Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Pluto Files (Neil deGrasse Tyson)

The day after the International Astronomical Union voted to demote Pluto's status to a "dwarf planet," my friend and coworker Jenn printed out "I Heart Pluto" stickers for many in our office to wear in defiance. What? You didn't do this at your work on that day? Hmmm, then maybe you don't work in science. We felt compelled to stand up for Pluto, the underdog of the nine planets, probably because that's all we remember about the Solar System in elementary school science. How can you forget Pluto? It's the furthest away and the smallest. And it has the same name as Mickey Mouse's dog.

Neil deGrasse Tyson knows Pluto all too well for an astrophysicist whose specialty is not planetary bodies. As director of the Hayden Planetarium, in 2000 he was involved in the planning of the American Museum of Natural History's new Rose Center for Earth and Space. After much discussion about Pluto, they decided to side-step the issue by not talking about the nine planets as a whole and instead grouped items with other like items. The gas giants together, the terrestrial planets together, and then Pluto together with members of the Kuiper belt (in another area of the center).

Now, I can see how as scientists this grouping like-with-like made perfect sense to them, and how they could believe that this would resolve the issue, no problem, with no questions. But soon after opening day, although the media was not discussing it yet, some of their smallest critics saw right away that Pluto was missing from their Scales of the Universe display. All the other planets were there. Where was Pluto?

The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet discusses the history of Pluto, the media storm around Pluto that began with the Rose Center's new design, and deGrasse Tyson's own personal history with Pluto (including just a few examples of the many, many letters he received some school children, along with letters and emails from working scientists and the general public). The book is engaging, written for a general audience, and brings up lots of great points: 1) We probably wouldn't have had this kind of public reaction to Pluto's reclassification if Pluto hadn't been discovered by an American, 2) There actually isn't an exact definition for what makes a planet a planet, and 3) Pluto does not care what we call it. It just goes on being Pluto.

The letters and emails contained in the book are great, and I want to highlight a couple here. Here's an email, accusing deGrasse Tyson of cultural insensitivity:

Would you say a small child or midget wasn't a person? Of course you wouldn't, although they are a different versions of the normal standard that is set as what a person would like, but they are still classified as people. By saying that Pluto is not a planet, is like saying a midget or a small child is not a person.
I'll end with a letter from Madeline Trost, an example of what deGrasse Tyson calls the "angry-kid genre." "After addressing the envelope to me personally, she bluntly addresses her letter 'Dear Scientest,' and she can't contain her flurry of assaults on my integrity, ending with an appeal to accommodate a shortcoming of her own":
Dear Scientest,
What do you call Pluto if its not a planet anymore? If you make it a planet agian all the science books will be right. Do poeple live on Pluto? If there are poeple who live there they won't exists. Why can't Pluto be a planet? If it's small doesn't meant that it doen't have to be a planet anymore. Some poeple like Pluto. If it doen't exist then they don't have a favorite planet. Please write back, but not in cursive because I can't read in cursive.