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Pluto a Loser Again; Plus Nature Gone Wild

This just in: Our favorite Kuiper Belt Object, the thing formerly known as The Planet Pluto -- having already endured the ignominy of being demoted to the status of "dwarf planet" (and heckled on the street by cruel and unfeeling gas giants!!) -- has been revealed to be something even cruddier and more pathetic than anyone had imagined. It is not, apparently, the biggest of the dwarf planets. That lofty status now goes to the dwarf planet Eris, which is way out past Pluto. Here's the news, via Caltech:

'PASADENA, Calif.--Die-hard Pluto fans still seeking redemption for their demoted planet have cause for despair this week. New data shows that the dwarf planet Eris is 27 percent more massive than Pluto, thereby strengthening the decree last year that there are eight planets in the solar system and a growing list of dwarf planets.

According to Mike Brown, the discoverer of Eris, and his graduate student Emily Schaller, the data confirms that Eris weighs 16.6 billion trillion kilograms. They know this because of the time it takes Eris's moon, Dysnomia, to complete an orbit.

"This was Pluto's last chance to be the biggest thing found so far in the Kuiper belt," says Brown, a professor of planetary astronomy at the California Institute of Technology. "There was a possibility that Pluto and Eris were roughly the same size, but these new results show that it's second place at best for Pluto."

Here's Mike Brown's home page with lots of good links. Here's his explanation for why there are only eight planets in any sensible analysis of the Solar System.

Here's Rough Draft gibberish on Pluto's demotion.

More science:

The front-page story on the genetic code is not merely a reminder that "God don't make no junk." It's also the latest instance of nature proving to be more ingenious and complicated than we had presumed. The genes overlap, interact, and stretches of code have effects on distant segments. Genes are not single units in some modular system that can be diagrammed with a crayon.

"The new perspective reveals DNA to be not just a string of biological code but a dauntingly complex operating system that processes many more kinds of information than previously appreciated."

So too does the brain prove itself to be more fantastic than anyone knew. The inability of computer engineers to create artificial intelligence (so far) is a reminder that the human brain is the most complex object in the known universe. Descartes thought the pineal gland was the seat of consciousness, but it now appears that consciousness emerges from countless regions and involves multiple functions, some at the fringes of our attention. There's still not a neat and precise description of what consciousness is.

And of course we have the universe itself, so much bigger and crazier than anything Aristotle or Ptolemy could have envisioned. Or Copernicus or Galileo.

With our civilization monkeying around with the whole planet, we should remember that there's a lot we don't know about the atmosphere, the oceans, and the tangled web of life. We should assume that nature at all levels will be more complicated than it appears in textbooks and in computer models. Like life itself.

By Joel Achenbach  |  June 14, 2007; 1:56 PM ET
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