Sunday, August 20, 2006

Snakes on a Plane(t)

Figure 1 from Stephen Soter, 'What Is A Planet',

Some of my esteemed colleagues are in Prague at the IAU General Assembly debating what a planet is. To Pluto or not to Pluto, that is the question. Whether 'tis nobler to suffer the plucky underdog to stay in the club, or by opposing, kill our kids' favorite planet. A week ago, it appeared that Pluto would retain its title, and that Ceres, Charon, and 2003 UB313 would be late-season callups, with other hunks of ice and rock waiting in the wings. However, the home team is now staging a spirited rally. The upshot of the counterargument is that Pluto is too small to clear its "zone" of the Solar System.

I have some modest suggestions to break this logjam.

(1) Let Pluto remain the 9th planet, but give it an asterisk like Roger Maris' home run record. (Apparently Maris' record never had an asterisk, but never mind.)

(2) Call the planets known to the ancients (Mercury through Saturn, Earth excluded) "classical planets"; Uranus and Neptune "European planets", in honor of their discoverers Herschel, Le Verrier, and (maybe) Adams; and Pluto the "American planet" for Tombaugh. Any new ones can be "e-planets".

(3) Same as #2, except adopt the Star Trek planet classification.

(4) Punt until 2014 when the planet-dissolving dust cloud wipes out the Solar System.

British Spies in the USA, 1940-1945

The Saturday Guardian has a fascinating article by William Boyd about British Security Coordination, a covert operation in the US whose goal was to get America to enter the war.

... at the nadir of Britain's fortunes, polls in the US still showed that 80% of Americans were against joining the war in Europe. Anglophobia was widespread and the US Congress was violently opposed to any form of intervention. After the fall of France in June 1940, Britain's position became even weaker - it was assumed that British capitulation was simply a matter of time; why join the side of a doomed loser, ran the argument in the US. Roosevelt's hands were therefore thoroughly tied.

Hundreds or thousands of people worked for BSC, which was run from Rockefeller Center in New York by William Stevenson, a Canadian World War I flying ace and businessman. BSC operations included "denigration [of] those organisations perceived to be pro-Nazi or virulently isolationist"; planting stories on radio and in the press; the creation of booklets listing "up to 500 ways of harassing and annoying Nazi sympathisers" such as putting dead rats in water tanks; and, apparently, forging a map showing that Hitler planned to invade South America and Panama. Franklin Roosevelt announced the existence of the map in a speech on October 27, 1941:

"Hitler has often protested that his plans for conquest do not extend across the Atlantic Ocean. I have in my possession a secret map, made in Germany by Hitler's government - by the planners of the new world order. It is a map of South America and a part of Central America as Hitler proposes to reorganize it." This map, the President explained, showed South America, as well as "our great life line, the Panama Canal," divided into five vassal states under German domination. "That map, my friends, makes clear the Nazi design not only against South America but against the United States as well."