A Funny Thing Happened on the way to Prague
This is indeed, a momentous occasion. I believe that the 2,500 members that attended this years meeting of the International Astronomical Union should all be given an award, a memento of some sort, at least a plaque, signifying the great event they were part of. Yes folks, for the first time in human history, a group of scientist got together and at the end of their meeting, discovered that somewhere along the line, they lost a planet. And I'm not talking about a "I misplaced my keys and will find them if I retrace my steps" kind of lost. I talking about, lost-lost, gone, completely missing, as in "I went out last night and now don't remember where my car is (forget the keys)" kind of lost. Yup, it's true, good old Pluto has gone missing.
Now then, while they celebrate their new enlightenment, I believe I would be remiss if I didn't at least offer to jump in and help them find their lost planet. If I'm not mistaken, there are probably hundreds of millions of school children around the world, all under the age of 10, who could probably find it for them again without so much as a second thought. After all they have "My Very Energetic Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas" to use as a guide. While the scientists and astronomers of the world work out complicated equations and definitions of exactly what constitutes a planet, the rest of us take the easier approach, Pluto is a planet, plain and simple. Always has been, always will be.
But why, what is the justification, what can possibly cause an uproar from folks over the classification of something that most have never even see a picture of and will probably never see thru a telescope? Well, I’m sure if most non-astronomers were asked, it might be because of that cute little dog we all love. There is something just wrong with the idea of Mickey’s pet being named after a planet that, well, isn’t a planet any more. After all, Walt Disney loved the idea of the new planet so much that he named one of the most famous cartoon characters after it (not the other way around as many people think). There has to be something to that!
But, science isn’t based on our love for cartoon characters nor is it based on “that’s the way it has always been” either. If that were true, despite all evidence to the contrary, we would still consider the earth flat and blood letting might still be in vogue. But there are real differences though in comparing the idea of Pluto as a planet to either of the previous examples. Obviously, there are real implications to ignoring true scientific fact and continuing to say the earth is flat, not true of Pluto. Leaving Pluto as a planet, if for no other reason then it always has been, and with no strong scientific findings to the contrary (especially some empirical data that will immediately affect our lives), is of little consequence to the scientific community. It changes nothing, violates no laws of nature, and I am fairly certain no one is going to fall off the edge of anything over it still being in the list of sacred spheres (said tongue in cheek) revolving about our sun.
For amateur astronomers especially, there may be other reasons for leaving Pluto in the planetary list. For many of us, this is a target which we search for diligently in our telescopes, taking a certain amount of self satisfaction at being able to say you have seen or photographed all of the 9 planets, especially something as elusive and difficult to see as Pluto. We are part of a community that has been taking pot shots as this poor little isolated rock in space for years and yet we hang on, doggedly fighting the opposition because it is holds meaning to us. We appreciate the time and sacrifices made by Clyde Tombaugh in searching for and finding it. We applaud NASA’s latest exploration to find out more about it (even though it will take 9 years to get there). In Pluto, like so many other objects in the heavens, we find something that we know so little about, but, since it is a “close” space object and one of our neighbors, we somehow expand our own “world” by visiting our farthest-closest neighbor. It’s a member of the club, and even if it were to be only an honorary member, once a member, always a member. One of our greatest astronomers alive today, Sir Patrick Moore, in a recent interview, put it this way “Pluto, such a shame, such a lovely planet”. That probably sums it up quite elegantly for the rest of us.
I think in the end though, there is something more elementary here, something deeper inside of us that causes us to question the dismissal of this small planet. In an era in which we are constantly looking for other worlds, the possibility that life exists, could exist, or at one time existed in other places, and where we continue to expand our astronomical horizons, there is something about removing Pluto as a planet that seems to instead limit us in some way. It is as though some imaginary dotted line has been drawn in space beyond which our little universe (our solar system) ends or at least stops providing us with objects with which we stand on some common ground. The demotion of Pluto leaves us all feeling just a little smaller, our neighborhood somewhat diminished, and possibly even feeling a little more insignificant in this giant universe.
In a couple of generations, if this ruling stands, millions of children will have been taught in school about our 8 planets in the solar system. They will probably be told of how up until 2006, even Pluto was considered a planet, and the children, with their new planetary mnemonic, will not give it a second thought. The idea of only eight planets will survive and those of us that remember there being nine will talk about the old days and remember that “it wasn’t always that way”. Our relics of the past, such as a solar system model including good old Pluto, will be viewed in much the same way we view maps that showed the earth dropping off suddenly at some unknown border. But we will know, we will remember, that at one time, for a little over 70 years, a small icy orb in space called Pluto, held our fascination and was included in this greatest of clubs, the Planets.
To quote my good friend and fellow astronomer Kent Blackwell, “I wonder if Pluto looks as bright as it did previously?”. Hm, I wonder…