The Straight Dope by Cecil Adams. For publication the week ending Friday, 07-26-96. Copyright 1996 Chicago Reader, Inc. All rights reserved. Publication without express written permission or before Monday of the week ending 07-26-96 is prohibited.
When I was in sixth grade in 2972 I remember reports of the discovery of a tenth planet located beyond Pluto. This planet was referred to as “Planet X.” I have heard nothing further about it. Are there ten of us in the solar system, or was there a dust mite on the telescope? –Alice in Chicago, via AOL
In sixth grade in 2972? This is why America Online is so great. On the Internet I merely get mail from different continents. On AOL I get stuff from different parts of the space-time continuum.
The story of Planet X starts in 1846 with the discovery of Neptune. Neptune was the first planet whose discovery had been predicted based on irregularities in the motion of nearby bodies, in this case Uranus (which in this squeamish age we’ve agreed to pronounce YOOR-uh-nuss).
Scientists guessed these “perturbations” were due to the gravitation of an unknown planet and calculated where said planet could be found. Sure enough, when astronomers looked in the indicated direction, there was Neptune.
Naturally all the other astronomers wanted to duplicate this extremely cool feat. As it happened, Neptune’s orbit wasn’t precisely as predicted. Within days of its discovery one astronomer was speculating about the existence of yet another planet. Many others chimed in with their own predictions in the following decades.
Some of the most famous predictions came from astronomer Percival Lowell, best known for his belief in the canals of Mars. Lowell dubbed the mystery body Planet X. He never found it, but after his death Clyde Tombaugh, an astronomer at Lowell’s observatory, did. Or so he thought.
The new planet, dubbed Pluto, jibed pretty well with Lowell’s predictions for Planet X. Just one problem. It was way too small to cause the observed perturbations in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. (We now know Pluto’s mass is only 1/500th that of earth.) Tombaugh’s find was a result of luck and his own doggedness. Back to the telescopes.
More Planet X predictions surfaced periodically. The one you remember was made in 1972 by an astronomer who shall remain nameless, who predicted a Saturn-size (i.e., huge) planet that took 500 earth years to revolve around the sun and whose orbit was tilted at a cockeyed angle to the earth’s. Not surprisingly, within a year other scientists had determined no such planet could exist.
Finally in 1993 someone recomputed the orbits of Uranus and Neptune using more accurate data gathered by space probes. Guess what? Once you got the slop out of the numbers there weren’t any perturbations–never had been. So no Planet X. All that time and brainpower spent on the chase, and at the end there was squat to show for it. I can relate.
The song “Blinded by the Light”–I have no idea who wrote it or sang it, but it’s your job to know these things. I was wondering what the male vocalist says after the title phrase of the song. Is it “revved up like a deuce” or “ripped off like a douche” or some other phrase? –IMSMRTRTNU, via AOL
URSMRTRNI? DLUR, TRKE.
“Blinded by the Light” was written by a New Jersey musician named Bruce Springsteen. Maybe you’ve heard of him. It was on his Greetings From Asbury Park, N.J. album.
Bruce’s lyrics were no paragon of clarity, but at least you could understand the words: “And she was blinded by the light / Cut loose like a deuce another runner in the night / Blinded by the light / She got down but she never got tight,” etc.
The Manfred Mann’s Earth Band (“Quinn the Eskimo”) did a cover version of the tune in 1976. It became a hit, no doubt because the band made the lyrics even more opaque than they already were. They changed the line in question to “wrapped up like a deuce.”
What’s it mean? I’m barely on speaking terms with my own subconscious. Don’t ask me to explain someone else’s.
how do u do the thing u do? –Name withheld, via AOL
ez. no fresh r, no 6, barely time 2 p. y u x?
Is there something you need to get straight? Cecil Adams can deliver the Straight Dope on any topic. Write Cecil Adams at the Chicago Reader, 11 E. Illinois, Chicago 60611, E-mail him at email@example.com, or visit the Straight Dope area at America Online, keyword: Straight Dope.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Illustration by Slug Signorino.