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Archive for Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Pluto teaches a new lesson

August 29, 2006

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What is most surprising about Pluto's change of status is not that the world's leading astronomers decided Pluto doesn't really belong in the same category as the rest of the planets. It's the emotional reaction this decision has brought out in people.

One astronomer referred to "hate mail" he received from elementary students. News reports used phrases suggesting that Pluto had been unceremoniously kicked out of "an elite cosmic club." Others used soothing phrases, assuring us that Pluto is still there, but implying that we may see him less often.

"It's like an amicable divorce," said Jack Horkheimer, director of the Miami Space Transit Planetarium, in an Associated Press interview.

Oh, the riveting drama of scientific taxonomy! Can't you just hear the soap opera music?

Yet, I do admit an emotional attachment to Pluto, and it has nothing to do with the cartoon dog, despite what the more doltish broadcasters suggest. Pluto is just cool. In elementary science classes, we learned that it was farthest from the sun, BUT not for long. Because Pluto's orbit crosses Neptune's, in 1979, Pluto became the eighth planet from the center.

How we 10-year-olds enjoyed being right where old textbooks were wrong. What's more, that condition would last until 1999 - a very cosmic sounding date in the distant future, but still in our lifetimes. Then, true believers, Pluto crossed back into ninth place, where it will stay for 228 years.

So, you see how special we young astronomers were. We got to "see" something that won't happen again until 2227 (by Earth's calendar, of course).

There is something about knowledge acquired during childhood that seems more special and precious than all the things we learn later. I don't know if it is because we are so innocent and trusting then, or if it's because the whole world seems at once mysterious and yet observable and knowable.

For some reason, we develop emotional attachments to facts - true or not - that we learn during those curious years. Mercury is interesting because it is so close to the sun. Venus has mystique. Mars is the most Earth-like. Jupiter has the spot. Saturn has rings.

But once you get past that, so many balls of cold rock going in circles can be difficult to differentiate. But there's Pluto, mixing up the orbit every couple hundred years, keeping things interesting.

While the International Astronomical Union debated Pluto's classification, I carried one of our front-page stories on the subject to a fourth- and fifth-grade class where I am a Read Aloud volunteer. They were already following the story.

An inflated, yellow plastic sun hung overhead. Throughout the classroom, roughly to scale, were the other planets in their respective orbits, dangling from the drop ceiling. "What will we do with Pluto?" they asked.

Some recent news stories lamented that Pluto's change of status would cause trouble for schoolteachers, who will have to "scramble" to alter lesson plans. Bah! Elementary astronomers understand that science is a journey to discover knowledge. Scientific fact is amended with the benefit of new information and further reflection.

What better lesson could today's students have than to see the process in action? Even in being demoted, Pluto still busts science class out of a dull orbit.

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