*Yes, I'm still calling it a planet.
Pluto has existed as a planet for my entire lifetime. I remember reading a book about it when I was in grade school; one of those Scholastic publications, I suspect. I found the story of Pluto's discovery to be strangely gripping, and I can still remember the names of the scientists who made up the story: Percival Lowell, who thought there were canals on Mars and had pioneered the search for what he referred to as "Planet X," and Clyde Tombaugh, the man who finally discovered the planet.
|Left: Pluto from 476,000 miles away; Right: Mountains on the surface, from about 7,600 miles. (Source: NASA)|
*In the same way, perhaps, that I liked the baseball player Yogi Berra because of Yogi Bear.
As critical of Neil deGrasse Tyson as I've been in the past, I think his book on Pluto is wonderful, and his description of Pluto as "America's favorite planet" is both perceptive and endearing. The decision to change Pluto's status to that of a dwarf planet may be technically correct, but at the same time it points out why science fact is so much more boring than science fiction: it completely lacks any sense of romance, of mystery. It seems likely that the fact Pluto was discovered by an American had something to do with it's downgrading.
But what does it prove, other than that Holst's work can be performed as originally written? Not a thing to my mind. Pluto remains, for me, a planet - period. The sent back by the New Horizons spacecraft - taking more than nine years, and traveling over 3 billion miles - have made the tiny planet so immediate, so real. Looking back at it - from that paperback book I read nearly 50 years ago to the tiny specks of light visible in the night sky - it is still amazing that something so far away and so dead can become so alive. What Lowell and Tombaugh would have thought had they seen those pictures! Dwarf planet, my foot!
This week Pluto came full circle, from one astronomer's distant dream to another's discovery of a speck on a photoplate to a planet that has become every bit as real as our own moon - more real, in its way, than most of the other planets in the outer group. No wonder that, next to Earth itself, it remains my favorite planet as well.