National Geographic has announced the winner of their planet-naming mnemonic competition. Ten year old Maryn Smith’s winning entry to remember the ‘newly designated planets’ (here listed as Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto and Eris) is: My Very Exciting Magic Carpet Just Sailed Under Nine Palace Elephants.
But wait a minute – that’s 11 planets. I seem to recall that there are, in fact, just eight planets in our Solar System, following an enormous hoo-ha about the expulsion of Pluto from the planet list. According to the International Astronomical Union (IAU), Pluto is a ‘dwarf planet’, distinct from planets, as are Ceres and Eris. Although the debate still rages.
So this is a mnemonic of the 8 planets AND the 3 dwarves. Which is nice. But the IAU may award dwarf status to quite a few other bodies in the Solar System sometime soon. Last time we wrote about this at least one astronomer was pushing for 4 dwarves. And there are some 70 to 2,000 potential contenders for dwarf planet status. Are we going to see new mnemonics for those? They will be tongue twisters in the extreme.
Read further into the story and you’ll see that the competition was linked to a new National Geographic book. “Maryn’s Aladdin-inspired phrase will appear in the National Geographic children’s book 11 Planets: A New View of the Solar System, written by Harvard University physicist David Aguilar,” says The Great Falls Tribune. Their lengthy story covers into the ten-year-old’s classmates’ entries in great depth, with nary a mention of the fierce debate about what constitutes a planet. It claims that “A new name-remembering aid was needed since Pluto was reduced to a dwarf planet and Ceres and Eris were upgraded to planet status.” Hmm.
Of course the IAU doesn’t necessarily get the final say on what kids and their teachers will call ‘the planets’. But have these ten year olds been mislead and confused by this competition?