shouldn’t be a planet…but if I get into a large argument with a teacher over it, I’m blaming it on you D:

  12. That video is funny. But yeah. Your reasoning seems logical. But what about that little planet further out than pluto? That mysterious ‘Planet X’? Is that a planet or just some floating rock?

  13. Why be the smallest planet when you could be the first of the suns moons. (The planets are not moons of the sun nor their moons, which belong to their respective planets.) I thins being a sun moon would be an upgrade. The FIRST sun moon even.

  14. If pluto isnt a planet then that new planet they discovered which they are temperarily calling Xena which is a hell of alot bigger than pluto would then be the 9th planet

  15. My brain hurts.

    I say…

    ….Does it matter?

    Probably does but you know.
    Just call it Pluto and there you go.

  16. OK, so Pluto is a left-over piece of “non-accretion disk” ice and junk. In another place, it is the king of the Kuiper Belt. But everything I see says the Kuiper belt is left-over matter from the original accretion disk that did not form planets. So if it is king of the Kuiper Belt, it is from the accretion disk. Then by your definition it can be a planet.

  17. I never really cared much about Pluto… But if you must know, it’s messed-up orbit is X’s fault. X is bigger than Pluto, therefore it’s gravity pulls Pluto off balance. Or something like that… Anyway, this all brings me to another argument: is Australia a continent? Lol kidding, just to see it from the Pluto-ites point of view.

  18. Did anyone catch Good Morning America? Not only are they going to keep Pluto, but they are thinking of making 3 more planets: Ceres, Charon and “Xena”.

  19. You know there us a rather simple way to end this argument:

    There ARE no planets. The Sun revolves around the Earth, because We are the Center of the Universe. Planets were invented by the terrorists to make us doubt our importance.

    Down with Galileo and the heliocentric theory!!!

    Remember, everytime you mention another planet, the Terrorists win!

  20. i agree with robinwasserman, as long as it doesnt come crashing into earth (although that might be a good thing since we are destroying our lovely little planet) or kill some other civilization on some other “planet” than who really cares? you do make a good point, though, scott.

  21. >> There ARE no planets. The Sun revolves around the Earth, because We are the Center of the Universe.

  22. (d’oh!, rest of my post got eaten. try 2)

    [[There ARE no planets. The Sun revolves around the Earth, because We are the Center of the Universe.]]

    Right on! Why go way the heck out to the sun for an inertial frame when there is a perfectly good inertial frame hanging out at the centre of our planet? Sure you can’t have it globally inertial and you need to start adding post-special relativity “fudge-factors” as you move away from the X=Y=Z=0 axis, but the same is true of any frame co-centric with the sun, or with the solar system’s barycentre, or anywhere in the solar system you might want to put an origin. There’s just no alternative with the amount of messy mass hanging around.

    (On a more serious note, GPS calculations are done in a frame that is inertial at the centre of this planet. The calculations do need some of the “fudge factors” I mentioned above, but for the chosen frame fairly simple fudge-factors (time dilation) suffice. As far as GPS is concerned the Earth is spinning in place.)

  23. I’m fine with Pluto being king of the Kuniper belt, as long as we officially name the queen(a.k.a. US2003whatever) “Xena”.

  24. Sorry Scott, but it looks like Pluto is staying. But why would anyone name a planet Xena? I liked X just fine. It has that mysterious sort of sci-fi sound to it. All in favour of NOT naming it xena, raise your hand!

  25. The proposed IAU definition won’t create 3 new planets…..would you believe 50+ more?(that we know of.)

    Hope they’re getting to work on the mnemonic right away.

    Oh, and I work at the U of Az in a building named after Gerard Kuiper……his name is pronounced most properly (so I’ve been told) as something in
    between “rhymes with wiper” and koyper.

  26. Scott – Damn you Vulcans and your relentless logic. Your scientific proof is nothing but rather convincing hogwash! Balderdash, I say!
    I find my emotion-backed support of Pluto-as-planet threatened by this rational display of information…

    I’ll have to rethink my decisions… after lunch. Maybe.

  27. Pluto is SO a planet.

    The Naming of the Planets Society Board (or whatever it’s called) aren’t considering Xena as it offical name. So far.

  28. Hahahaha. That video was incredibly amusing. Be careful Scott, we want more books and you being eaten does nto contribute to that goal.

    This (and the latest post) was fascinating. I’m convinced it isn’t a planet. Thanks for bringign this to our attention (although it is hardly life altering as far as space discoveries/changes go).

  29. Dude, cryophobia is so uncool. Ice balls are planets too, you know. Where do you get these idead of gaseous and rocky superiority?

    To be briefly serious:
    What we really need is a definition that requires exploration instead of debate. “a differentiated body genetically related to the star it orbits” would be a start. That way, if we want to see if Pluto really is a planet, we have to fly out there, grab a bit, and bring it back home for analysis.


    My very endearing mother certainly just shot up near prison cell 2003.

  30. “>> There ARE no planets. The Sun revolves around the Earth, because We are the Center of the Universe.”

    I think you mean… there are no planets. The sun revolves around scott westerfeld. Scott is the center of the universe 😛

    How’s that for ego boosting?

  31. What the crap . . . Scott you totaly have me confused! Sigh if Pluto isin’t realy a planet then why are they still teaching that in school? Plus now somebody gonna have to come up with a new aracnanem for the Planets! Sigh

  32. I think it’s entertaining that these people aren’t sure if Pluto is a planet or not, SOMETHING WE CAN SEE, something we can send all our little gadgets and gizmos to,


    they know, for rock solid FACT that we were created due to evolution. Ahhh the irony.

    Anyways. It doesn’t matter much to me either way.

    But that guy wins, like I said over there, for two reasons. 1) His daughter is cute and 2)He bought her a Cthulhu plushie.

    ^^ The power of Cthulhu rules your face.

  33. Not much irony here. The basic facts concerning Pluto (much like evolution) are not in dispute among scientists. What’s at issue is what to call it.

    P.S. No spacecraft has been to Pluto yet, but one gets there in 2015.

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