Sunday, August 24, 2008

Two Years Later: Not Gone, Not Forgotten

Two years have now passed since the debacle conducted by the IAU at its General Assembly in Prague, and amazingly, the debate over the status of Pluto simply refuses to die.  In spite of all the misguided efforts by those seeking "closure," planet Pluto has continued to stir passions, inspire discussion, and remain in the public eye as a not just a scientific issue but a cultural icon.

The latest IAU bungle by creation of the term "Plutoids," which no one, even supporters of the dynamical planet definition that leaves us with eight planets, likes, has only fueled the fire over the highly flawed planet definition crafted by 424 astronomers in an equally flawed process two years ago.

Just this month, the Great Planet Debate at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Maryland, brought this issue to the forefront of public attention once more.

I always cringe upon hearing or reading that a student was given a lower grade because he or she included Pluto in a school project on the solar system. It is inconveivable that teachers would unquestioningly rely on a so-called authority, whether a textbook or the IAU, to promulgate one side of an ongoing debate as fact.  Naturally, the teachers who attended the Great Planet Debate understand the importance of teaching the controversy in all its complexity; otherwise, they would not have taken the time to attend the conference.

However, all too often, teachers, especially here in the US, where they are constrained by federal and state mandates and the priority on standardized tests, teach the minimum students need to pass these tests in any subject.  Some have criticized the argument that Pluto's demotion would lead to children learning less about the solar system as not a valid argument for keeping Pluto in the planet category. Certainly, this is not the main argument; there are plenty of scientifically valid reasons discussed here and on many other web sites.  Yet it is a point we need to consider. Under time and curricular constraints, teachers all too often resort to teaching only the basics of any subject, which under the IAU definition, would likely include only the eight major planets.

Even a teacher who believes in the dynamical classification adopted by the IAU does a disservice to his or her students by reducing a grade for those whose projects include more than the minimum. A student who on his or her own chooses to include the dwarf planets in a discussion of our solar system should receive credit for going beyond the minimum rather than be punished for including additional information.

We lost a golden opportunity to excite children and adults about the discovery of Eris, a new planet in our solar system, by centering the discussion on taking Pluto away rather than on adding Eris and the entire new category of planets it has introduced to us.  The real world, practical result in education was a shrinkage of knowledge about the solar system when we could have had the exact opposite, a broadening of and increase in such knowledge.

Last year, I listed various songs, poems, and advocacy web sites inspired by Pluto. With the passage of time, even more have sprung up.  Here are some of the more recent ones:

The Great Planet Debate (transcripts of sessions and of the Tyson-Sykes debate forthcoming):"Keep Pluto Alive," an advocacy site by astronomy educator Steve Kates, aka Dr. Sky: and Telescope interview with Dr. Alan Stern: in The Telegraph, a British newspaper, "Pluto Should Get Back Planet Status, Astronomers Say":, "Demotion of Pluto Still Stirs Passionate Debate":"Pluto Still Attracting Attention," by New Mexico syndicated columnist Jay Miller: Geographic, "'Pluto Huggers' Fight to Renew Planet Status":"It's Still A Planet In My Heart," advocacy site by Adrian Speyer: of Facebook's largest groups, with over 1.3 million members, "When I Was Your Age, Pluto Was A Planet": Web Site Tribute to Clyde Tombaugh, discoverer of Pluto:
"Pluto's A Planet," a song by Tom Knutson:
”Ode to Pluto,” a song by Mark Burrows:  

And of course, there is the official web site of NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto, which predates the demotion (the spacecraft was launched in January 2006):

As a writer, I cannot help but view this phenomenon from a literary perspective.  In "Star Trek," Kirk and Spock make the interesting observation that every myth has some modicum of truth in it.  I have always had a personal fascination with mythology, and Pluto, named after the Greek/Roman lord of the underworld, has a wealth of mythological folklore associated with it.  The underworld, viewed as the abode of the dead, also represented to ancient peoples the physical underground where seeds lie buried in the winter--and sometimes for many years--only to germinate and be "reborn" when spring comes or when sunlight long blocked by a tree or other object finally reaches that seed.  In Babylonian mythology, the spirit of vegetation was represented by the god Tammuz, who descended to the underworld as summer ended, the harvest commenced, and the sun began to wane.

This connection with the seasonal cycle continued in the Greek/Roman myth of Pluto's abduction of Persephone, the maiden of spring.  In the wake of Persephone's having been abducted, her mother, the grain goddess Demeter, also known as Ceres, in her grief withheld her bounty and refused to allow anything to grow, thus leading to the desolation of winter.  Only when a compromise was reached, and Persephone was permitted to spend a portion of the year above ground with her mother, did Demeter allow vegetation to return and even teach agriculture to human civilization.

Ancient peoples resorted to stories to explain the cycle of the seasons because they knew these phenomena occurred but did not fully understand why. Yet these myths contain within them a greater truth, an understanding of life as a cycle of death and rebirth in which nothing is truly lost, only transformed.

At the Great Planet Debate, one participant asked whether any of us interpreted any symbolism in the banishment of the planet named after the lord of the dead.   That's the type of question literary types like me love to ponder. Pluto was named after the god of the underworld by 11-year-old Venetia Burney, a child fascinated by both mythology and astronomy, because it is a dark and cold place.  Though it is not scientific, in my literary mind, I think there is significance in our effectively banishing the planet that represents the unknown, the dark, the enigmatic, the mysterious, the intense representation of death and new life, to some sort of astronomical netherworld.  Both the mythology and the astronomy of Pluto challenge the limits of what we know and make us think about subjects that make us uncomfortable, subjects we often would rather stay buried.

Symbolically, Pluto's refusal to "die" as a planet fits beautifully with the entire mythology and folklore for which it is named.  In this era when education focuses on learning across the disciplines, namely examining the same subject in the areas of science, math, history, literature, art, music, etc., it will make a fascinating research paper topic for students.

Speaking of literature, I would like to share, with proper attribution, a poem I found online linking Pluto the planet with Pluto the god of the underworld and with Tammuz, the Babylonian vegetation deity. It is titled, "The Death of Pluto."

"The Death of Pluto"
Adapted by Robert Croog (by substituting Pluto for Tammuz) from the poem by Saul Tchernichowsky, "The Death of Tammuz," Hebrew, translated by L. V. Snowman, published in A Treasury of Jewish Poetry from Biblical Times to the Present, edited by Nathan and Marynn Ausubel."Pluto is dead," Mike Brown of the California Institute of Technology, discoverer of Eris, told reporters in a teleconference, August 25, 2006.

"And behold, there sat the women, weeping." Ezekiel 8:14

"Go, daughters of Zion
And weep you for Pluto,
For Pluto, the beautiful Pluto is dead;
And days dark with cloud and eclipse of the soul,
Autumn days endless the days are ahead.

Let us rise with the sun
In the spring of the morning,
To the forest where lingers the

darkness of night,
To the forest where visions and secrets are hidden,
To the altar of Pluto-- high place of the light.

What dance shall we dance
Around the high altar?
What dance shall we dance for

Pluto this day?
To the left, to the right, and sevenfold seven,
We shall bow to him, calling 'return to our play.'

To the left, to the right,
And seven by seven,
But hand in hand straightly, and

footing it slow;
Pluto wherever he be we shall seek him,
The lads and the maidens apart they will go.

We have sought on the roads
And the highways for Pluto,
Where the crossroads lie bathed in the

light of the sun,
Sweet to the heart in their warmth and their peace,
The sparrows fly there and the larks carillon.

We have sought Pluto
In thickets where leaves fall,
In mazes of holly and forests of pine;
Peradventure he sleeps among incense

of spices,
In the circle of toadstools, the faery shrine.

We have sought Pluto
But vain 'twas to find him,
We clambered the hills and came down

through the dell,
We followed the traces of all mystic wonders--
The abode of the gods and wherever they dwell;

In the grove, in the hedges,
By trees that are altar fuel,
The woodland recesses-- all fodder for

But only the sparrows cried in their hunger
About the high place-- ruins trodden in mire. 

No trace of the fairies
Was found in the meadows,
With the whispering brook their

laughter ceased, too,
Calves graze in the meadows and there the lambs frolic
Round the springs and the wells with fall of the dew.

O, daughters of Zion,
Go mourn in beholding
How the world on its course dull and

troublous is sped,
The distress of a world whose spirit is darkened,
For Pluto, the beautiful Pluto, is dead."

The comment below is by Philip Brown, who quoted the above poem: 

"I am inspired by this poem and its themes which are symbolic of Pluto: death, youth, hidden and mysterious places, occult energy and return to the Earth, decay and regeneration in nature, and a playful sense of foreboding. It is apropos of Pluto's recent demotion from planetary status, and the comments of Mike Brown."

On a personal note, while I wish Pluto's demotion had never happened, I am immensely grateful for the many wonderful people I have met in the quest to get this decision reversed; for the knowledge it has brought and love for astronomy it has rekindled in my life; for the numerous experiences I have had that would otherwise never have come my way--everything from the wonderful club known as Amateur Astronomers, Inc., in Cranford, NJ; to new friends around the world; to the opportunity to see Jupiter, Saturn, the Ring Nebula, and so many other celestial objects through a telescope; even to reconnect with various members of my family. Pluto's plight has also inspired the artist in me; the result is I have written a play of more than 100 pages incorporating the mythology and symbolism of Pluto in a fantasy-drama tale of its demotion and reinstatement. Just this Friday, I received the official copyright certification for this play, which I hope to publish and someday bring to production. It is no understatement to say that Pluto has changed my life.

The poem above is powerful, but I am as convinced as ever that Pluto is not dead, that this is not the end.  It may not be a scientific assertion, but I believe Pluto the planet will follow the archetype of death and rebirth for which it is named, the death of winter giving way to the rebirth of spring.

Pluto is not gone or forgotten, and it never will be. It is not a TNO or planetoid or plutoid or asteroid or comet or minor object in any way.  It is a planet.  Ultimately, history will vindicate this.  So to Dr. Brian Marsden, who promised Clyde Tombaugh he would someday give Pluto an asteroid number even if Tombaugh did not live to see it, I have my own promise: Whether or not you live to see it, I and the many like-minded citizens of the world will see Pluto reinstated to full planet status.  You can take that to the bank.

No comments: