As anyone who works in academia can tell you, researchers get into bitter fights over obscure things all the time. Archeologists clash over the dating of Mongolian pottery sherds. Entomologists can come to blows when discussing the mating rituals of a nursery spider. Network theorists, meanwhile, will have Hatfield vs. McCoy style fights over clustering coefficients and epidemic thresholds, and other random words strung together to create jargon.
Unless these debates have something to do with sex or health they generally don’t spill over into the mainstream media. Most of us never hear and certainly don’t care about these issues. Not when there are bills to be paid and kids to feed and more important questions to consider like: Should any actor who plays a noble and daring Star Trek captain *ever* be allowed to do commercials about bran cereal? (My answer: NO)
But then a curious thing happened. Some astronomers got together and decided to reclassify a smallish hunk of rock. And all heck broke loose.*
That rock is called Pluto and it was ‘demoted’ from a planet to a dwarf planet. Now you wouldn’t think that that the scientific classification of something some 5 billion kilometres away (in American units: a kajillion football fields) would fire up the general public that much.
But consider: The California Assembly, in a fit of public policy humour (?!), decided to jokingly ‘denounce’ the International Astronomical Union for ‘scientific heresy.’ The New Mexico House of Representatives, having solved all of its water supply and infrastructure problems, refused to acknowledge the new classification and declared March 13 “Pluto Planet Day.” The controversy filtered all the way down to a small village in the heart of Ontario, where a shopkeeper posted a sign saying “Pluto, we’ll miss you.”
Years later and the issue just isn’t going away. Indeed, there are several Facebook pages called “When I was your age, Pluto was a planet” which have 1000s of members.
So what gives? Why are people still so disturbed by this? Even Venetia Phair (who as an 11-year-old girl with an interest in mythology, suggested the name) said she was “largely indifferent” to the hullabaloo.
Is it because Pluto is also the name of the goofy Disney dog, and thus it has iconic appeal? Are people annoyed that the IAU was mucking about with classifications when it should have been doing something sensible, like changing the name of Uranus?
Is it possible people feel a deeper connection to space-related issues than we realized? Perhaps. We may not always be willing to open our wallets to fund it, but space exploration remains a fundamental part of our culture. The day a human steps out onto the surface of Mars, I can guarantee that at least six billion of us will be glued to to our TVs and computer screens. (And if a Martian jumped out and said boo! while we watched, there’d be six billion people lying around in a dead faint.)
More than anything else though, I think that for Westerners, Pluto represents our increasing frustration with uncertainty. For most people, the church is no longer the forbidding, last-word-on-everything institution it once was. In fact there’s no single “church” any more — there are more denominations now than you can wave a censer at.We’re no longer ruled by kings with divine rights either — governments are more often the subject of jokes than fear.
Education is no longer an exclusive institution — it’s become commoditized (this is good), had its certifications diluted with rampant cheating and the spread of diploma mills (this is bad), and a standard public school education hasn’t really prepared us for living in the 20th century, much less the 21st (really bad — fail!).
War is hazy and unclear (it’s no longer army versus army), and even our sports teams are uncertain, what with players traded on a weekly basis. Indeed, one of the only certainties remaining in life is that the Toronto Maple Leafs will play just well enough to get to the Stanley Cup finals… and drop out in the second round.
Pluto seems to have become a popular line in the sand, er, sky. This far and no farther, we seem to be saying, because “the solar system has nine planets…” is one of the fundamental things we learned as kids.
But if Pluto’s reclassification bugs you, be warned: that tree of life diagram you memorized as a kid?
You don’t even want to know how *that’s* been changed around since you last looked.
(* Didja notice how I avoided using ‘uproar of astronomical proportions’ there? Didja?)