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.