Musings of the Spheres

Hayden Planetarium director Neil deGrasse Tyson preaches a galactic gospel meant to awaken our humanity. Will we listen?

by Paul Hond Published Summer 2010
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Neptunian Blues and Plutonic Love

Jon Stewart probably captured the feelings of a lot of Americans on a recent airing of The Daily Show, when he interrupted Tyson’s litany of reasons for doing what he’d done. Stewart’s face scrunched up in a mask of a child’s aggrieved sense of fairness; he jabbed an accusing finger at his guest and said, choking back a sob, “What did Pluto ever do to you?”

Neil Tyson isn’t cowed by these appeals. “Pluto had it coming,” he told Stewart and the rest of America. No one ever accused an astrophysicist of being sentimental.

In his office, Tyson recalls the morning of January 22, 2001, when the New York Times ran a headline on the front page that said: “Pluto No Longer a Planet? Only in New York.” It seemed that a Times journalist had discovered, a year after the Rose Center opened, that something was missing from the Hayden’s exhibits of the solar system. That was because the science committee for the Rose Center’s design and construction, headed by Tyson, had decided to classify the major objects of the solar system by like properties: the four terrestrial planets, the four gas giants, and — well, Pluto seemed to have more in common with the countless icy objects out in the Kuiper Belt. And wouldn’t Pluto be happier lumped with its brethren, instead of being a planetary oddball?

“If Pluto were as close to the sun as the Earth is,” says Tyson, “heat from the sun would evaporate Pluto’s ice and it would grow a tail. We’ve got words for tailed objects in the universe. We call them comets.”

This bit of scientific reasoning didn’t stop Tyson from receiving hate mail in crayon from third graders, who, like Stewart, couldn’t understand why their cute little planet, which shared a name with a Disney dog, should be kicked off the planetary playground.

“It’s love,” says Tyson. “There’s no other way to interpret what happened except that people are connected in a visceral way to Pluto as a planet. I was surprised by the intensity with which people expressed their emotions over what we had done.”

With all the angry letters and phone calls, Tyson could hardly focus on his work. For catharsis, he wrote a book called The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet. A PBS program based on the book aired this past March, starring the telegenic Tyson, who guides us through Pluto’s phases, from its discovery in 1930 at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, by astronomer Clyde Tombaugh (the same year, as it happened, that a certain lovable dog debuted in the Disney animated short The Chain Gang), to the decision in 2006 by the International Astronomical Union to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet — six years after Tyson and the Hayden had gone where no planetarium had gone before.

Pluto’s demotion (or admission, if you prefer) to the belt of icy objects ringing the solar system does have a significant impact on at least one other planet: Neptune, named after Pluto’s mythological brother, has been pushed to the end of the line. That’s a tough pill to swallow for a gas giant with two moons. But Neptune, like Pluto before it, might do well to heed some wisdom from Tyson himself. The words appear as an epigraph to Tyson’s memoir:

Beyond the judgment of others
Rising high above the sky
Lies the power of ambition.

Oh, and Pluto — if you see Apophis out there, tell him we’ve got enough problems.

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