Saturday, March 13, 2010

Be Kind to Your Small Planet Friends

Clyde Tombaugh discovered Pluto on February 18, 1930, but the discovery was announced by the Lowell Observatory nearly one month later, on March 13, 1930, to coincide with the date on which William Herschel had discovered Uranus in 1781. That makes today the 80th anniversary of the announcement, a day declared Pluto Planet Day, and the date of the third annual Pluto Is A Planet Protest in Seattle, Washington.

To their credit, several dozen people of all ages from children through seniors took part in the rally, which ended with a chance for children to read essays they had written both for and against Pluto's planet status. The Greenwood Space Travel Supply Company, which sponsors the event, is a non-profit writing center that helps kids ages 6-18 improve their creative and expository writing skills, so the focus on essays definitely made sense.

My immediate thought is, wow, a writing center that holds an annual Pluto protest? That's my kind of place! Unfortunately, it is also on the other side of the country, and less-than-wealthy writers who spend their time promoting Pluto's planet status tend  to be short on the money needed for such a trip. I would love to have been there, and I will order the new Pluto T-shirt the company is selling to add to my collection.

What I find troubling are some of the comments posted in response to articles depicting the protest, many of which border on "trolling." Commenters cynically state people should "get over it" regarding the IAU decision, that anyone who cares this much about Pluto is a "loser" and needs to "get a life," that the issue has no bearing on anyone's life, and various other insults. One commenter even claimed, falsely, that Pluto is not spherical! He took the time to comment on a web site about Pluto but never bothered to visit one of the many sites with real, Hubble images that would instantly have clarified his misconception.

Another commenter states that Pluto is just another bit of rock in the Kuiper Belt like all the others, completely ignoring the issue of hydrostatic equilibrium. Most other Kuiper Belt Objects are not large enough to be rounded by their own gravity; Pluto is. So are Haumea, Makemake, and Eris, as well as Ceres in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter.

Most troubling is an underlying authoritarianism that characterizes many posts, a sense that the "experts" have spoken, and no one else, especially lay people, have the right to a say in the matter. "Science" they claim, has declared Pluto is not a planet.

It is disconcerting that so many people cannot distinguish "science" from 424 members of the IAU. At the root of the problem is a seeming unwillingness or inability to question. Questioning is at the heart of critical thinking. As soon as one reads "science says," questions such as "who speaks for science?" "who appointed these people as science's spokespeople?" "how did they arrive at this conclusion?" and "does their argument make sense?" should come to mind. The subject at hand matters far less than does the willingness by too many people to just accept any statement they are told has been decreed by an expert. This is not a good reflection of our educational system, to say the least.

About the claim that Pluto protestors have "no life"--the first question is, why does an interest, even a fascination with Pluto, constitute "not having a life?" Do we hear people make that claim about football fans or NASCAR fans, or followers of any sport who pay big bucks to attend games where chances are they will never meet their athlete heroes? There is absolutely nothing wrong with someone having an intense interest in sports. The question is, why is that interest viewed as "normal" and an interest in something that happens to be a more academic subject viewed as "strange?"

And going one step beyond hobbies, what about fans of so-called "celebrity gossip" who hang on to every word about and picture of their favorite actor or actress? I once knew someone whose entire life centered on Michael Crawford, to the point that she spent all her money going to conventions and performances of his, some of them overseas. How is latching on to a so-called celebrity so desirable? It is a life lived completely vicariously, entirely through another person. It is a passive life and to some extent, a sad one.  Why not do the exciting things yourself instead of just watching others do them?

In contrast, an interest like astronomy promotes an active rather than a passive life. Amateur astronomers and astronomy fans attend astronomy club meetings and lectures, where they socialize and meet friends. They have first-hand experiences of looking through telescopes and viewing celestial objects directly rather than through a photo. They engage with ideas, and even though many of those ideas are esoteric and may not directly affect their daily lives, the acts of thinking and debating are the equivalent of exercise for the brain. As with any muscle, the more people use their brains, the better they become at using them.

So to those who say, what does Pluto have to do with paying your bills, or getting a job, or your everyday life, one could similarly ask, what does Paris Hilton have to do with any of these things? What do pro sports have to do with any of these things? Does a hobby or subject even have to relate to paying bills or jobs or every day life to be meaningful? Young Clyde Tombaugh was a farmboy who taught himself astronomy, telescope building, and trigonometry for the love of these subjects. When the time was right, they became useful to him by helping him get a job during the Great Depression, but that never changed the fact that his true motivation was love for all these activities. That's how he ended up with all those unusual telescopes made from parts of old Buicks and lawn mowers.

Those of us who believe the IAU decision was wrong are motivated by a desire to obtain a better definition that reflects the amazing diversity of planets out there, who don't want to settle for a political decision masquerading as science, especially when that decision is imposed on children. We are people who ask questions, think, read, consider new ideas--the exact opposite of being "resistant to change"  or just like those who rejected the idea of a Sun-centered solar system. Whether lay people, amateur astronomers, or professional astronomers, we find it natural to question, especially when told something that just does not sound right. We want to be part of the discussion on planet definition and rightfully believe that any person who takes the time to learn about the subject has the right to contribute to the debate.

Not only do I find Pluto more interesting than any Hollywood actor (they're just human beings, and I also act, so what is the difference?); I also find that staying up to date on the latest about Pluto and researching Pluto are active pursuits that are personally rewarding and have had the side benefit of introducing me to many fascinating people. I have a life, and while Pluto is far from the only thing in it, it currently has star billing, and to me, that is a good thing.

In solidarity with the protestors, I'm wearing one of my many Pluto shirts today. This one reads, "A planet is a planet, no matter how small," with the word "Pluto" in the center. The statement is a reference to the central theme of a children's book by Dr. Seuss called Horton Hears A Who. In that book, Horton the elephant makes a shocking discovery of an entire world existing on a dust speck. Of course, no one believes him, and the various animals in his community go from mocking him to blatant paranoia accusing poor Horton of every conspiracy under the sun.

To save themselves from their world being boiled in oil, the inhabitants of this tiny world must make themselves heard to the "big people" or rather, big animals ready to throw Horton's dust speck into the fire.  They go on a noise frenzy, banging on drums, blowing horns, shouting and screaming, but their tiny voices just aren't loud enough--until Dr. Whovey, the scientist leading them, finds one baby who isn't making any noise at all. "This is your town's darkest hour," he admonishes the child, who hesistantly says he doesn't know if he even can make noise. But at Dr. Whovey's insistence, he tries. And of course, his one little voice puts the sounds made by the little world's inhabitants over the threshold, and those who hold their world in their hands finally do hear them. "They are there," the "big ones" say in wonder.

Dr. Seuss concludes the book with a statement designed to make children think. "The people had spoken, no matter how small. And their whole world was saved by the smallest of all." The musical video concludes with Horton paraded around town as a hero and everyone singing, "Be kind to your small personed friends...as they float around from one place to another. Remember, no matter how small, that a person is a person after all."

Pluto Planet Day is a celebration of the fact that no one, none of us, is too "small" or insignificant to make a difference. If we believe the demotion of Pluto is wrong, we can enter the debate and make ourselves heard, the same way an obscure farmboy took on the search for a distant planet even though he had no formal training in astronomy, the same way children and adults can come together and rally for our favorite small planet friend.

The message to the world: Be kind to your small planet friends--because the supporters of that small planet are not "giving it up" any time soon.

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