I. Why Pluto Matters
"Stop Planetary Discrimination!"
"Pluto Was Framed!"
"Dear Earth: You Suck. Love, Pluto."
"Pluto is still a planet. Bitches."
So read a small sampling of the defiant T-shirt and bumper sticker slogans that emerged in late 2006 after the International Astronomical Union (IAU), meeting in Prague, opted to poke the public with a sharp stick. The union's general assembly voted to excommunicate the ninth planet from the solar system, thus abruptly stripping Pluto of a status as much cultural, historic, and even mythological as scientific.
In the astronomers' defense, it had become increasingly difficult to justify calling Pluto a planet without doing the same for several other more recently discovered heavenly objects--one of which, the distant freezing rock now known as Eris (formerly "Xena"), turns out to be larger. But that didn't mean the experts had to fire Pluto from its previous place in the firmament. In defining the word "planet," they were arguably not so much engaged in science as a semantic exercise, meaning that instead of ruling Pluto out, they could just as easily have ruled a few new planets in, as a group of scientists, historians, and journalists had in fact proposed. But the IAU rejected that compromise for a variety of technical reasons: Pluto is much smaller than the other eight planets; it orbits the sun in a far more elliptical manner; its gravitational pull is not strong enough to have "cleared the neighborhood around its orbit" of other significant objects and debris…
People were aghast. Not only did they recoil at having to unlearn what they had learned as children, and perhaps the chief thing they remembered about astronomy. On some fundamental level their sense of fair play had been violated, and their love of the underdog provoked. Why suddenly kick Pluto out of the planet fraternity after letting it stay in for nearly a century, ever since its 1930 discovery? "No do-overs," wrote one cartoonist.
Soon websites started sprouting up encouraging people to vote on Pluto's status and override the experts. A Facebook group entitled "When I was your age, Pluto was a planet" drew a million and a half members. New Mexico, the state where Pluto's discoverer, Clyde Tombaugh, had built an astronomy program, took particular offense. Its House of Representatives voted unanimously to preserve Pluto's planethood and named March 13, 2007, "Pluto Planet Day." Surveying it all, the American Dialect Society selected "plutoed" as its 2006 word of the year--as in, "you plutoed me." The society offered this definition: "to demote or devalue someone or something, as happened to the former planet Pluto when the General Assembly of the International Astronomical Union decided Pluto no longer met its definition of a planet."
Even many scientists were upset. "I'm embarrassed for astronomy," remarked Alan Stern, the chief scientist on NASA's New Horizons mission to Pluto and beyond. Stern questioned the legitimacy of the Pluto demotion process: "Less than 5 percent of the world's astronomers voted," he charged. Other experts also dissented, even as some wags dubbed the IAU the "Irrelevant Astronomical Union." Comedians had a field day. Science had opted to "cut and run" on Pluto, quipped Bill Maher. The onetime planet had been forced to join its "own kind" in the outer solar system, "separate but equal," added Stephen Colbert. There were about a million other jokes, many of which made the scientific community, supposedly calm and hyper-rational, sound more than a little capricious in this instance.
Ultimately the Pluto decision pleased almost no one; it may even be re-debated at the next IAU general assembly, slated for August of 2009 in Rio de Janeiro. But if that's the case, how could this planetary crackup happen in the first place? Didn't the scientists involved foresee such an outcry from the public? Did they simply not care? Was the Pluto decision really scientifically necessary?
Such questions implicate far more than our current conception of the solar system, or how the mobiles overhanging baby cribs will look. The furor over Pluto is just one particularly colorful example of the rift that exists today between the world of science and the rest of our society. It's a divide especially pronounced in the United States, which is simultaneously the world's scientific leader--at least for the moment--and yet also home to an overarching culture that often barely seems to know or care. (Unless science messes with Pluto, that is.)
It's a stunning contradiction, when you think about it. This country features a massive science infrastructure, supported by well over one hundred billion dollars annually in federal funding and sporting a vast network of government laboratories and agencies, the finest universities in the world, and innovative corporations that conduct extensive research. Thanks to such investments, we built the bomb, reached the moon, decoded the genome, and created the Internet. And yet today the United States is also home to a populace that, to an alarming extent, refuses to accept either the fact or the theory of evolution, the scientifically undisputed explanation of where our species came from; is in dangerous retreat from childhood vaccines, one of medicine's greatest advances and the savior of a million lives per year by the end of the 20th century ; has become politically divided over the nature of reality itself, such that college educated Democrats are now more than twice as likely as college educated Republicans to believe that global warming is real and human caused ; and stands on the verge of allowing us to fall behind other nations, like India and China, in the race to lead the world in science in the 21st century.
And if that final lapse does occur--if we let it--surely part of the reason will be that most of our citizens have only fleeting encounters with a science world that can come off as baffling, intimidating, or even downright unfriendly. Just 18 percent of Americans know a scientist personally, according to survey data, and even fewer can name the government's top science agencies: The National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation. When polled in late 2007 and asked to name scientific role models, 44 percent of people didn't have a clue. They simply couldn't give an answer. And among those respondents who were able come up with specific names, the top selections were either not scientists, or not alive: Bill Gates, Al Gore, Albert Einstein.
No wonder that even as our scientists wake up each morning and resume the task of remaking the world, the American public all too rarely follows along--leading to recurrent flare-ups like the Pluto episode, in which people suddenly catch wind of what scientists have been up to and react with anger, alarm, or worse.
The snubbing of Pluto won't have dire consequences back here on Earth, but other consequences of the science-society divide can be far more damaging. We live in a time of climatic change and energy crisis, of widespread ecological despoilment and controversial biomedical research, of global pandemic fears, nuclear proliferation worries, and tech-savvy terrorist attacks; and on the verge of path-breaking new discoveries in genetics and neuroscience (to name just a few fields) that could redefine who we are and even upend our society. It's a time when science is pivotal to our political lives, our prosperity, and even to our lifestyles and habits. And yet again and again, we find a disturbing disconnect between the knowledge contained in our greatest minds and how we live our lives, set our policies, define our identities, and inform and entertain ourselves.