Sedna Circles the Icy Outskirts of Eurocentricism

Article for Reporting Science & Technology 2004

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“My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.” That was the mnemonic device taught to children in recent decades to remember the positions and names of the planets from the Sun.

A discovery however, demands a revamp or addition to this phrase. As to whether the “Pizzas” are taken away or “Surprisingly” jumps to the end of the sentence remains to be seen, but either way a new chapter in Astronomical history is opening.

The name Sedna is only the tip of the ice berg (no play on words intended) when it comes to the mess discovering this “10th Planet” thresholds to the evolving perception of our celestial neighborhood.

In Galileo’s time, technological advances with optics expanded the number of observable bodies floating around Jupiter. Presently it is the advancement of CCD technology (which are the same chips used in home camcorders) which is stretching the view from Earth out towards a region of the solar system that at the moment exists only as a working hypothesis: the Oort Cloud.

But let us start with the name. Sedna was an Inuit, daughter of a great hunter, who felt she had shamed him so the father had her marry his dog; she had a litter of children that was made up of dogs and humans that she set adrift on the sea; the dogs became the ancestors of whites and the humans became ancestors to the Amerindians; she drowned and fell to the bottom of the icy Arctic Ocean where she rules over her underwater kingdom.

“Our newly discovered object is the coldest most distant place known in the solar system, so we feel it is appropriate to name it in honor of Sedna,” according to the folks at Caltech.

Instead of naming the new ‘planet’ for something other than a Roman mythological figure or Shakespearian character and from a culture completely alien symbolizes a profound moment in history. Diaspora included, Europeans realize they are not the center of the universe.

How will this change the accepted perception of our place in the big picture? To start, let us look at the major revolution that changed the concept of universal construction: a geocentric system to a heliocentric system.

Copernicus introduced the concept of a heliocentric universe as a mathematical model a century before the real bad boys Kepler and Galileo determined this was more than simply a model but a physical reality. A huge problem with this new perception was that accepted physics explained a geocentric universe and every respected university in Europe already had qualified professors to teach the cosmology that had existed since Aristotle and Ptolemy. Were they all to fire their teachers and re-invent their departments?

Unlike the 17th century, the new advancements in CCD and computer technology, now permitting for greater observation of the Kuiper Belt beyond Neptune and the inner Oort Cloud beyond that, will not be met with trials of heresy, but cause us to realize that the collective knowledge of the solar system is still relatively ‘dumb’.

It has been known for some time in the scientific community that Pluto should not technically be considered a ‘planet’. Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto and named it such because he was looking for Planet X to explain for irregularities in Uranus’ orbits, which is how Neptune was found.

Quaoar (another planetoid) was discovered two years ago out past Pluto. It is bigger than Sedna, closer than Sedna and only earned the distinction as the largest Kuiper Belt Object, which is what Pluto actually will become if it is re-classified.

The real argument arising from Sedna is one of semantics. A solid definition of what constitutes a ‘planet’ needs to come to a consensus. Many do not want to see Pluto re-classified, as it probably should be, and headlines of Sedna as the “10th Planet” is more playful than seriously considered in scientific circles.

One proposition, “is to simply define planets as the 9 now known.” This historical rather than scientific method of classification creates inconsistencies, but that is irrelevant considering this last “planet’s” historical significance.

Pluto and its moon Charon (the god of death and the ferryman to carry your soul to the other side) symbolize the border where many old, arrogant prejudices and an antiquated view of our solar system both died and passed into a new epoch of celestial understanding. Let's keep calling Pluto a planet as a goof.