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Redemption song

The Pluto Files by Neil deGrasse Tyson

Ian Brooks 22 February 2009

Detail from the cover image

Unwittingly or not, Tyson and his team had set Pluto on an irresistible course of change

There is irony hidden in the Scientific Method. A scientist is trained to search for truth, but as you learn how to conduct that search, through long, hard years of experience, you gradually realize that the philosophers be right when they say ‘there is no such thing as truth’. (But don’t tell them I told you.)

One of the tough things you learn about science is that the finish line keeps moving. We’re supposed to be dispassionate, aloof from the concerns of ordinary mortals, guided by higher principals – the aforementioned search for truth. This is, of course, nonsense. Scientists are as passionate as anybody else, and where favorite hypotheses and theorems are concerned, we’re often far more passionate than you might expect.

There’s a fun game you can play: I call it scientist-baiting. I was recently at a conference, and because it was not directly related to my field of research I was getting a bit bored and overwhelmed wandering around the poster presentations and attending the talks. Too much of it was going over my head, so I thought I’d have a little fun. Picking on people randomly, I started trying to challenge them about their work. Frequently I was shot down with a barrage of facts, purely because I didn’t know enough background. But occasionally I’d strike gold and rapidly induce a mild-mannered researcher into a ravening, slobbering beast, quivering with indignation because I had suggested alternate explanations for their data. “How dare you doubt my work?” you could almost hear them thinking. “Don’t you know how much I have invested in this?”

And therein lies the rub. I was having fun at the expense of my fellow attendees because I’m a bit of a bastard when I’m bored. However, we should always be open to new interpretations of our data, and be prepared to assimilate novel concepts. We should be able to roll with those paradigm-shifting punches. Of course, the world, and its human inhabitants, aren’t like that. Neil deGrasse Tyson, Professor of Astrophysics and Director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, found this out to his cost when he was held personally responsible for the demotion of our diminutive planetary neighbor, Pluto, to ‘dwarf planet’ (read LabLit’s interview of Tyson here).

In 1997 Tyson was appointed head of the Hayden Planetarium and took charge of the development of the new Rose Center for Earth and Space. The time had come for an overhaul of how planetaria displayed information to visitors. Once the “night sky show” had been the major focus of a trip, and indeed I have fond memories of visiting the London Planetarium, now sadly closed, with my father when I was a child: the starry blackness filling the dome overhead, the soft and professorial tones of the voiceover explaining comets and planets and stars. This was, of course, years before Hubble, Swift and any number of powerful, modern, space-based telescopes expanded our view of the universe. So, how does one overhaul a planetarium? The Rose Center and the Hayden Planetarium are striking examples of the beauty to be found when science and art meet.

As Professor Tyson explains in his recent book on these events, The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet (W. W. Norton & Co.), which is just out in hardcover this week in the UK, since Copernicus’ time we have accepted that the earth orbits the sun. When you’re building a quarter billion dollar exhibit of the solar system, this is an easy sell before casting your metal sculptures. The planetarium sphere is the sun, cunningly suspended to make it appear as if floats within its glass walled confines. The planets are scale models placed around this behemoth. This information is visual, striking and beautifully illustrated in one of the many full-color panels within the book. However, what about newer, more fluid information like the presence of water on Mars? And what about Pluto and the (at the time) newly discovered Kuiper Belt objects?

Pluto’s moon, Charon, was discovered in 1978 and soon concern was raised over the size of the “moon” and the barycenter, or relational orbit, of the two bodies. It turns out Charon doesn’t so much orbit Pluto, as the dual dwarf planet system orbits a region of empty space; they share a gravity well, you might say. In 1992 the first of the Kuiper Belt objects was discovered, and by the late 1990’s more and more objects were being discovered at the far outer reaches of our solar system. To make matters more complicated, the entire notion of a planet having an orbiting, diminutive moon was thrown into further disarray in 1993. Asteroid Ida, a 30-mile-long rock and iron ‘potato’ in the asteroid belt between Mars and Saturn was opportunistically imaged by the Galileo spacecraft and found to have tiny moon, Dactyl, in a fixed orbit. Clearly our classification system was in serious need of an overhaul.

And thus was the stage set for Professor Tyson and the Hayden Group to quietly, perhaps even accidentally, begin a revolution. Talking with Tyson and reading his book, it is clear to me that these were just scientists trying to do their best in presenting novel information in a clear and understandable way to the public. But unwittingly or not, Tyson and his team had set Pluto on an irresistible course of change. In short, in the Rose Center display, Pluto is not located with the eight planets of our solar system along the walkway that gives the “Scales of the Universe”. Pluto is located elsewhere with the rest of the Kuiper Belt objects. This placement was not noticed by the media until a year after the exhibit opened, but lead to a nationwide tumult and front page news headlines.

Tyson is a wonderful communicator of science and The Pluto Files is a worthy addition to his resume. The book is short, just a couple of hundred pages including appendices, in a deliberate effort to attract readers who might not think the story of Pluto is their ‘thing’, although the price tag (nearly $30) might be off-putting. The book is a light-hearted, whistle-stop tour of the discovery, rise and final “fall” of Pluto. And Tyson’s characteristic sense of humor is apparent throughout. I was reading the advance review copy of the book whilst waiting for a delayed flight at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport – an obvious tautology to anyone who has traveled through O’Hare – and my laughter drew frequent stares from my fellow travelers.

The Pluto Files is more than a primer on Pluto, however. It is a beginner’s guide to solar system astronomy, and its innate readability allows Tyson to wax pedagogical without scaring his readers. We learn about planetary classification systems, its history, and even a little of the psychology of astronomers, whilst getting to giggle at Disney and early American laxatives: Pluto Water – When Nature Won’t, Pluto Will!

To me, as a scientist, the book is also a redemption story. It must have been incredibly hard to take the amount the heat Tyson was faced with. You have to have a thick skin to be a successful scientist, because the nature of our business is defense of your ideas in the face of counter-hypotheses, and scientists sure can be a vocal lot. However, to have the whole world, or at least what appears to be the majority of American public life, staring down their barrels at you must have been hell. And it wasn’t only the public who were gunning for Tyson, but vocal, and influential colleagues and their work groups too. None were more so than the astronomers who had dedicated careers to studying the outer planets, and were banking on a big injection of cash from NASA for the New Horizons mission to Pluto. If Pluto isn’t a planet, why bother investing in a spacecraft that has to travel 5 billion miles? New Horizons is the fastest machine ever built, travelling at 35,000 mph, and was successfully launched in 2006, the same year the International Astronomical Union made Pluto’s demotion official. One of the mission parameters was to “complete the reconnaissance of the solar system”. As Tyson points out, it is far better to say “beginning the reconnaissance of a new part of the solar system previously unvisited”.

That is the take home message in the book. The redemption of Tyson, the courage and foresight of his team at the Rose Center, and Pluto’s true elevation from freakish outer planet, eccentrically orbiting the sun, to primogenitor of an exciting, newly discovered realm on the outskirts of both our solar system and our imaginations, five billion miles from the sun.