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.