The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet

BOOK: The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet
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The Pluto Files
A
LSO BY
N
EIL DE
G
RASSE
T
YSON

D
EATH BY
B
LACK
H
OLE AND
O
THER
C
OSMIC
Q
UANDARIES
(2007)

T
HE
S
KY
I
S
N
OT THE
L
IMIT
: A
DVENTURES OF AN
U
RBAN
A
STROPHYSICIST
(2004)

O
RIGINS
: F
OURTEEN
B
ILLION
Y
EARS OF
C
OSMIC
E
VOLUTION
(with Donald Goldsmith)
(2004)

M
Y
F
AVORITE
U
NIVERSE
(a 12-part video lecture series)
(2003)

C
OSMIC
H
ORIZONS
: A
STRONOMY AT THE
C
UTTING
E
DGE
(with Steven Soter, eds.)
(2001)

O
NE
U
NIVERSE
: A
T
H
OME IN THE
C
OSMOS
(with Charles Liu and Robert Irion)
(2000)

J
UST
V
ISITING
T
HIS
P
LANET
(1998)

M
ERLIN’S
T
OUR OF THE
U
NIVERSE
(1997)

U
NIVERSE
D
OWN TO
E
ARTH
(1994)

Neil deGrasse Tyson
THE PLUTO FILES

T
HE
R
ISE AND
F
ALL OF
A
MERICA’S
F
AVORITE
P
LANET

W. W. NORTON
&
COMPANY

NEW YORK LONDON

Copyright © 2009 by Neil deGrasse Tyson

All rights reserved

For information about permission to reproduce selections from this book, write to Permissions, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 500 Fifth Avenue, New York, NY 10110

Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data

Tyson, Neil deGrasse.

The Pluto files: the rise and fall of America’s favorite planet / Neil deGrasse Tyson.

p. cm.

Includes bibliographical references.

ISBN: 978-0-393-07334-8

1. Pluto (Dwarf planet) I. Title.

QB701.T97 2009

523.49'22—dc22

2008040436

W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
500 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10110
www.wwnorton.com

W. W. Norton & Company Ltd.
Castle House, 75/76 Wells Street, London W1T 3QT

To Plutophiles young and old

Letter from Taylor Williams, Mrs. Koch’s second-grade class, Roland Lewis Elementary School, Tampa, Florida (spring 2008).

Contents

8. Pluto in the Elementary School Classroom
A Personal Recommendation for Educators

 

Preface

G
ATHERED HERE IN ONE PLACE IS A RECORD OF
P
LUTO’S RISE AND
fall from planethood, given by way of media accounts, public forums, cartoons, and letters I received from disgruntled schoolchildren, their teachers, strongly opinionated adults, and colleagues.

In February 2000, the American Museum of Natural History opened its $230 million Frederick Phineas and Sandra Priest Rose Center for Earth and Space, containing the rebuilt Hayden Planetarium, on the corner of 81st Street and Central Park West in New York City. The newly conceived exhibits treated the solar system in a way that was without precedent for public institutions, even though murmurs had already begun in the planetary science community that something needed to be done about Pluto’s classification in the solar system.

The exhibit models, their accompanying text, and the overall layout of the Rose Center organized the principal contents of the solar system by objects of like properties, rather than as enumerations of planets and their moons. This decision landed Pluto among the growing number of icy objects found beyond Neptune and left it unmentioned and out of view among our models for the rocky, terrestrial objects (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars) and the gas giants (Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune). By this organization, we practically abandoned the concept of planet altogether.

This decision represented the consensus of the science committee for the Rose Center’s design and construction, of which I served as head. While the accountability and originality of our pedagogical approach to the subject lies equally among us on the committee, as director of the Hayden Planetarium I became the most visible exponent of this decision when, a full year after the Rose Center opened to the public, the
New York Times
broke a page 1 news story that we had “demoted” Pluto from its ranks of planethood. I was thenceforth branded a public enemy of Pluto lovers the world over.

This distinction prevailed until August 2006, when the International Astronomical Union (IAU), prompted by pressure from the professional community of planetary scientists as well as from the general public, brought Pluto’s planethood to a vote at a triennial general assembly in Prague, Czech Republic. The result? Pluto was formally downgraded from “planet” to “dwarf planet,” thereby helping to diffuse the negative attention that we had been receiving for six years running.

It’s one thing for a single institution to reexamine Pluto’s standing in the solar system, but it’s quite another for an international organization of astronomers to do so. When the IAU voting results were released, a media frenzy followed, temporarily displacing news stories on terrorism, the Iraq War, genocide in Darfur, and global warming.

The Pluto Files
chronicles and documents Pluto’s remarkable grip on the hearts and minds of the American public, the professionals, and the press.

 

Neil deGrasse Tyson

New York City

October 2008

The Pluto Files

1
Pluto in Culture

A
T ABOUT FOUR IN THE AFTERNOON ON
F
EBRUARY
18
, 1930, 24-year-old Clyde W. Tombaugh, a farm boy and amateur astronomer from Illinois, discovered on the sky what would shortly be named for the Roman god of the underworld. Tombaugh had been hired by Arizona’s Lowell Observatory to search for the mysterious and distant Planet X. The observatory was named and founded in 1894 by Percival Lowell, an independently wealthy American astronomer, who died in 1916, but not before launching the search that Tombaugh would complete. On March 13, 1930, Lowell Observatory went public with the news.

Shortly thereafter, two well-known architectural icons were out-of-date the day they were dedicated. On May 12, 1930, a mere two months after Pluto’s discovery, the Adler Planetarium, on Chicago’s South Lake Shore Drive, opened for business—the first of its kind in the Western Hemisphere
1
and today the oldest surviving planetarium in the world. Adler’s ornate entrance lobby had been designed well before Pluto’s discovery and displays a circle of plaques affixed to the wall that duly identifies a Plutoless family of eight planets in the solar system.

And in New York City, between Fiftieth and Fifty-first streets along Fifth Avenue, you will find, across the avenue from the main entrance to Saint Patrick’s Cathedral, a large and mighty brass statue of Atlas, designed by the sculptor Lee Lawrie in the 1920s and erected in the 1930s as part of the extensive art deco Rockefeller Center complex. You may remember from mythology class that for his misdeeds, Atlas was condemned by Zeus to stand on Earth’s western edge and hold the entire sky on his shoulders, preventing Earth and sky from resuming their primordial embrace. To represent the sky, Lawrie molded a spherical celestial grid, as is common for such artistic needs. But across Atlas’s yoke, Lawrie identified the symbol for each of the planets, Earth’s Moon included, lest you were not yet convinced that the known universe is what Atlas carried. Of course, in the 1920s Pluto had not yet been discovered, so once again Pluto was too late for the party. Atlas’s yoke identifies Mercury through Neptune, with no room for a ninth planet. No room for Pluto.

The world of music would be similarly afflicted.

In search of cosmic themes for his next orchestral work, the English composer Gustav Holst (1874–1934) wrote his seven-movement master-piece
The Planets
in 1916. Holst drew his musical themes from the lives and times of the Roman mythological characters after whom the planets were named. Of course, the music is absent a movement dedicated to Pluto, which had not yet been discovered, and it’s missing Earth, which was not a classical planet, leaving a count of only seven.

Figure 1.1.
Adler Planetarium, Chicago. It was dedicated only two months after the announcement of Pluto’s discovery.

Figure 1.2.
The sunlit, spectrum-graced entrance foyer to the Adler Planetarium, in Chicago. Planetarium CEO Paul Knappenberger (left) and the author flank the eight bas-relief plaques from 1930, one for each planet of the solar system—except Pluto, which had not been discovered at the time the plaques were designed and cast.

Figure 1.3.
The statue of Atlas stands tall and mighty, in art deco splendor, along Fifth Avenue at Rockefeller Center, in New York City. The solar system labeled across his shoulders is missing Pluto. The statue was designed by Lee Lawrie in the 1920s, before Pluto was discovered.

Figure 1.4.
Atlas, detail. Rising above Atlas’s six-pack abs and his bulging biceps we see the yoke that displays in relief the eight planets of the solar system, plus the Moon. From right to left we have the symbols for Mercury, Venus, Moon + Earth, Mars, Jupiter (eclipsed by Atlas’s linebacker neck), Saturn, Uranus, and finally Neptune.

Shortly after Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery, Holst began working on a Pluto movement, inspired, of course, by themes of the underworld. He partially completed the work before suffering a stroke. But after an effort to dictate the rest of the movement to one of his students, Holst (with unwitting foresight for Pluto’s fate) abandoned the effort, unhappy with how the work was turning out.

Not letting the music of the spheres rest, composer and Holst scholar Colin Matthews wrote the “missing” Pluto movement in 2000 for the Manchester-based Hallé Orchestra. But with Pluto’s 2006 demotion to the status of “dwarf planet,” Matthews’s notes, though well meaning, might better serve as the first movement of a yet-to-be-written orchestral work that celebrates the exotic icy bodies of the outer solar system.

 

While Clyde Tombaugh
was searching for Planet X, the roaring twenties was in full swing. At the time, most Americans associated the name Pluto with the commercial product Pluto Water, a heavily advertised and widely used mineral water laxative. Promising “Relief for Constipation in 30 minutes to 2 hours,” Pluto Water was bottled on the grounds of the palatial French Lick Springs Hotel in Indiana, about 50 miles south of Bloomington. In a hard-to-forget slogan, the Pluto Water ads further proclaimed, “When Nature Won’t—Pluto Will.” So you wouldn’t have expected Americans of the day to come up with the name Pluto for the newly discovered cosmic object. And they didn’t.

Percival Lowell’s widow, Constance, proposed the name Percival for the new object, which would sound odd to many astronomers’ ears. Yet this gesture was not the first expression of cosmic audacity in the history of planet names. After the English astronomer William Herschel (1738–1822), who we will learn more about later, was convinced he had discovered a real planet in 1781 (the first ever discovered by anyone), he did what any good citizen of an aristocracy would do: he named his new planet after King George III. For years, the planets of the solar system would be identified as Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, and Georgium Sidus. I don’t know about you, but I find something fiunsettling about a planet named George, even if he is a king. Apparently, so did everybody else. Eventually, the Roman nomenclature was resumed, leading to the name Uranus, Roman god of the sky, and son and husband of mother Earth.

Figure 1.5.
A 1932 advertisement for Pluto Water, a popular laxative in America around the time Pluto the planet was named by an 11-year-old girl from England.

By tradition, dating back to Galileo in the early 1600s, planet moons are named for Greek mythological characters in the life of the Greek god whose Roman counterpart is the name of the planet itself. For example, the four brightest moons of Jupiter—Io, Ganymede, Callisto, and Europa—are characters in the life of the Greek god Zeus, for whom Jupiter is the Roman counterpart. But in the lone exception to this rule, partly appeasing the British people, who were dissed by not having a planet they discovered named for their king, the moons of Uranus are named for characters in Shakespearean plays. Among them we find Ariel, Caliban, and Miranda (all from
The Tempest
), Oberon and Puck (both from
A Midsummer Night’s Dream
), and Bianca (from
The Taming of the Shrew
).

The name Pluto was first suggested over breakfast on Friday, March 14, 1930, by Venetia Burney, an 11-year-old schoolgirl in Oxford, England, after her grandfather had read the news story that Lowell Observatory discovered a new planet. Unlike Americans across the Atlantic, Venetia probably never used or even heard of Indiana’s Pluto Water laxative, leaving her free from scatological bias against the name. She had been studying classical mythology in school and of course knew the other planets. With the name Pluto not yet taken, she blurted out to her grandfather, “Why not call it Pluto?,”
2.
knowing that Pluto is, after all, the god of the dead and underworld, the realm of darkness. And what else, if not darkness, prevails 4 billion miles from the Sun?

The rest is history. Or rather, good luck. Venetia’s grandfather, Falconer Madan, was a retired librarian from the Bodleian Library of Oxford University who happened to be friends with many astronomers. Madan suggested the name to Herbert Hall Turner, Oxford professor and former astronomer royal (who, among other credits, coined the term
parsec
),
3.
and Turner promptly cabled the name to fellow astronomers at the Lowell Observatory.

BOOK: The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet
9.75Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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