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the story of an invisible girl
Because of Pluto
It all started because of Pluto.

No, really. You don't believe me? If Pluto hadn't been demoted, none of this would have ever happened.

I went up north last weekend with my friends R and S. As we were driving up on saturday, we discussed what to do. Canoeing? Bicycling? Hiking? Boating? We had lots of possibilities.... but the night before I had spent many frustrated minutes trying to force my hybrid bike into the back seat of my two-door Cavelier. "We are lugging our bikes all the way up here," I pointed out, "so we'd darn better ride them at some point this weekend."

Once we'd decided on biking, the question was where? I'm not a big fan of dirt biking, so I'd requested something without much sand. R remembered, "In Traverse City, there is a nice bike path that has some sort of solar system exhibit, and you can ride from planet to planet."

"Really.... do you think they still have Pluto?" Ah yes, poor Pluto, so recently kicked out of the Planet Club. It was probably still a part of the exhibit! Maybe we should visit, before it gets ripped down.

"I still believe in Pluto," I told the group, and so it was decided. We would find this bike path, and we would visit Pluto. We also decided we should leave flowers and tokens of the once-respected planet.

We arrived at the cabin, found some crayons, and composed our memorials. Once they were complete, we convinced an additional friend M to join us, and the four of us headed to Traverse City.

Of course, we didn't actually know where Pluto, nor any of the bike path, actually was. I convinced M to call a scientist friend of his and ask, but she put her whole scientist-hood into jeopardy by not knowing. Even though she'd grown up in Traverse City!

Finally I proved my geekiness by googling it on my Treo, and we had an intersection to aim for. R knew approximately where that was, but not exactly. We wanted to start at the Sun, then ride the 5 miles to Pluto, then back. When we arrived in town, we stopped at a gas station to ask about the Sun. The woman behind the counter helpfully told us where the path could be found, though she didn't know where the Sun was located. She also told us about a nearby soccer field in which we could park.

We parked the car, hopped onto our bikes, found the path, and started pedaling. We randomly selected a direction, and pretty quickly found ourselves looking at Uranus. Hooray, we'd found the planets! Even if we were already halfway along the path.

We decided to pay our homage to Pluto first, then head back to see the Sun. It wasn't until we were heading toward Neptune that I realized we'd forgotten both our signs and our cameras back in the car.

Oops. We still said a mournful goodbye and left some flowers at the Pluto exhibit. Vowing to come back with our signs later on, we started riding toward the Sun.

R must have had some sort of premonition, because when we got to the spot where we'd left the car, he wanted to go check on it. Well, we found the car no problem -- it was the only car left, sitting lonely and trapped inside of a locked parking lot.

Locked! This was a parking lot for a high school soccer field, and they had closed and locked the gate. Not even a professional soccer field, mind you. It had been full of children when we'd left it.

Next door was a Coast Guard station, and we rode our bikes there looking for help. There was a big sign that said Department of Homeland Security, but we rode easily past the sign and into an empty area. We could go anywhere we wanted at the Department of Homeland Security, but a soccer field parking lot? Locked up tight. Those folks in Traverse City don't want anybody playing soccer without proper authorization!

So S heroically called the Coast Guard with the call box they had sitting there. They said they'd send somebody out, much to our relief. R suggested I use my Feminine Magic on the guard, but it turned out to be a woman -- so we sent M in.

He did well talking to her, and he got everything but her phone number and a key. The locked gates weren't her jurisdiction, and although she tried making a few phone calls, nobody could help us.

R tried calling the cops, and he's pretty sure he heard muffled laughter on the other end. Once the officer picked himself up off the floor and stopped mocking us, he politely took down R's phone number and promised he'd call back.

See the poor trapped car in the background? See how lonely it is? It probably feels much like Pluto feels right now....

The thing is, the closure was just a swinging gate with a big padlock. The padlock was connected to an "S" hook. We'd all discussed just prying it open, but R wasn't comfortable with the idea of destruction of private property. He got especially uncomfortable when S started talking about it while he was on the phone with the police!

We heard helicopters at one point, and we thought for sure it was the Coast Guard or the cops coming it with a winch to lift the car over the gate for us. But it wasn't.

Once it became clear that nobody was all that eager to come rescue us, R took matter into his own hands after all. He pulled a pair of pliers from his trunk, pried open the S-hook, freed the car, then bent the S-hook back into place.

Victory! Freedom! Success! (Except that Pluto is still not considered a planet.)

The car had a definite spring in its step as we drove off -- not into the sunset, because we'd never made it all the way to the Sun. And by then we weren't as excited about finishing off the ride as we'd been a few hours ago, before the trapped-car-saga. But we did drive into the... saturnset? We did drive past Saturn on our way to the bar. (I still didn't take any planet-pictures, but I found some online.)

A few drinks and a big meal helped cheer everyone up, and we toasted one another. "There is not a soccer field in Traverse City that can hold us!"

(It took at least three tries to get everybody into the picture frame, with me holding my Treo...)

We all felt a lot better when the trapped-car-saga reached its final conclusion. After we'd escaped, the police called R back. "Actually, we got out already," he admitted with some discomfort and nervousness.

"That's great, did an owner come and let you out?"

"Well no, we just pried open the S-hook. Then we put it back."

"Oh! Well that's all taken care of then. Bye!"

So I guess they were okay with mild destruction of private property after all -- at least given that we put it back together when we were through.

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read 16 comments | talk to me!
lahabiel From: lahabiel Date: September 22nd, 2006 05:54 am (UTC) (Link)
LOST: One planet

His name is "Pluto." He's small, has an extremely cold nose, and emits methane into his atmosphere (but only in trace amounts). Does not respond to verbal commands, but focused radio pulses can reach him (eventually).

If found, please call Traverse City Police
Reward for return or information leading to return
No questions asked
ellison From: ellison Date: September 22nd, 2006 07:33 am (UTC) (Link)
But, clearly you had your Treo - you didn't take pictures of giant planets on a bike path with your Treo?? But I want to seeee! Damn, now I'm going to have to GO to Traverse City, aren't I? Hehe!
renniekins From: renniekins Date: September 22nd, 2006 02:18 pm (UTC) (Link)
I had left my Treo in the car! Very short-sighted of me....
renniekins From: renniekins Date: September 22nd, 2006 02:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
ellison From: ellison Date: September 22nd, 2006 06:08 pm (UTC) (Link)
YAY!! Thank you so much - how cool!
devnul From: devnul Date: September 22nd, 2006 10:42 am (UTC) (Link)
You trapped soccer hooligans, you!

Ya know, we have a scale planet exhibit stretched across Boston, and it never occurred to me to think what would happen to it as a result of Pluto's demise. Hmm ... charity auction of a planet?
renniekins From: renniekins Date: September 22nd, 2006 09:03 pm (UTC) (Link)
You should visit Pluto and leave flowers and stuff. (:
johnridley From: johnridley Date: September 22nd, 2006 10:57 am (UTC) (Link)
Here's a little thing I wrote several years ago:
It helps you build your very own scale model of the solar system. You get to pick the scale, how far out you want to go, and whether to include satellites.

At 1 km to Pluto, Earth is 22m from the Sun and 1mm in diameter. Pluto is a dust spec.

Hmm, I haven't looked at it for years. I should update it and add major asteroids, since hopefully they'll become relevant in the next few decades.
johnridley From: johnridley Date: September 22nd, 2006 11:18 am (UTC) (Link)
BTW, I heard a really interesting Science Friday segment on podcast yesterday. They were talking to the guy who discovered Xena (now Eris) about the IAU definition.

He said that if they extended the planet definition down to a small enough body to include Pluto, we would already be up to something on the order of 40 planets, and he suspects we'd be up over 100 within a couple of decades, at the rate that large Oort cloud objects are being discovered.

In fact, Pluto's companion Charon would be a planet, since their common CoG is not within Pluto so you can't really say that Charon is orbiting Pluto, they're orbiting each other.

I've always liked Ceres better than Pluto anyway :-)
renniekins From: renniekins Date: September 22nd, 2006 02:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
I definitely don't think we should have 40 planets, that would be way too much. But they should at least grandfather Pluto into the club!
johnridley From: johnridley Date: September 22nd, 2006 02:35 pm (UTC) (Link)
People are free to throw a rock in the air and say it's a planet until it hits the ground, nobody will care.

But I think the IAU did the right thing with coming out with a sensible, defensible and purely objective set of criteria.

It's not like our scientific knowledge on a bunch of other subjects isn't modified on an almost monthly basis. Often when I'm discussing cosmology I get to a certain point and say "Well, I can't REALLY be sure of this because the last book I read on the subject was printed almost 5 years ago, so it's very likely to have changed since then."

It seems that people want to learn things once and have them forever set in stone. I realize that almost all the people who are making fun of the Pluto "demotion" decision are just having fun, but if there is anyone out there who is taking it seriously, I can't really take them seriously.

I have listened to many scientists talk about this in the last few weeks, and they all agree that they don't really care, and it makes absolutely no difference in how they view or plan to explore Pluto. And it was really high time that someone really nailed down a definition, because there's just NO rational excuse for Pluto being a planet and Eris not being one, and we'd be heading for who knows how many planets.
ellison From: ellison Date: September 22nd, 2006 06:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
I totally agree! Well said, too. :)
pi3832 From: pi3832 Date: September 22nd, 2006 12:25 pm (UTC) (Link)
So I guess they were okay with mild destruction of private property after all -- at least given that we put it back together when we were through.

Tweren't destruction, it was "modification."

That's your story. Stick to it.
jebra From: jebra Date: September 22nd, 2006 12:49 pm (UTC) (Link)
You see!? This is why Pluto doesn't deserve to be a planet -- Pluto's always pulling stunts like this. Orbiting around a point outside itself, reacting coldly, not reply to messages for long periods of time, locking people's car behind gate . . . [sigh] . . . Pluto needed to be taken down a notch a loooong time ago.

And don't get me started about asteroid 4597 Consolmagno.
operatic From: operatic Date: September 22nd, 2006 03:06 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ah, Traverse City: How I miss thee...
From: (Anonymous) Date: September 23rd, 2006 05:25 am (UTC) (Link)
Hey...Why's that girl harassing those ducks???
read 16 comments | talk to me!