Point: Long live Pluto

I am neither planning to be an astronomy major nor am I particularly interested in the sciences, but I do believe we should still refer to Pluto as a planet. It takes just one look at contemporary pop culture — a culture in which Pluto has already carved its own planetary niche — to realize that if we choose to give the issue of Pluto a cultural, rather than a scientific, edge, the answer is clear. Yes, science is powerful, but even science cannot triumph over an established mindset.

It is a known fact, even to us, the unscientific ones, that the solar system is constantly changing. As astronomers make new discoveries, we are compelled to accept and internalize a lot of new information. But with all due respect, people’s lax response to astronomical findings shows us that, as noble as the astronomic community’s pursuit is, their work rarely makes a profound difference in most people’s lives. The average person won’t spend too much time pondering over the contents of the newest article in “Astronomy Now.” Most of us can therefore afford to be selective regarding what scientific news we choose to actually integrate within our mindsets, and what news we prefer to push back somewhere in limbo.

Let me not be misunderstood — I do acknowledge the fact that the science community needs to serve its purpose and inform us of its worthy projects and discoveries. At the same time, however, I think that when a change of a scope as large as Pluto being stripped of its planet status occurs, there might be social implications that need to be taken into consideration. As dramatic as it may sound, our generation has been born and raised with the notion that there are nine planets in the solar system. Planet Pluto has been featured in sci-fi literature, comics, television series, animations and games — as a planet. Pluto has created a name for itself as such both in people’s thoughts and in the tangible representations of those thoughts. And once a scientific fact — such as Pluto’s status as a planet — accumulates meaning that transcends its purely scientific purpose, it is difficult to change.

If you still prefer facts to social phenomena, I have those as well. Not only did the decision to demote Pluto result from a vote involving only four percent of the International Astronomical Union’s membership, but Pluto also got the status of a “dwarf planet,” an apparently misleading term which, in a linguistically nonsensical way, still contains the word planet in it.

The fact of the matter is — we cannot argue with emotionless scientific data, but we can still choose to include Pluto when we enumerate the planets of the solar system. If Pluto has proven itself an integral part of our upbringing, left a permanent mark as a planet in our memory, or is simply something we don’t want to change, who can stop us?

Long live Pluto, the planet.

Aleksandra Gjorgievska is a freshman in Pierson College.

Correction: September 15, 2011

An earlier version of this article misspelled the author’s name.


  • laurele

    We can also choose to include all objects in the solar system large enough to be rounded by their own gravity as planets. That encompasses not just Pluto, but Ceres, Haumea, Makemake, Eris, and several more yet-unnamed large Kuiper Belt Objects. Culture is important, but there are strong scientific arguments for a broader planet definition than the one adopted by the IAU, which is why several hundred professional astronomers rejected the IAU demotion in a formal petition. The IAU definition is a dynamical one, based on the position that an object must be gravitationally dominant in its orbit to be a planet. The flaw in that argument is that this depends wholly on where the planet is to the exclusion of what it is. The further an object is from the Sun, the larger an orbit it has to dominate. If Earth were placed in Pluto’s orbit, it would not be a planet either. A definition that takes the same object and makes it a planet in one location and not in another hardly makes sense. Neither does it make sense to have a tiny group of astronomers, most of whom are not even planetary scientists but other types of astronomers, issue a decree that the world is then bound to obey. That is as unscientific as things can get. The facts are what matter here, and the IAU deciion is not based on facts but on interpretation of facts, specifically on a bias that our solar system cannot have too many planets. It is ironic that supporters of Pluto’s demotion accuse their opponents of sentimentality when they themselves use a completely unscientific argument based on convenience to justify their decision.

  • Jerry

    With all due respect, whether or not it is true that “science cannot triumph over an established mindset,” let’s please not pretend that such willful ignorance is a *good* thing! Science offers a systematic, verifiable, and frankly awesome way of understanding the world(s) around us. To generally advocate for the selective acceptance of grounded scientific arguments is at best misguided and at worst dangerously irresponsible. Let’s not forget that plenty of politicians and lawmakers – who every day “make a profound difference in most people’s lives” – once upon a time selectively accepted arguments about the human-ness of African slaves, and to this day continue to selectively accept arguments about evolution or global warming or even HPV vaccination. We should be ashamed to ever engage in such deliberate disregard for the truth.

    Long live Reason.

  • River_Tam

    “A lot of the greatest wizards haven’t got an ounce of logic, they’d be stuck in here forever.”
    - Hermione Granger, speaking about wizards and Yalies.

  • The Anti-Yale

    I thought Galileo settled all this. We don’t know much.

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