Pluto Is Dead, and You Killed It!

This morning on the Metro, as I commuted to my job (which I continue to mention because I am so happy to have one!), I opened up the Express newspaper, which is a free, brief version of The Washington Post handed to DC area commuters on weekday mornings.  On the second page of today’s Express is a picture from an anti-de-planetization-of-Pluto protest in Seattle that took place yesterday.

The photo shown in the Express is the top photo on this page.  In the photograph, passionate young people exercise their right to speak out on a controversial issue.

Why all the controversy? Personally, it makes no difference to me whether Pluto is considered a planet or not. But I see that there are others who are deeply invested in Pluto’s status.

One theory someone shared with me is that people’s conviction that Pluto is a planet is mostly a trend: something to jump on the bandwagon and care about, a bandwagon driven in part by the fact that Pluto is a Disney character.

I don’t doubt that this is the case for some people, just as so many other ideas and preferences are trendy. But I also think it’s valid that many feel genuinely disoriented by the change in Pluto’s classification. People get attached, understandably, to their concepts of reality, of how the universe works. They may intellectually accept the new information that re-classifies Pluto, but at a perhaps more emotional level, it could be hard to let go.

What does all this have to do with museums? Air and space museums present the public with exhibits about the planets – and they have to make some changes when a planet becomes demoted! The Museum of Science in Boston created a new planetarium show to provide further information to the public.  Air and space museums, including the National Air and Space Museum in DC and Virginia, have hosted Mike Brown, author of How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming. Interestingly, New York’s American Museum of Natural History stirred up controversy in 2001 when it demoted Pluto ahead of its time.

New information gives museums extra work to do, but it’s what science is all about – and it’s one of many reasons museum work stays interesting. Sixty years from now, I hope I can visit a museum about astronomy and see all sorts of information no one knows right now.

Happy Pi(e) Day everyone!


About Laura

Paralegal with Master of Arts in Teaching in Museum Education, frequent museum visitor, based in Washington, DC. I care about what museums can do, both in terms of public offerings and internal practices, to make the world a better place. I blog about museum education ("informed"), the social work of museums ("humane"), and visitor experience ("citizenry").
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8 Responses to Pluto Is Dead, and You Killed It!

  1. Stephanie says:

    1) As an astronomy lover, science advocate, and NOVA watcher, I encourage all who are even remotely interested in the Pluto “debate” to watch this episode of NOVA from last year: .This episode, hosted by Neil deGrasse Tyson (Director of the Rose Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, and a Ph.D. in Astrophysics), discusses why Tyson, as a museum professional and scientist, demoted Pluto in 2001 and how he has come to understand the anxiety surrounding its demotion. Great episode and great points.

    2) While I disagree with the protesters, I whole-heartedly respect their right to express their displeasure and love that museums have become forums for these discussions. Hopefully more institutions will follow such an example…

    3) As a Seattle resident, how did I miss this protest?

  2. Diana says:

    I honestly think that there are issues much more pressing than “planet killers” going on in the world right now… plus, I think it’s important for us to be open to and flexible about new scientific information. We can’t always let tradition or emotions get in the way of our receptiveness to new ideas… but, that’s just my opinion. 😉

    • disciullo says:

      Yeah–I think that so many of the pressing issues in the world (curing diseases, keeping the environment livable, preventing injuries, dealing with tragedies like what’s going on in Japan) *depend* on scientists having support (financial as well as public opinion) to learn new information and, if necessary, revise old incorrect information. Like Stephanie said, I support the right of people to protest the demotion of Pluto. But scientific debates are not resolved with picket signs alone. That’s where educational institutions (like museums) can come in. =D

      • Diana says:

        That’s a good point. 🙂 I hope that their next stop after this rally will be to take the kids to an astronomy museum so that they can learn more about why Pluto was demoted. I noticed that the kids were all from the same writing class and that they were accompanied by their parents and staff. I wonder if the kids sincerely believe that Pluto should be reclassified again as a planet or if this is something the staff and/or parents encouraged them to do for the “experience.” If I were a parent, I’m not too sure I would encourage my kid to join the protest unless they sincerely wanted to. I mean, Pluto still exists. Nothing physically has changed; the only thing that has changed is Pluto’s classification. I don’t think I’d want to teach my kid to be overly rigid and resistant to new scientific ideas. The world/universe and our scientific knowledge about it is constantly being changed and updated and improved… we have the right to question these changes, but at the same time, we need to try to be adaptable and flexible…

      • Diana says:

        I guess it just bothers me that there doesn’t seem to be any logic in their argument for reinstating Pluto as a planet. If my kid had a solid argument based on scientific fact for why Pluto should be remain a planet, then by all means, he/she can and should protest. But with everything else going on in the world right now, it just seems kind of silly to encourage such passion in a topic that doesn’t really “matter” in the grand scheme of things. I hope I don’t sound too heartless… 😦

      • disciullo says:

        I agree, arguments about Pluto’s classification should be based on scientific reasoning and evidence. Science can’t just be about people believing what they want to believe.

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