Meeting Notes for October 9, 2019: Rotary Meets the Phantom Planet

Our meeting began with a ‘ring o the bell,’ and a fervent rendition of “God Bless America”. Past President Patricia Garcia came to the podium and delivered a stellar Inspiration highlighting passages from Carl Sagan’s 1994 book, Pale Blue Dot: A Vision of the Human Future in Space. “‘Look again at that dot. That’s here. That’s home,'” Patricia began. “‘That’s us. On it everyone you love, everyone you know, everyone you ever heard of, every human being who ever was…every hunter and forager, every hero and coward, every creator and destroyer of civilization…every saint and sinner in the history of our species lived there — on a mote of dust suspended in a sunbeam.'” The catalyst for Sagan’s book, Patricia noted, were the breathtaking photographs taken “‘by Voyager 1 from a distance of more than 4 billion miles….'” Thanks, Patricia, for setting the perfect tone!

Shelley MacMillan and Deanna Relyea, already warm from their coming triumph in January’s “Wine, Women, and Song”, led us on a musical rocket to the stars. The assembly warmed their vocal cords on “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star,” which seemed, to your reporter, at first a tad elementary until he spotted Dan Balbach in a tussle with John Atwater over an Etch A Sketch. Luckily, Shelley had requested that the song be sung responsively, thus administering an effective dose of cognitive growth hormone to the proceedings. As a result, song #2 — “When You Wish Upon a Star” — was performed with a verve worthy of The von Trapps. [“Ladies and gentlemen, the von Trapp Family Singers!”…Applause, then nothing. You get the idea.]

President Rosemarie then greeted everyone warmly from the podium. “This is the first time in memory when we do not have any visiting Rotarians and guests. Today, we do have some business matters to take care of. John White will explain to us the changes to Emeritus and Honorary Member status. John –”

The Club’s long-time Administrator, now member, came to the mic. “Hello, everyone. First, I want to thank Doug Freeth…and Steve Kesler [for their work this project]. In 2009 the Club created the Emeritus designation to recognize those members who couldn’t attend meetings anymore. [As for] Honorary members, we have six. They are distinguished people who are ‘friends of Rotary’. They include [Mark Sclissel and Mary Sue Coleman] the president of the University of Michigan; the former governor, Rick Snyder, and the mayor of Ann Arbor [Christopher Taylor]. There’s no financial obligation, and they can’t vote or hold office in the club, but they’re welcome to participate. A change we’re making is to put a term limit on this”

At this point, John displayed a slide breaking down the special membership designations. “As you would expect of an engineer, here’s a chart,” he quipped amid a peal of laughter. “In 2015 Active Emeritus status was created by an ad hoc subcommittee. It has been formalized as members over 80 years of age with 20 years of service [correlating to 115].” In addition, Active Emeritus is awarded by invitation, dues are reduced by half, though the member still pays the CSA. Inactive Emeritus, to quote John’s info sheet, is the “same as Active Emeritus, but after resignation from Rotary,” and can be requested “once Emeritus [has been] awarded. Dues are not assessed, and CSA contribution is optional. Honorary status, as mentioned above, is conferred on prominent citizens who embody the Rotary spirit and have evinced friendship toward our mission of service. Excellent presentation, John!

Regaining the podium, Rosemarie announced that Past President Len Stenger “has been discharged from the hospital,” which generated a loud ovation in thanks and relief from a packed ballroom. Rosemarie also noted that additional Rotary readers are needed. Please contact Jim Egerdal if you can donate any time to this important club service, helping children to read.

Next, Rob Shiff informed us of the coming rebuild of the Eberwhite playground. “The playground is 30 years old and is no longer accessibility compliant. It was built by the community…” and will be rebuilt by the same. Dates for the rebuild are October 15-20, with Rotary working Thursday morning, the 17th. Eberwhite is located at 800 Soule Blvd., in Ann Arbor. “We have seven signed up so far,” Rob declared. He then showed a video that underscored the importance of the project — as well as the emotional impact this necessity is imposing on students, parents, and interested citizens alike. So help raise a new chapter in Ann Arbor’s history of civic amenities! Rebuild the Castle!

World Polio Day is coming! The End Polio Now Community Fundraiser takes place October 23rd at Weber’s. Come hear acclaimed polio survivor Ann Lee Hussey and our District Governor, Sparky Leonard. “Please contact Agnes Reading or Norma Sarkar (njsarkar@comcast.net) to RSVP,” Rosemarie urged. (NOTE: Click here to see a unique fundraising matching opportunity.)

Speaker: John Huber gave a fine introduction to our speaker, Dr. Fred Adams, of the University of Michigan. After referencing Holst’s iconic tone poem, “The Planets”, written when The Great War had ground a consensus everywhere that no one would be returning by Christmas, John asked “So, how big is the solar system? When Holst composed “The Planets”, seven of them could be seen from Earth. Ladies and gentlemen, Dr. Fred Adams will explain the Planet 9 Hypothesis. Please give him a warm Rotary welcome.”

Those audience members wise enough to buckle up, undeceived by Fred’s unassuming stroll to the podium, were richly rewarded. Brandishing a smile resting somewhere between quiet competence and having just dispatched an adversary in a duel, Fred took the mic, left the podium, and ensconced himself, Phil Donahue-style, amidst his audience, thus illustrating through mime how planets explode — inside out.

He began with a breathless tutorial on our solar system’s structure, on the shapes and purposes of elliptical orbit, and how our ‘mote of dust’ manages to steer clear of a flash flood of interstellar debris, thereby echoing Mitterrand’s old refrain on political longevity: “balance in all things.” His listeners learned new terms, such as ‘transneptunian’, for those objects revolving beyond our last planet; ‘orbital precession’, which shows that planes don’t have to be flat, that they can actually uncoil like a Slinky descending stairs and so create ’tilting planes’ for purposes of providing a bit more room for an adjacent planet’s celestial dance.

“We’ve found 50 dwarf planets,” Fred declared. “Two of which I found.” His audience received this news not without a little awe, though, as he was quick to add: “there’s a lot out there to find.” Getting back to orbits, Fred described the phenomenon as one of Olympian collaboration; indeed, as a symphony. “It’s the gravitational power of the sun combined with the giant planets’ effect on it that keeps everything in alignment.” That was it, the presentation’s watchword. And now the kicker: “Another planet must be outside to keep the planets in alignment.” Enter Planet 9 — the Phantom Planet.

“So, where do you put a new planet?” Fred asked rhetorically. “Planet 9 must also have an orbit…What properties would it have to have to keep it positioned where it wouldn’t mess everything up?” [Note: Planet 9 should not be confused with “Plan 9 from Outer Space”. The latter is a disappointing, Jerry-rigged film from 1959 by Ed Wood, a writer-director who cultivated personal demons like a cash crop.] Fred’s explanation sounded like a recipe for in-law relocation: “Far enough away not to interfere, but close enough to align, to be stable.” The term for this is Dynamical stability. (Remember this as Thanksgiving looms.)

Where’s Planet 9, and how big is it? Essentially, the solution Fred described was akin to a mathematical casting of white powder against a wall of black velvet. He showed us formulae and graphs oriented from the outside in, determining location and girth by setting borders. Your imaginative reporter recalled Lucas’ Death Star drifting slowly into half light, and of the perilous venture of visiting a beach at night during a nor’easter, when the big waves rushing at you hover a moment, blacker than the sky. “The planet must be dim from optical light,” Fred opined. “Bigger than Earth, but smaller than Saturn.” A fat boy, for sure. Then, the key: “It must be on a line so as not to affect Neptune, but not too far out so it couldn’t align.” Size? “From 5-10 times the size of Earth, with a distance of between 400-800 AUs…We haven’t found it yet, but there’s a lot of circumstantial evidence.” He warned, however, that Planet 9 remains a bit like Ahab’s White Whale: “Other scientists searching for a ninth planet have failed, so we need to be humble. It’s complicated.” He cited the discovery of Neptune in the 1840s by scientists “hypothesizing out from Uranus by just following its orbit. They found it.” (Similar to a submariner on the hunt, sweeping the horizon with his telescope.)

And what to name it? “The tradition is to assign the names of dieties. We’ve pretty much used up the Greco-Roman names, plus we’re getting away from that anyway. What would I like to name Planet 9? How about a Native American Michigan deity?!”

Rosemarie thanked Dr. Adams, bestowing on him the Club’s famous basket of chocolates. She reminded everyone of the New Member Welcome (organized by our intrepid Social Committee) at the Session Room on Jackson Road, Wednesday, October 16, from 5:00-7:00 p.m.

A Special Note: Your unnamed reporter would like to thank all his readers and fellow-members with heartfelt gratitude for their friendship and support these past years. It has been a distinct honor highlighting the proceedings of this great Rotary club (located in Galaxy 6380) — one of the nation’s largest, most productive, and certainly, most generous. To end it the Gaelic way: “May the wind be forever at your back. May the sun shine warm upon your face.” You know the rest, for you’re a singing club. Adieu.