Science Saturday: Planet 9 in Outer Space


It was a sad day in 2006 when our beloved 9th planet Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet. Pluto was always the problem child, but we loved it anyway. It was the smallest planet, whose orbit was inclined at 17 degrees to all the others. Even more troublesome, its orbit crossed that of Neptune, so that for part of its 300+ year orbit it was actually the 8th planet from the sun, rather than the 9th. (It will never collide with Neptune, thanks to that tilted orbit.) To top it all off, it was discovered here in Arizona.

Unfortunately, the rebel planet had to be demoted with the discovery of Eris and a half dozen other large objects out in the Kuiper Belt – because if Pluto remained a planet, all these newcomers would be. It was not easy to break the habit of thinking of 9 planets. The “Church of 9 Planets” in Heinlein’s Stranger in a Strange Land would need a new name. Therefore it was a relief to hear that there was probably still a 9th planet out here – and this would have to be a decent size, several times bigger than Earth.

It’s ironic that Michael Brown, the astronomer who discovered Eris who jokingly calls himself “Pluto killer,” who along with colleague Konstantin Batygin, proposed the existence of a new Planet 9. Their reasoning was a suspicious alignment in the orbits of Kuiper-belt planetoids. (This is the same reasoning Percival Lowell used to initiate the search for Planet X that ended up finding Pluto.) Something massive had to be shepherding them into similar orbits, and they were too far away for Neptune to be responsible. Since then there’s been a major effort to find it, which is a challenge. It’s so far out and so dim it taxes the abilities of our biggest telescopes to find it.

Of course, the crazies have come out of the woodwork. I’ve seen numerous Internet articles proclaiming it as the legendary Nibiru, or death star, the dark planet that periodically sends comets toward the Earth causing mass extinctions. The idea of the Sun having a distant unseen companion is actually a respectable scientific theory, but the theoretical Planet 9 doesn’t seem big enough to fit that bill. Nor do astronomers expect any imminent threat to our planet.

The other issue is, what will we call this new planet? By convention, trans-Neptunian objects are named, like Pluto, after gods of the afterworld. (Eris is an exception, but the “goddess of chaos” theme was quite appropriate to what its discovery did to the world of astronomy.) Perhaps we should take a hint from Herman Melville and call it Ishmael.


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Remember, Remember: Guy Fawkes, V for Vendetta, and Anonymous


Tomorrow is Guy Fawkes Day, a British holiday which commemorates the foiling in 1605 of an anti-royalist conspiracy to blow up the House of Lords. Traditionally, it was celebrated with bonfires and burning effigies of the treasonous Fawkes. It’s ironic that the image of this historical villain has been transformed into a heroic symbol of anarchism and the liberty movement.

This is because in V for Vendetta, the graphic novel by Alan Moore and David Lloyd, the anti-government protagonist wears a Fawkes mask to hide his identity. This work and its popular movie adaptation led the hacker group “Anonymous” to adopt the Fawkes mask as its symbol. In a case of life imitating art, they have staged protests with masked members, just like in the movie. This brings up the question of extralegal political action. When is it justified and in what fashion?

On one end of the spectrum, we have violence against people, including political assassination. While this may be justified in the case of a Hitler or Stalin, it is almost always counter-productive. As the Who put it, the “new boss” will be “same as the old boss.” Terroristic and retaliatory violence is similarly flawed. If an organization is willing to sacrifice innocents in order to gain power, how will it behave after the battle is won? If we expect them to change, we will surely be disappointed.

At the other end are peaceful protests, including the non-violent civil disobedience advocated by Mahatma Gandhi and Martin Luther King, Jr. Such tactics are more likely to achieve lasting change, but they may require members of the movement to sacrifice their freedom or even their lives. Furthermore, nonviolence is less effective against authoritarian governments, which is why Iran’s “Green Movement” did not achieve its goals.

In the middle, we have destructive but non-violent action, such as sabotage, computer hacking, and release of secrets. This may be the only option when peaceful and legal channels are blocked. In the US, the release of state documents by Wikileaks has done tremendous good in revealing the machinations of the power elite. Cyber-attacks against institutions that kill innocents and violate our privacy, such as the CIA and NSA, would also be morally justified. Unfortunately, it’s unlikely that hackers could win those battles. This is why the rebels have focused on easier targets such as corrupt politicians and thieving bankers.

I believe that extralegal action is sometimes necessary, even in a “free country” such as ours, because democratic systems are prone to capture and manipulation by the rich and powerful. Those who participate in such actions must be aware of the risk. Consider, for example, the steep price Chelsea Manning is paying for blowing the whistle on US atrocities in Iraq. Violent actions, such as Fawkes’ “Gunpowder Plot” are not just wrong, they are damaging to any positive goals one might have.

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