Friday, March 28, 2008

A very strange list

ABC has a photo feature on great war films as a tie-in to the release of Kimberly Peirce's new Iraq War film Stop Loss. The list is attached to the link "Hollywood's Best War Movies" and has the headline "Hollywood Goes to War" and bothers me for two reasons.

First, the movies are not all products of Hollywood. Jean Renoir's Grand Illusion is a movie that belongs on any list of great war movies (or great movies, period), but it is a French movie. It has no connection whatsoever with Hollywood except for occasionally being shown there. Stanley Kubrick's Full Metal Jacket was filmed entirely in Britain by a British director, but it was co-produced by an American company (Warner) so it does have a partial connection with Hollywood. Is that enough to make it a Hollywood movie? Okay, they are using the word Hollywood to mean movies in general. But why then are other great French, Russian, German, and Japanese movies left out?

My other complaint is the same complaint I always have about best-of-all-time lists: The list makers have almost no sense of historical or geographic perspective. War to them means twentieth century American wars. No version of War and Peace made the list. No Civil War movies, Alamo movies, British colonial movies, no Ancient or Medieval movies. Of the fourteen movies, only three were made before 1970. That's just weird. Before 1970, war movies were one of the great staples of Hollywood. Then, in the space of about three years, war, westerns, and musicals all but disappeared from the screen. Hollywood made hundreds--possibly thousands--of movies about WWII between 1942 and 1970. Exactly one made the list: "Patton."

For just WWII made before 1970, shouldn't at least one of these ten films replace something more recent?
  • The Bridge on the River Kwai
  • Stalag 17
  • From Here to Eternity
  • The Caine Mutiny
  • Run Silent, Run Deep
  • The Great Escape
  • Casablanca
  • The Longest Day
  • The Diary of Anne Frank
  • Catch 22

And where the heck is Battle Beyond the Stars??

I'm sure you can name as many films for other years, other wars, and made in other countries. I know I can.

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Creepiest phrase ever

Self-propelled colonoscopy robots. It's going to take me all night to unclench from merely hearing the idea.

"I'm sorry, Dave, but it's you who will have to open your pod bay door."

Glenn Beck is an idiot--Olympics edition

That Beck is an idiot is hardly a new or surprising thing to say. Glenn Beck's whole public persona is that of a loud mouthed idiot brother-in-law. It is people like Beck who have made "angry white guy" and "conservative talk radio" synonymous. Nevertheless, his latest conspiracy screed is so incoherent that it should make even the most die hard conspiracy nuts cringe in embarrassment for the genre.

The background of Beck's comments is a recent news story that the Pentagon had accidentally sent some parts for a nuclear warhead to Taiwan. Back in late 2006, the government of Taiwan ordered four replacement battery packs for UH-1 Huey helicopters from the Defense Logistics Agency, a branch of the US Department of Defense. Instead of batteries, the DLA sent four trigger assemblies for the warheads on Minuteman ballistic missiles.* We only even knew the parts were missing when the Taiwanese military went looking for their batteries and instead found missile fuses. The mainland Chinese are extremely sensitive about weapons sales to Taiwan and have protested.

Beck, of course, sees a conspiracy at work here. He thinks we intentionally sent those bomb parts to Taiwan in order to sell tickets to the Olympics.

This is the CNN transcript from his March 25 show. It's a rush transcript, so some of the incoherence will be due to transcription error. But even shifting the maximum blame possible to the transcription service can't save Beck.
The Pentagon discovered a little bit of an oopsy when they found out what happened today. It was revealed that we mistakenly shipped nuclear triggers to Taiwan. How exactly -- where did I put those nuclear triggers? Why are we shipping them. Who`s shipping them? How did it happen? Sending nuclear triggers to Taiwan. Kind of a big deal because it might piss China off just a bit.

Apparently, we`ve decided antagonizing companies [countries?] that have 1.3 billion people, not a good idea question was, why do we ship these triggers? The bigger question to me is they`re nuclear triggers. Why would we put them in a box in the first place and then send them to Taiwan.

In the last paragraph, he called the shipment an "oopsy" and "mistaken," but the true paranoid conspiracy nut knows there are no mistakes. Someone sent those triggers intentionally. "They" wanted Taiwan to have those triggers as part of a larger, no doubt sinister, plan.
I do have a theory, it`s the only one that makes sense. The Olympics are coming up, right? Nobody seems to care. You know, back in the '80s, when I was growing up in the 70s, we had the Soviet Union, it was fun to root against them.

Got that? Back in the eighties, when the rest of us were living through the Reagan years, Beck was still growing up in the seventies. He's trapped in some weird time warp ten years behind the rest of us. This could explain a lot.
You know, would we boycott those Olympics? No. Would they boycott ours? No.

On the other hand, maybe he missed the eighties completely. If He had lived through that decade he might remember that we did boycott the Moscow Olympics and the Soviets did boycott the Los Angeles Olympics.
The miracle of ice happened, right? People cared about the Olympics. It was great, we had an enemy. Well, we`re still acting now like Russia is our friend, they`re not and Al Qaeda doesn't really have a strong 400-meter relay team despite all the training they seem to produce with the monkey bars. That`s weird but we`ll get into that later. So, why not ignite tension by sending nuclear triggers to China`s enemy. And suddenly, everybody cares about the triple jump again.

Is he trying to be funny? I can't find a video of the show, so I can't tell. Even if I did have a video, I probably wouldn't be able to tell. As I have often said, conservative humor is no laughing matter. That goes double for Beck.

Whether or not he's trying to be funny, one thing that stands outin his babbling is the nostalgia for the Cold War. The Conservative coalition of the Reagan years was largely held together by fear and hatred of Communism. Conservatives need an enemy. For the last last fifteen years they have variously tried to use American pop culture, liberal values, Islam, Darwin, and hordes of brown foreigners as a unifying enemy, but none has worked as well as Communism to hold the old coalition together. By rebranding the Party from the conservative party to the fundamentalist Christian party, they have managed to combine the first four of those boogey men into a coherent narrative, but it has been at the risk of driving secular conservatives out of the party. Beck seems, jokingly or not, to be suggesting that if they could only get a good hate going for "Red" China things might return to the good old days. If that is the conspiracy, then he's part of it.

* This is an incredible mistake. The triggering mechanism is the hardest part of a nuclear weapon for aspiring members of the nuclear club to manufacture or acquire. It is on par with the nuclear fuel itself. The triggers should have been kept under the tightest security. Instead, they were misplaced and no one even knew they were missing for three years. How did this happen? There will be an investigation, but one fact already leaps out. The Defense Logistics Agency has privatized the management of their parts inventories and this most secret of secret technology was left in the hands of an insufficiently supervised contractor.

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

It's almost time for my annual check-up

When the doctor asks me if I've been getting plenty of fruits and vegetables in my diet, can I count chocolate as a fruit or vegetable? How about red wine?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Public service announcement

Will the owner of the baby blue Plymouth Valiant please report to the parking lot. Your lights are on.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

Why we celebrate this day

Because it's my blogoversary. Five years ago today, in a fit of uncontrolled envy over my childhood friend Dave's cool blog, I went to Blogger and signed up for a blog of my own. Five years, 1666 posts, 2251 comments, and 152,284 hits later here we are. It's been lots of fun and well worth the effort for me. I hope you've enjoyed it, because I have no intention of stopping.

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Happy Nowruz

Today is Spring Equinox and also Nowruz, new year's day on the old Persian calender and celebrated these days by Zoroastrians, Alawites, Baha'is, and some types of Sufis. It is also a secular holiday in Iran. Nowruz is celebrated variously with gift giving, feasts, and jumping over bonfires. I vote for food.

A Timely Bit of Advice

It sounds like the Onion, but it's really BBC.
Health officials in the Philippines have issued a warning to people taking part in Easter crucifixion rituals.

They have urged them to get tetanus vaccinations before they flagellate themselves and are nailed to crosses, and to practise good hygiene.


The health department has strongly advised penitents to check the condition of the whips they plan to use to lash their backs, the Manila Times newspaper reports.

They want people to have what they call "well-maintained" whips.


And they advise that the nails used to fix people to crosses must be properly disinfected first.

Then again, you might just stay home and eat chocolate eggs.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Alan Keyes and other third party news

Rumors are swirling around that Alan Keyes is preparing to make good on his threat to leave the Republican Party if they nominated someone who he felt was insufficiently zealous against abortion. His new party of choice is the Constitution Party,an openly theocratic party with ties to the militia movement. The party is already on the ballot in a dozen or so states, but would have to petition their way on to the rest.

The Constitution Party, formerly the U.S. Taxpayers Party, has been around since the early nineties when Howard Phillips tried to pull a bunch of far right parties together into a common front to support a Pat Buchanan presidential bid, should he bolt the Republicans as they expected. He didn't that year and the party put Phillips up as a candidate. Some other far right parties have talked merger and endorsed the party's candidate in the past, but they have not managed to expand their front any further.

One problem for the Constitution Party is that they have never managed to recruit a well-known name as a candidate. In 2004 they flirted with Roy Moore as a candidate. He was the Alabama judge who lost his job over his desire to plant a giant Ten Commandments monument in the lobby of the court house and defy the Supreme Court's order to remove it. Moore waffled too long and they ended up nominating Michael Peroutka, hardly a household name. Keyes would be the biggest name they have ever captured.

On the far left, Ralph Nader is running again. The Greens will no longer have him, so he is going it alone. Don't feel bad for the Greens, they are maintaining their quota of egotistical crackpots by gaining Mike Gravel. Gravel has jumped into Green Party politics by endorsing Jesse Johnson the nomination to head the Green Party ticket. The site Third Party Watch thinks Gravel's involvement is a sign that the Greens are becoming more mainstream. I think it shows the opposite, but I have a strong dislike for Gravel.

So far, the Republicans appear to have more to fear from third party erosion of their base that do the Democrats, but that could still change.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Stop the madness

New five dollar bills went into circulation today. Honest Abe now appears on a lavender background and a big purple five is in on corner on the reverse side. Basically, it's the same style as the larger denominations. The choice of lavender as Lincoln's color will, no doubt, bring on a new round of speculation about his sexual preferences. I expect the religious right will boycott the new bills and Fred Phelps will set up camp outside the Treasury. They are completely off base about the color. It has nothing to do with the radical homosexual agenda. It's far worse. Obviously, this color redesign is part of a creeping Canadian conspiracy to destroy our national identity. Let's add a little more color--or should I say "colour"--to your greenbacks, eh? Colorizing our money is the thin end of the wedge, the slippery slope, the camel's nose. After this, they'll go for our type-A personalities, then comes bilingual signage, national healthcare, and finally the mark of the beast itself--the metric system!!!

I'm not gloating

Remember when we were young and the hordes of Right Blogistan would make a great ruckus in celebration of the decline of Old Europe every time the Euro hit a new low compared to the dollar? Those were good times in Right Blogistan. Every day, so far this week, oil, gold, and the Euro have hit record highs compared to the dollar. Right Blogistan is not a joyous place these days. Oh, some of their friends on Wall Street a moment or two of cheer earlier this week when Elliot Spitzer resigned in shame. But that passed quickly as the class that gave us the CEO presidency went back to watching the fruits of the Bush boom get soft and mushy and produce clouds of fruit flies. Unfortunately,none of my investments are in oil, gold, or the Euro. I keep my investments in Mason jars, buried in the yard.

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

Ferarro needs some new material

Geraldine Ferarro, April 1988: "If Jesse Jackson were not black, he wouldn't be in the race."

Geraldine Ferarro, February 2008: "If Barack Obama were a white man, would we be talking about this as a potential real problem for Hillary?"

Geraldine Ferarro, March 2008: "If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position."

Sunday, March 09, 2008

Let the evil conspiracy continue

P-Zed, the super scientist, turns 51 today. That's about three in octopus years. Happy birthday, fearless leader.

(Everyone else did clever Photoshop LOL squids. I'm helpless with Photoshop.)

Saturday, March 08, 2008

Mammoths are not dinosaurs

Dinosaur and extinct are not synonyms. Any eight year old could tell you that, but it remains a point beyond the ken of most grown-ups. MSNBC is the latest offender. As a sidebar to their review of Roland Emmerich's woolly mammoth movie "10,000 B.C." they have a list of other famous prehistoric movies. The editor managed to stay out of trouble with the title: "Land before time: 11 great prehistoric flicks." Then he went on to add a subtitle: "‘10,000 B.C.’ is the latest movie to take us back to when dinosaurs roamed." This is above a picture of a mammoth chasing a primitive human. Even there the editor seems to have some trouble: "A woolly mammoth looks for a meal in Roland Emmerich's '10,000 B.C.'" I haven't seen the film yet, but I'll bet the mammoth isn't planning to eat the cave man. Since the mammoth appears to have a spear stuck in it's side, I'll bet it was the cave man who was looking for a meal.

To sum up: mammoths were not dinosaurs. Mammoths were not carnivorous. Never send a grown man to do an child's job.

Sunday, March 02, 2008

On Planets X and Names

Scientists at Kobe University in western Japan believe a Mars-sized planet still waits to be discovered in the outer solar system. Ever since the discovery of Neptune in 1846, scientists have debated whether another planet and its gravity were necessary to account for the observed motions of the other bodies in the solar system. This latest prediction is based on a computer model of the evolution of the Kuiper Belt, that group of thousands of asteroids and mini planets including Pluto.

The composer William Herschel and his sister Caroline in 1781 were the first people to discover a new planet. The idea of finding an unknown planet was so novel at the time that for months the Herschels though they had discovered a comet and were puzzled by its orbit and refusal to develop a tail. When it finally dawned on them what they had discovered, they knew it need a better name than Comet Herschel. They called it George, after the insane king of England.

Understandably, continental astronomers were less than thrilled to accept a name chosen to flatter a political figure. Several of their countries were at war with England at the time in support of the American rebellion. French astronomers graciously pushed for calling the planet Herschel. Johann Bode, a Prussian publisher of ephemeris tables, suggested a compromise. Since all of the other planets had names out of Greco-Roman mythology, why not continue the pattern and name it after a mythological figure? He suggested Uranus, the father of Saturn, as an appropriate name, not realizing how the mere pronunciation of the name would cause English-speaking adolescent boys to fall into fits of giggles.

Bode's suggestion was adopted outside England and France, where astronomers stuck to their own names for another sixty years before finally giving in to the usage of the rest of the world. Bode's name was especially popular among other Germans. In 1789, a Berlin chemist, Martin Klaproth, isolated a new element out of pitchblende ore. Recalling the alchemical traditions of making connections between minerals and planets, Klaproth named his new element after the new planet, calling it Uranium.

Herschel wasn't alone in using discoveries to curry favor with his economic betters. When Galileo discovered the four major moons of Jupiter in 1610, he decided to name them after his former math student Cosimo de'Medici, who had become the powerful Grand Duke of Tuscany. Galileo first thought to name them the Cosmican Stars, but then thought better of it. The name was too close to Cosmic Stars and the significance might be lost on the object of his up sucking. In Sidereus Nuncius, his little book announcing the discovery, he called the moons the Medicean Stars, a name unsubtle enough that even a busy Grand Duke would take notice. The attempt was successful; a few months later, Cosimo offered Galileo a high paying job that the the math teacher quickly accepted.

Four years after Gailileo published his description of the Medicean Stars, a German astronomer, Simon Marius, published a work claiming to have discovered the moons before Galileo. He couldn't offer any convincing proof for his claim, so history has sided with Galileo. Marius' observations were, however, of high quality and he gave us something Galileo did not: individual names for the moons (Io, Europa, Ganymede, and Callisto, all lovers of Jupiter in mythology). The French astronomer Nicolas-Claude Fabri de Peiresc suggested that the for moons be named after the four Medici brothers, something Galileo may also have had in mind, but the suggestion was not taken up by the budding international astronomic community. The mythological names were not, in fact, Marius' first choice. He first thought of an awkward system of naming them after the Sun's planets (i.e. the Mercury of Jupiter, the Venus of Jupiter). At the time there was no reason not to assume that smaller moons might be orbiting the bigger moons and so on. This might have led to names like the Saturn of the Mars of the Mercury of Jupiter. Clearly, a bad idea. Maris humbly credited Kepler with the much better suggestion of classical mythology. Kepler is famous for enough else, so Marius deserves to be remembered for publicizing the suggestion.

In 1655 Christiaan Huygens discovered a moon orbiting Saturn. He cleverly called it Saturn's Moon. When Cassini discovered four more moons around Saturn, he followed Galileo's example and named them Sidera Lodoicea ("the stars of Louis") to honor his employer Louis XIV of France. He did not give his new moons individual names and, oddly, neither did anyone else. For most of the next two centuries, astronomers simply called them by numbers.

Following the Herschels' discovery of Uranus, other astronomers put their telescopes to work seeking out new Georges to name after their own political patrons. In 1801 a Sicilian astronomer, Giuseppe Piazzi, was the first to strike gold. Spotting an object orbiting between Mars and Jupiter and determining it not to be a comet, he announced that he had found a tiny planet, and named it Ceres Ferdinandea. The name seemed to cover all the bases, it had an element from classical mythology (Ceres, the Roman goddess of agriculture) and it sucked up to his king. Unfortunately, Ferdinand of Sicily had recently been overthrown by Napoleon and no one went along with naming a celestial object after a powerless refugee. Other mythological names were suggested, but eventually everyone accepted the Ceres part of Piazzi's suggestion.

As astronomers began looking at the region in which Ceres had been found, they promptly found three more tiny planets. These were named Pallas, Juno, and Vesta. Naming planets after kings had proved to be a non-starter, so the astronomers stuck with classical mythology. On the other hand, naming elements after planets was very popular. Soon after the four tiny planets between Mars and Jupiter, chemists isolating the elements gave us Cerium and Palladium. Juno already had a month named after her, but poor Vesta didn't get squat, which is a shame because Vestanite would be a much cooler name than Rutherfordium or some of the other lame names for the tranuranium elements.

Bode had predicted a planet in the region where the new mini-planets were found based on a pattern he, and other astronomers, perceived in the distances between the planets. This pattern is now called the Titus-Bode Law. However, the tiny new planets in that position bothered astronomers. They were smaller than any of the known moons. William Herschel suggested not letting these insignificant objects into the august club of planets. He coined a new word, "asteroid" (star like), to describe them. The little planets remained in limbo until the 1840s when a new generation of more powerful telescopes led to the discovery of more tiny bodies between Mars and Jupiter. Facing the prospect of dozens or more new planets, the international astronomical community adopted Herschel's suggestion and demoted the asteroids into a separate category apart from the planets.

The Herschels had discovered two moons to go with their new planet. These would later be named, on the suggestion of William's son John, after characters in "A Midsummer Night's Dream." While not strictly classical mythology, Shakespeare's fairies were close enough to satisfy Bode's mythology principle and the names were never seriously challenged. The Herschels also discovered two more moons around Saturn, bringing the known total to seven. Till the 1840s, astronomers had simply refered to the Saturnian satellites by numbers counting out from the planet. This meant the names were subject to change every time a new moon was discovered. The largest moon had already been called Saturn II, IV, and VI. This couldn't continue. John suggested the classical solution of naming the moons after the Titans, the brothers and sisters of Saturn, reserving the name Titan for the first discovered because it was so titanic. The named Saturnian moons are really no more than Titan and the Titans, which might be a decent name for a surf rock band.

At about the same time that the word asteroid and the naming patterns for the moons of Saturn and Uranus were adopted, the search was on for another planet beyond Uranus. Based on a half century of observing Uranus' orbit some astronomers had come to believe that the gravity of another large body must be affecting it, causing it to move faster than expected till 1822 and slower afterwards. By the 1840s astronomers had a rough idea where to look for the mystery planet. In 1846 Urbain Le Verrier calculated and published the exact location and observers in three countries had no problem finding the planet soon after that. British astronomers had calculated the correct location before Le Verrier, but did not publish and were thus denied the glory of being part of the discovery.

Some French astronomers wanted to call the eighth planet Le Verrier, pointing out that naming a planet after its discoverer had a precedent, since they still called Uranus Herschel. Le Verrier at first suggested the name Neptune, after the god of the sea. For a while he also flirted with naming it after himself, but the name Neptune caught on beating out the other classical names Janus and Oceanus. The god of the sea was especially compelling because Neptune is very blue in appearance.

The new planet also got its commemorative element, thought this time it took longer. Neptunium was assembled, not refined, by scientists at Berkeley in 1940. It was the first synthetic element to be built by bombarding Uranium with neutrons. Glenn Seaborg, who led the Berkeley project eventually got an element of his own for his work: Seaborgium.

A mere seventeen days after the location of Neptune was confirmed, William Lassell, an English brewer, announced the discovery of a large moon. Since the astronomical community was busy arguing over the name of the planet, you would think that they would also get hot under the collar over a name for the moon. You would be wrong. The moon carried the dull name Neptune's Moon for over thirty years. In 1880, Camille Flammarion suggested Triton, the name of Neptune's son, for the moon.

In 1919 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) was created uniting various national astronomical societies from around the world. One of its main functions was to be the central authority for assigning names to celestial bodies. In general, certain patterns for naming, such as those John Herschel suggested for moons seventy years earlier are voted on and astronomers are allowed to exercise the discoverer's right on naming within those conventions. The IAU must officially accept an astronomer's name before it goes into international use. A system of numeric designations are used for objects as temporary names prior to the announcement of official names. The IAU came in the nick of time. The ideological conflicts of the twentieth century could easily have been fought out in naming conventions. Each power bloc might have adopted its own name for every discovery and changed their names with every revolution. Imagine St. Petersburg to Petrograd to Leningrad and back to St. Petersburg played out on every comet and crater in the solar system.

In the 1830s, astronomers were convinced that another planet was required to explain Uranus' movements and had begun working on calculations to locate the planet. Even then, some astronomers believed one planet would not be enough. In 1834, a Dutch astronomer, Peter Andreas Hansen, wrote that he was convinced that two planets would be required to explain Uranus' movements. Following the discovery of Neptune, other astronomers agreed, though they did not agree just what was required. By the 1870s, enough data had been collected about Neptune for astronomers the begin making predictions as to where the next planet would be found and how big it should be. Astronomers in various countries began their own searches. None of these predictions matched Le Verrier's and no new planets were found.

Le Verrier himself became involved with the search for a tiny planet between Mercury and the Sun. Mercury's orbit, like Uranus' never quite matched the predictions of astronomers. Beginning in 1859, a number of amateur astronomers claimed to witness the transit of a small body across the sun. Le Verrier examined one such claim and became convinced he had another planet. He announced his discovery to the French Academy and called his second planet Vulcan. Unfortunately, the periodic sightings of a spot on the Sun never resolved into a single planet. After Le Verrier's death Vulcan fell out of fashion and was all but forgotten by the astronomical community. In 1919, the same year that the IAU was founded, Einstein proved the problems with Mercury's orbit were caused by the curving of space so close to the sun and not by the pull of a missing planet. Mysterious dots still are reported from time to time on the face of the sun, but these are usually dismissed as uncharted asteroids, comets, or alien starships, though the latter is decidedly a minority opinion.

In 1894, Percival Lowell burst onto the astronomy scene. Lowell was the product of old an Boston family with lots of old Boston money. Lowell had traveled extensively in Asia, written several books on Asian culture, and served as foreign secretary and counselor for a special Korean diplomatic mission to the United States. In the nineties he turned his attention and considerable enthusiasm to astronomy. Lowell moved to Flagstaff, Arizona and built a world-class observatory in the high, clear, mountain air. At first, Lowell was obsesses with the planet Mars. He was convinced that the "canali" of Mars, as drawn by Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli, were indication of life and civilization on our red neighbor. Lowell wrote three books and suffered a nervous breakdown before he let go of that idea and moved on to something else.

That something else was the missing planet beyond Neptune. This was a serious problem, recognized by serious astronomers. Though Lowell was thick-skinned about the mockery directed at him over Mars, years of it had begun to wear on the staff. Besides, there was very little more he could do about Mars without a spaceship. Lowell did his own calculations on the Neptune problem and decided a large planet must be lurking in the constellation Gemini. He spent the last eleven years of his life looking for the body he called Planet X, but died without finding it.

After Lowell's death there was a delay of a decade in the search while Lowell's widow, Constance, and the observatory fought over his will. In 1929 with their share of Lowell's wealth assured, the observatory hired a young amateur astronomer from Kansas, Clyde Tombaugh, to take over the search. Tombaugh was an excellent candidate, both hard working and an excellent observer. He carefully went over the calculations for Planet X done by Lowell and by Lowells competitors before deciding on an area to search. On February 18, 1930, after nearly a year of searching, Tombaugh discovered his Planet X.

Naming rights belonged to the observatory. They decided to be democratic and hold a vote. Mrs. Lowell sent suggestions of Zeus, Lowell, and Constance. Mrs. Lowell was not the favorite person at the observatory, having almost stopped their work for a decade. Her names were ignored. The choices on the ballot were Minerva, Cronos, and Pluto. Pluto won unanimously.

While astronomers were excited about the discovery of Pluto, it was clear from the beginning that it was too small to be the longed for Planet X. As time went by, better observations showed that Pluto was even smaller than at first believed--smaller than the Earth's Moon--and that it had an irregular orbit far different that that of any other planet. Pluto, however, had an advantage that Ceres never did in becoming accepted as a planet: mass communication and mass literacy. The discovery of new planet was announced in newspapers and newsreels. The name was suggested by Venetia Burney, an eleven-year-old girl in Oxford, England. Walt Disney introduced a character named Pluto into his Mickey Mouse cartoons later that year. Pluto even got its commemorative element, Plutonium. Like Neptunium, Plutonium was assembled at Berkeley. Pluto wasn't just the business of the astronomical community; Pluto belonged to the masses, particularly to the children.

In the same year that Tombaugh discovered Pluto, Frederick C. Leonard predicted that there was a whole belt of tiny objects beyond Neptune. Sooner or later we would have good enough telescopes to find them and the astronomical community would be faced with the same problem that they had faced with the asteroids: too many and too small to be planets. That day finally came about sixteen years ago. Gerard Kuiper was an astrophysicist, who speculated in 1950 that the region beyond Neptune ought to at one time have contained a belt of debris left over from the formation of the solar system. At the time, when Pluto was still thought to be fairly large, Kuiper believed Pluto would have destroyed the belt. But as estimates of Pluto's size went down, the probability that the debris belt still survived went up. In the late eighties, astronomers began looking for it. One Pluto like object was discovered in 1992. Five more were identified the next year. Today, over 1000 of these Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs), as they are called, have been discovered.

While thousands more KBOs are expected to lie beyond the orbit of Pluto, very few astronomers expect to find a large planet out there. For one thing, it's no longer needed. Close measurements provided by Voyager 2's 1989 flyby of Neptune allowed astronomers to more accurately measure the mass of Neptune. According to the current measurements of their masses, Uranus and Neptune orbit exactly as they should. Occasionally, astronomers come up with new reasons for a large planet or even a small star to be lurking in the distant reaches of the system, but these no longer have to do with the orbits of the known planets.

This brings us to the Kobe University study. Patryk Lykawka and Tadashi Mukai have determined that a body, Earth sized or just a little smaller, is needed to explain the observed shape of the Kuiper Belt. The rapid discovery of so many KBOs allowed astronomers to map the shape of the belt. To their surprise, the belt abruptly stops at a distance of 50 astronomical units. The belt also appears to have been sorted into several distinct groups of bodies. Lykawka's conclusion is that something fairly large--a new Planet X--was needed to sort and sculpt the belt into the shape we now see.

Close up observation of Saturn's rings have shown that they are herded into shape by complex gravitational forces exerted by Saturn's moons. Lykawka thinks something similar is at work in the Kuiper Belt, but with one difference. In the computer simulations that he and Mukai did, Planet X shapes the belt early in its history and then is thrown into a distant orbit where it has only minor interactions with the belt. After its initial shaping, the main influence on the Kuiper Belt becomes Neptune.

While Lykawka's theory has some sympathetic listeners, it also has some strong critics. Not surprisingly, some of the strongest criticism comes from the proponents of competing theories of the early development of the solar system. The bottom line is that we are just beginning to understand the outer solar system and to come up with plausible scenarios for the evolution of the solar system that account for all of its parts. If Lykawka's theory proves correct and someone finds Planet X, the really important question will be what do we call it. George is still up for grabs.