Solar System Model Harbors Outdated Information

Those students who walk with their heads down between the Estill and Austin buildings on the quad may have wondered about those shiny, silver plaques.  It's the Physics Department's model solar system and the Houstonian (Oct. 8) discusses how current it is:
Along the walkway between the Estill building and Austin Hall lie 11 stainless steel plates which represent the sun, nine “planets”—including Pluto, and the asteroid belt. Reduced by 30 billion times, the astronomical objects and the distance in between them are proportional to how they are in outer space.

The display, though precise in scale, is not necessarily as accurate in the information it contains. However, in 2006, 424 scientists came together at the International Astronomical Union in Prague of the Czech Republic to redefine what it means for an object to be considered a “planet.” This change stripped Pluto of its planet status.

According to Gwen Penny, assistant to the chair of the physics department, the plaques were dedicated by former chair Russell Palma, Ph.D. and associate professor of physics Frank Cooper in the early 1990s. Although at the time of the tiles’ initial unveiling, Pluto was still considered a planet, eight years after the pivotal decision was made, Pluto’s description remains on the plate as “the smallest planet in the solar system.”

“If there are any updates, it would be better to add the other dwarf planets than to remove anything,” [assistant professor of physics David] Pooley said. “Ideally, the plaques should reflect our current classification scheme. Pluto is still out there doing its thing, so it’s not ‘wrong’ to have a plaque for it. But by that reasoning, it makes sense to have plaques for Ceres and Eris and the other dwarf planets.”


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