Official State Crap

Dwarf Planet, Giant Slug

Not as sunny as Arizona, but possibly less eccentric (image: NASA, obviously)

Look, I remain committed to reviewing the official crap of all 50 U.S. states, the District of Columbia, and the five permanently inhabited U.S. territories, even if that project is taking much longer than I originally thought it would. But it isn’t helping that some of the jurisdictions I’ve already covered insist on continuing to adopt new official things before I’ve even finished my initial review. Could you guys hold off for one more decade, please?

Evidently not.

Last week, the governor of Arizona signed House Bill 2477 into law, thus designating the roughly spherical object generally known as “Pluto” to be Arizona’s “official state planet.”

As you know, the connection between a state and the crap it declares “official” can be a bit tenuous. And many states make such declarations about crap not exclusive to that state: throw a dart at the map and that state’s official dance (if any) will probably be the square dance, its official insect is likely the honeybee, and its official bird is likely either the robin or the bluebird. Official state birds may treasonously cross state borders, and official state dinosaurs probably did or at least would have if the state had existed during the Jurassic period or whatever. But generally, there is at least some geographic connection.

As you may also know, Pluto is not actually located in Arizona, nor has it ever been (unless you count the time that all matter in the system was part of one big lump, and then you’re just being ridiculous). Pluto’s orbit is highly eccentric, but even at its closest approach to Arizona the two are still about 2.66 billion miles apart.

Arizona is also highly eccentric, but that’s not the connection cited by the bill’s sponsor, Rep. Justin Wilmeth (R-Kuiper Belt). A self-described “history nerd,” Wilmeth points out that Pluto was discovered in 1930 by Clyde Tombaugh, who was using the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona. So the geographical connection is that some photons reflected by Pluto later ended up in Arizona, where they made shapes on photographic plates that a person also in Arizona directed his eyeballs at. But you know what? At least both Pluto and Arizona existed at the same time, so that’s arguably a closer connection than with the dinosaur thing.

Of course some of you smartasses will insist on pointing out that Pluto can’t be an official state planet because it isn’t a planet at all. Well, that depends who you ask. If you ask the International Astronomical Union, and you should at least check in with them, they decided in 2006 that Pluto is not a planet, or at least not a major one. The IAU defined “planet” as something that is in orbit around the Sun (check), has enough mass to be be rounded by its own gravity (check), and also has enough mass that its gravity “has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit (oh dear). Having only 0.00218 the mass of Earth (less than seven things considered “moons”), Pluto is officially too teeny to fit that definition. To the IAU, it’s now one of five “dwarf planets.” (In 2008, the IAU suggested it might use “plutoid” to refer to “Pluto and other planetary-mass objects that have an orbital semi-major axis greater than that of Neptune,” but as Wikipedia puts it, “the term has not seen significant use.” IAU, stop trying to make plutoid happen. It’s not going to happen.)

The IAU’s decision has been controversial and many people, including some astronomers, still don’t accept it. But I don’t think that matters here. The legislative history shows the legislature understands that Pluto may be considered a “dwarf planet”; the statute just says “official planet,” but a dwarf planet is still a planet.

And at least there’s no question this object really exists, unlike Delaware’s official state star, which doesn’t.

Meanwhile, in the differently crazy state of California, the legislature is considering a bill that would enshrine the banana slug as the state’s official … slug. That, too, also exists, and it does live throughout California. So we’ll have that pretty soon.