NOVA Ponders Pluto: Why We Still Love Our Bastard Planet

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It might surprise you to learn that I do not possess a degree is astronomy. Nor astrophysics. Nor gravitational wave astronomy.

I know, shocker.

So consider yourself warned: All of the thoughts and opinions expressed here are from a newbie to the debate. And an inexperienced newbie to boot.

I sat down over the weekend to watch a screener of the latest NOVA special, The Pluto Files, which airs tonight on PBS and debuts online here tomorrow. And all awkward comedy sequences aside, I found it a rather revealing glimpse of how the astronomy world functions – as a disparate, diverse mashup of individual voices, from university professors to backyard astronomers, all gazing into the cosmos in a bid to enhance our knowledge of the universe.

A few criticisms right out of the gate: Sometimes I’m not quite sure why NOVA feels it necessary to reach for such a wacky tone. This special is structured as something of an Indiana Jones road trip, with Neil deGrasse Tyson suited up in a cowboy hat as he traverses the country, surveying the fallout of his decision ten years ago at the Hayden Planetarium to stop calling Pluto a planet. There are scenes that are clearly staged, where Tyson tries to play cute with Pluto at Disney World and where he stages chats in small-town diners and barbershops. These are painful asides, and NOVA would be well advised to stick to what they do best. (More at Techland: The All-Time Hottest Witches)

I remember hearing about the initial uproar surrounding this Pluto decision way back when, but I never recall hearing the specific reasoning or rationale. Pluto was a small hunk of rock that orbits through our solar system in a weird pattern; that’s what I remember from my grade school days.

But tonight’s NOVA special, divided up into three key parts, is a revealing look at the scientific process in action. We start with deGrasse debating his contemporaries as to why Pluto is not a planet At Harvard University’s football field, we watch the scientists take to the stands, tossing out theories as to why Pluto behaves less like a planet than an asteroid, and then why the shape of Pluto should be taken into account. If it looks like a planet, and behaves like a planet – some seem to believe – then of course it should be planet.

Ultimately, though, Tyson doesn’t think that Pluto fits the bill. Its moon doesn’t orbit Pluto; the two celestial bodies sort of orbit each other. And thanks to more sophisticated telescopes, we now realize that Pluto isn’t out there standing tall and proud at the edge of the universe, but is merely the biggest object in a ring called the Kuiper Belt. Similar to the asteroid belt, the Kuiper Belt consists of small remnants of the Solar System’s formation. Pluto is part of this orbiting mass, merely the largest chunk in this floating sea of space junk.

Or is it? This debate is fascinating, as is Tyson’s journey to Streator, Illinois, the hometown of Clyde Tombaugh, the man who discovered Pluto. In learning Tombaugh’s back story, we see how a self-taught farm boy discovered one of the most important celestial bodies. In his barn, we see his leftover homemade telescopes, made out of plywood and soda cans. Science as the sport of the ordinary citizen. I just love it. On his way out of town, Tyson swings by to see the stained glass mural of Tombaugh at a Streator church, and it’s hard not to feel a little bad that some 80 years after its 1930 discovery, Tyson has demoted this local saint. Cutting-edge science has cost him his legacy. (More at Techland: 18 Android Apps to Get You Started)

As, admittedly, a total outsider to the topic, what I enjoyed most about the special was the way the discussion progressed to a more thorough analysis of the Kuiper Belt. Before this program, I do not believe I’ve ever heard about this area of space, and I was startled to see the disagreements erupt in the scientific community, when the International Astronomical Union reclassified Pluto as a “plutoid,” upending our conventional definitions of planets. There’s genuine disagreement here – disagreement that’s led Tyson to post a rather remarkable, official plaque at the Hayden Planetarium, stating that there is no agreed upon scientific definition of “planet.” These disagreements are no doubt going to grow even more contentious thanks to the New Horizons mission. Led by principal investigator Alan Stern, the mission launched a probe in 2006, that should be reaching the orbit of Pluto in five and a half years. Stern says the mission will confirm Pluto as a new sort of planet – a dwarf planet.

Let the disagreements intensify.

Anyway, the NOVA special has some seriously pathetic hijinks mixed in, in a bid to make this cross-country investigation a little more peppy and “accessible.” I don’t really need the pep, but I can understand why they did it. Personally, I was impressed enough by the science alone. This is compelling stuff, and NOVA hits the nail on the head, in revealing all the dimensions of the debate. What is pluto? And as our technology surges forward in sophistication, how does it alter our understanding of what our Solar System is, and how we got here?

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