Tuesday, March 9, 2010

PBS' "The Pluto Files"

One week ago, I was pleasantly surprised while watching the PBS documentary "The Pluto Files," which was billed as a broadcast version of Dr. Neil de Grasse Tyson's book of the same name, published a little over a year ago.

The hour-long show, done in the form of a road trip by Tyson intended to uncover why people on both sides of the debate feel so strongly about Pluto, differed from the book in several ways. First, it centered less on Tyson's views and more on the views of people with strong connections to Pluto. There were no statements that "Pluto is just a large comet," that the four percent of the IAU who voted on the demotion were an accurate representation of the organization, or overlooking of the fact that the IAU definition specifically precludes dwarf planets from being planets--all of which are characteristics of the book.

Instead, this was a fair--and humorous--work that made it very clear the planet definition issue is a debate in progress and gave equal time to representatives of both sides of the issue. It was definitely "fair and balanced."

Watching it was a very unusual experience for me personally because this was the first time I watched a TV show in which I knew most of the participants personally, some as good friends and some as acquaintances.  The blonde woman speaking for Pluto in the Streator, Illinois diner is my friend Siobhan Elias, who also attended the Great Planet Debate and subsequently lobbied the Illinois legislature to pass a resolution recognizing Pluto as a planet. Needless to say, seeing a good friend be interviewed and do such a great job advocating for planet Pluto was an exciting experience!

It was also exciting to see the Tombaugh family, including Clyde Tombaugh's daughter Annette, her husband Will Sitze, and her grandson Kyle, all of whom attended the Great Planet Debate as well. Patricia Tombaugh, Clyde's 97-year-old widow, was charming--who cannot help rooting for her to make it to 2015 to see New Horizons send back photos of Pluto!

Also featured were telescopes constructed by Clyde Tombaugh out of parts of an old Buick and a lawnmower, which while humorous, also drive home the intelligence and resourcefulness of the young farm boy who, with only a high school education, discovered Pluto at age 24.

This whimsical show traversed the country, stopping at Disney World in Florida, where Tyson met the dog to whom many still believe he gives far too much credit for people's affection for Pluto, and the great grandson of Walt Disney, who is reasonably certain his ancestor named the puppy for the planet. Other stops included the aforementioned Streator, Illinois; Las Cruces, New Mexico to meet the Tombaugh family; Pasadena, California to meet Eris discoverer Mike Brown; Harvard University, where Tyson and several astronomers used a football field to create a layout of the solar system; the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City, to which Tyson invited Annette Tombaugh for a personal tour; and Laurel, Maryland, at the Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Lab--instantly recognizable to me as the site of the Great Planet Debate--to meet Alan Stern and the team working on New Horizons.

Also featured was a re-enactment of Tombaugh working at the telescope where Pluto was discovered, with Tombaugh played by his great-grandson Kyle, and a re-enactment of the breakfast scene where 11-year-old British girl Venetia Burney was told by her grandfather of the discovery of a new planet and her subsequent suggestion of the name Pluto.

In Las Cruces, even Tyson stood in awe of a beautiful stained glass window dedicated to Clyde Tombaugh at a local Unitarian Universalist Church. More about the window and its background can be found at

Science fiction fans likely noticed musical and other references to "Star Trek" and "2001: A Space Odyssey."

Admittedly, there could have been more in depth discussion of the main points on both sides of the debate. Several participants later noted that much footage of back and forth discussions on the matter never made it into the show. That sort of thing is typical of television and film. Editing is done for the purpose of creating a story. This story, as much entertainment as education, is more about the people to whom Pluto matters than the issue of Pluto itself.

If Mike Brown launched a diatribe on how he "killed" Pluto,  that ended up on the cutting room floor. Brown said that while he initially believed he found the 10th planet when he discovered Eris, he later felt that claim was "fraudulent." Why? His rationale is that the small object he discovered pales in comparison to Uranus, discovered by William Herschel in 1781. Of course, the implication here is that size matters in determining the importance of a discovery. Finding a remote small planet with early 21st century technology is no less a feat than finding a gas giant with late 18th century technology.

In deference to Dr. Seuss, on whose birthday "The Pluto Files" aired, "a planet is a planet, no matter how small." Yes, I have a T-shirt with this very slogan.

There is likely enough additional footage from the road trip to create one sequel if not two. I hope Tyson considers this.

Most significantly, Tyson ended the show with a clear confirmation that the status of Pluto is a matter of ongoing debate. There was no "it's over; the IAU has spoken." The IAU vote was shown but only as a representation of one point of view, not as some sort of gospel truth. At the Hayden Planetarium, Tyson added a plaque adjacent to where Pluto is portrayed stating that astronomers have not reached consensus on the matter. This is very different from his previous statements, expressed in wording identical to that used by Brown--"how I killed Pluto, and why it had it coming." It is to Tyson's credit that this is not his chief line about Pluto anymore.

In fact, in a separate interview, Tyson claims he never stated publicly that our solar system has only eight planets, that his main goal in organizing the new Hayden Planetarium was to "group like objects with other like objects."

Yes, the most obvious way of doing that is to have one display of terrestrial planets and one display of jovians. But how about a display of the third class of planets, dwarf planets, all shown together? There are also potentially other display designs. "Like objects" could consist of all those in the solar system that potentially might harbor microbial life--Mars, Ceres, Europa, Enceladus, Titan, Pluto, and perhaps others in addition to Earth. "Like objects" could consist of the two planets that have large moons formed by a giant impact and also have nitrogen atmospheres--Earth and Pluto. "Like objects" could feature the Sun, Jupiter, and Saturn in one category, as all three are composed mostly of hydrogen and helium. Maybe the Hayden Planetarium needs to expand to make room for displays of the many different combinations of celestial objects that have "like" characteristics.

"The Pluto Files" is available on DVD at http://www.shoppbs.org/product/index.jsp?productId=4010463

Meanwhile, on March 13, the 80th anniversary of Lowell Observatory's announcement of Pluto's discovery, Pluto supporters in Seattle plan to again stage their annual rally in support of Pluto's planet status. I wish I could be there, but it is a long trip from New Jersey to Seattle. I personally congratulate all who take part in the rally for not giving up on planet Pluto. More information on this event and its sponsors can be found at http://www.greenwoodspacetravelsupply.com/events.html and at

Mike Brown's claims that the debate is over and that only a tiny leftover fringe of astronomers and lay people still reject the IAU definition are more and more ringing hollow over time. The geophysical definition of planet, which states that dwarf planets are planets too, is alive and well as a legitimate viewpoint and will remain so for the forseeable future.

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