Wednesday, November 21, 2007

A Wonderful Gift

A few months ago, I commented on the amazing number of songs, poems, essays, etc. created by artists inspired by little Pluto and the sad tale of its unjust demotion. Since then, I have found another gem in the form of a CD tribute to Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh by the singer/songwriter team Richard Fey and Kevin Elias. Their song, "New Horizons: A Tribute to Clyde Tombaugh and the New Horizons Mission" (NASA's recently launched mission to Pluto, scheduled to arrive in 2015) is an uplifting, inspiring tribute with beautifully written lyrics set to an upbeat tune. No mention is made of the wrongful demotion; instead, the song recalls Tombaugh's discovery of Pluto on a winter night in 1930 and celebrates the launch of New Horizons in 2006, carrying some of the ashes of Pluto's discoverer, who died in 1997.

These artists are extremely talented and attempting to make it in the music business independently of the big record labels. Their CD would make a wonderful gift for friends and family members of all ages and not just for Pluto fans.

Anyone can listen to their demo catalogue by visiting their web site at http://www.eliasfey.com/

I ordered the CD about a month ago after being contacted by Kevin Elias' wife Siobhan and immediately fell in love with the song. Siobhan served on the municipal council of Streator, Illinois, birthplace of Clyde Tombaugh, for four years, and this past May, she played a major role in organizing a two-day Planet Pluto Festival there that was a unique combination of entertainment and education. Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of New Horizons and one of the strongest advocates of Pluto regaining its planet status, was a speaker at this event.

Not only is this CD a more meaningful gift than most of what is available in crowded shopping malls; it also carries a message of faith in dreams and infinite possibilities, a theme in tune with the season of light and hope that culminates with the birth of a New Year.

To quote the song, "You gotta believe, 'cause that's what keeps us moving on. An American dream to where no one's ever gone."

Visit http://www.eliasfey.com/ and keep believing and dreaming.
Happy Holidays!

Friday, August 24, 2007

The Enduring Power of Pluto

Today marks one year since the outrageous vote by four percent of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) to "demote" Pluto. That said, it is fascinating to note that within the past year, Pluto has endured in people's hearts and minds as not just a planet, but as an icon.

At Mercer County Community College, where I assist students in the Learning Center, the final exam in one of the basic English courses focuses on an understanding of natural sciences, social sciences, and humanities as different ways of looking at and understanding the world. Students are asked to pick a subject and in an essay address it from the viewpoint of all three categories.

Within the last year, Pluto more than ever has captured public attention and inspired action and creativity in all these areas.

The science behind the decision makes no more sense than it did one year ago. It is hard to understand why some astronomers have such objections to Pluto and Eris being labeled as both Kuiper Belt Objects (KBOs) and planets, a sort of dual citizenship. Yes, they exist in a belt of objects, but they are different than the majority of those objects in that Pluto and Eris have done what most of those objects have not: they have achieved hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning they have sufficient gravity to have pulled themselves into a round or oblate shape. And they are much larger than the other KBOs including the plutinos, the objects that like Pluto orbit in a 3:2 resonance with Neptune.

As we discover more exoplanets and more objects in our own solar system in distant orbits from the sun, astronomers should be broadening, not narrowing our definition of what a planet is. Pluto and Eris show us that there is an entirely new category of planets, the ice dwarfs, which are different from the terrestrial planets and gas giants, but are clearly planets nonetheless. They're just a different type of planet. We should expect to be adding new categories of planets routinely now that we are discovering objects so far away, both in our own and in other solar systems.

Can and should the term "planet" be defined beyond a very general concept of an object that has achieved hydrostatic equilibrium and orbits a star? Maybe, but only in the case of moons or satellites, which could be labelled "secondary" as opposed to "primary planets" because they orbit other planets instead of stars and in the setting of other planet subcategories.

The term "planet" is based on an error, from ancient days when it was thought the visible planets were wandering stars. Its use today is largely colloquial, historical and cultural. The objects we call planets are not stars, and they do not wander. Therefore, the term is inherently not scientific, and any attempt to try to define it as such will fail.

And why should there be a need for an object to "clear its orbit" or even dominate its orbit to be considered a planet? This might be a descriptive factor for some subcategories of planets such as terrestrial planets and gas giants, but making it a pre-requisite for planethood is arbitrary and was done deliberately to exclude Pluto, which in every other way qualifies as a legitimate planet.

This debate has continued vigorously over the last year and has raised even broader issues, such as, who gets to decide what is and is not a planet? Should the IAU, even if 100 percent of its members voted, have that power? There are many very knowledgable professional and amateur astronomers who are not members of the IAU. And most of the four percent who approved the demotion are not planetary scientists. What is going on here?

In addition to the heightened discussion and awareness of Pluto, something even more exciting has happened. Now in public consciousness, Pluto has inspired the creation of deeply insightful songs, poems, essays, festivals, public events, and artwork. Like religion, politics and nature, Pluto's plight has touched artists around the world, who have created beautiful, moving works as odes to the little planet unjustly scorned.

Here are some of the works I have personally found most touching:

The song "They Demoted Pluto" by Jimmy and the Keyz, at http://www.purevolume.com/jimmyandthekeyz/blog
The song implores listeners, "Don't let them take Pluto away from the other eight. Let your voice be heard, for goodness' sake."

Planet Pluto Expo, held in May 2007 in Streator, Illinois, birthplace of Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto, and the song written for the festival by Haley Crouch and the Comet Blues Band, "Bring Pluto Back," at http://plutoexpo.net/Home_Page.html

The song "Planet X" by Christine Lavin at http://www.christinelavin.com/index.php?page=songs&category=Shining_My_Flashlight_on_the_Moon&display=233

The song by Jonathan Colton, sung from the viewpoint of Charon, Pluto's moon, titled "I'm Your Moon," at http://youtube.com/watch?v=JTw2eWE8GBA

The song "Pluto Rocks" by Canadian band SubPlot A, on how Pluto got a raw deal, at http://www.plutorocks.ca/

The song "I Miss Pluto" by the band Expresso Stebo at http://www.garageband.com/song?%7Cpe1%7CS8LTM0LdsaSlZla-YGA

The song "Pluto" by pop band Clare and the Reasons, at http://www.myspace.com/claremuldaur

A poignant, haunting and very sad ballad by One Ring Zero titled "International Astronomical Union," at http://www.oneringzero.com/

Ira Marlowe's "A Song for Pluto" at http://www.npr.org/templates/story/story.php?storyId=5731414

New Mexico syndicated columnist Jay Miller, who in his August 22, 2007 column "Inside the Capitol," wrote "Hope for Pluto," describing the many friends and advocates Pluto has around the world, and linking to this site, at http://insidethecapitol.blogspot.com/2007/08/8-22-hope-for-pluto.html

A heartwrenching poem and personification of Pluto and its reaction to the demotion, by British writer and amateur astronomer Stuart Atkinson titled "Banishing Pluto" at
http://journals.aol.com/stuartatk/TheVerse/entries/2006/08/27/banishing-pluto/631

A beautiful parable for children and adults of all ages, "Pluto, the Adopted Planet," by Connie Barlow and Bella Downey, at http://www.thegreatstory.org/Pluto-long.html

A web site counting down Pluto's time taken away, at http://www.plutoisaplanet.us/

A thought-provoking essay by Rabbi Yisrael Rice, Director of Chabad in Marin County, California titled "Take Heart Pluto, Less Is More" at http://www.chabad.org/magazine/article.htm/aid/418419/jewish/Take-Heart-Pluto-Less-is-More.html

And of course, there are the advocacy sites, one run by the Massachusetts-based Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet at http://www.plutoisaplanet.org/, a site run by the mayor of Glen Ridge, NJ at http://www.plutoisaplanet.com/, an official declaration by the House and Senate of the State of New Mexico declaring Pluto a planet, the online petition at http://pleasesavepluto.org/ and the petition of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern saying they would not use the new planet definition, at http://www.ipetitions.com/petition/planetprotest/

Public outreach efforts by Princeton-based amateur astronomer and NASA Solar System Ambassador Ken Kremer, who is circulating a hard copy petition to the IAU stating simply "I agree that Pluto is a planet, and a better definition is needed," signed by children and adults.

And who can forget the insightful "Great Pluto Debate" put on in Brookline, Massachusetts by the Clay Institute and the Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet? I traveled from New Jersey to Boston on some of the coldest days in February for that event, and it was definitely worth it.

I personally believe these works of art and outreach events are testimony to the enduring power and appeal of Pluto. The actual planet may be tiny, but its power to inspire and touch people to such a deep level makes it anything but a dwarf. Pluto was wrongly demoted, and the world reacted with an outpouring of love.

Christine Lavin explains it this way: "Maybe it's the whole underdog thing. You know, kids have always been a big fan of Pluto because it's so little, and children really identify with that. And I think maybe that appealed to me, too."

Somehow, standing up for Pluto has become standing up for the underdog, for the "little guy" against elitism, in a way that recalls Camryn Manheim's triumphant words when she won an Emmy, "this is for all the fat girls." In the same way, all these works inspired by Pluto can be seen as statements for all the underdogs of the world, for all who have been wrongfully rejected and excluded.

The conclusion I draw from all this is that the concept of "planet" is not the province of the IAU or even professional astronomers, alone. Pluto, like the rest of the solar system, like nature, like spirituality, is the heritage of us all. No one group, no matter how educated, should be given the power to play God in setting boundaries of what is in and what is out. The word planet cannot and should not be scientifically defined because it belongs not to science alone, but to humanity. Scientists can make themselves useful here by addressing the subcategories or classifications of types of planets, not by setting arbitrary definitions based on political and personal motivations.

I know that as it has done for so many others, little Pluto has captured my heart and my imagination, and for that I am grateful. I am equally grateful for the many people and groups I have met during the past year while writing and studying this subject and advocating that Pluto's planet status be restored, people who have so enriched my life and broadened my horizons.

I have seen the power of Pluto at work in so many areas, in so many ways. And because I have seen it, I believe more than ever that this demotion will not stand and urge all who believe likewise to keep hope for Pluto alive. Pluto is a planet, always has been, and always will be, 1930-forever.

Monday, February 12, 2007

It Was Meant to Be Found

One week ago, I had the opportunity to attend a lively, vibrant, stimulating discussion, “The Great Pluto Debate,” at the Clay Observatory in Brookline, MA. While the event was part of International Save Pluto Day, an advocacy effort organized by the Brookline-based Society for the Preservation of Pluto as a Planet, it featured a distinguished panel of presenters representing both sides of the debate who artfully and good naturedly explained their positions to an audience of approximately 200 people.

That audience consisted of a diverse group of all ages, ranging from children to seniors and even several nuns from a convent located across the street from the observatory.

What continues to amaze me is the enduring appeal of Pluto, the draw of this tiny little planet that has somehow captured the hearts and the imaginations of so many people across the world.

As a writer, I cannot help but view this issue partially from a cultural, literary and symbolic viewpoint. Pluto, named after the mythological Greek/Roman god of the underworld, is replete with the symbolism and characteristics of its namesake. The Greek/Roman Pluto represented the mysteries of death and rebirth, of all that is secret and hidden, of underground wealth.

Modern folklore, with the help of Jungian psychology, has further built upon this imagery, associating Pluto with the paradox of the tiniest object being the one that is most powerful, regeneration after complete destruction, and plumbing the depths of the psyche for hidden wisdom potent enough to bring about complete transformation.

And because of its smallness, its difference, and the precariousness of its status as a planet, Pluto has also come to represent the consummate underdog. The very history of its discovery is extraordinarily fascinating because it involves a series of errors and happenstance occurrences, which had any gone differently, the planet would likely never have been found at all.

In the early 20th century, astronomers Percival Lowell and William Pickering embarked on a search for a trans-Neptunian planet to explain what appeared to be perturbations in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. Lowell founded his own observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, which even after his death, continued to pursue the discovery of the hypothesized Planet X.

The irony in retrospect is there never were any perturbations in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune. The belief that such existed were errors in the calculations of both planets’ orbital paths, not corrected until Voyager 2 flew by and photographed both during the 1980s.

Yet in 1930, Clyde Tombaugh, an amateur astronomer hired by the Lowell Observatory, found Pluto in a position very close to that predicted by Lowell and Pickering.

In his well-chronicled book, Is Pluto A Planet? astronomer David A. Weintraub, an advocate of Pluto retaining its planet status, emphasizes that Lowell and Pickering expected to find another large gas giant planet, not the tiny object Pluto turned out to be.

“The existence of Pluto could in no way have been predicted by Lowell or Pickering or anyone else, based on an examination of the residuals in the orbits of Uranus and Neptune, or based on the apparent clustering of the aphelia of comets. The existence of Pluto, and certainly the actual location of Pluto, simply could not have been predicted. Yet Pluto was discovered.”

Throughout his chapter on Pluto’s discovery, Weintraub stresses how in every way the odds were against Pluto’s discovery but repeats the refrain, “Yet Pluto was found.”

Pluto’s history as the plucky “little planet that could” did not end with its discovery. Within one year of its discovery, its planet status was questioned because of its small size, its elliptical orbit, and its orbital inclination of 17.1 degrees, meaning it does not orbit on the same plane as the other eight planets. The debate over what Pluto is and whether it is a planet continued through the 2006 demotion by the International Astronomical Union, which reclassified it as a dwarf planet with the goal of ending the debate once and for all.

Except the debate did not end. Instead, the IAU decision generated a backlash among both professional astronomers and members of the public that surprised many with its intensity. Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto, has scheduled a conference of his own to address the issue. And with so few IAU members having taken part in the decision and such a strong subsequent backlash, Pluto’s status is almost certain to surface again at the next IAU General Assembly in 2009.

Pluto’s remarkable history is compelling to so many people perhaps because it is the tale of a little planet that would not die, that would not even “go away.” A friend of mine, upon hearing this fascinating history, reflected a thought that might not be scientific but is nevertheless profound: Pluto was meant to be found. It was meant to join the family of planets.

There is clearly a powerful lesson here for those who are open to it. Things happen for a reason though we may not understand it at the time. Perhaps Pluto is meant to expand our knowledge of what a planet is, to broaden our sometimes narrow horizons and prepare us to understand the great diversity of objects in other solar systems long hidden, known to us only for the last 15 years. Perhaps there is an entire range of planets in the Kuiper Belt waiting to be found and understood. Pluto might serve as the key to such understanding, especially when New Horizons visits it in 2015.

The fact remains that Pluto has continually eluded all attempts to demote it, downgrade it, or consign it to oblivion. Its remarkable 77-year history is powerful enough to give pause to anyone who studies that history in detail.

The fact that so many people continue to care about Pluto, even when they cannot explain why, is an overwhelmingly powerful statement all by itself. I believe that deep down, many have reached the same inescapable conclusion as my friend has.

Pluto not only is a planet; it is one that was meant to be found, and its planet status will ultimately prevail against any efforts at demotion.