Neil deGrasse Tyson on how the Pluto debate began

Neil deGrasse Tyson: I was baptized into the planet world when we designed our exhibits here in New York City at the American Museum of Natural History, 10 years ago.

That’s Neil deGrasse Tyson of that museum’s Hayden Planetarium and the PBS series NOVA ScienceNOW. He’s talking about the museum exhibit that helped launch the debate a decade ago over Pluto.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: We wanted to create an exhibit that had a high shelf-life. We looked around at the trend lines where things were headed the solar system. What we found in the mid-90s was that researchers were discovering new objects in the outer solar system, objects that were small like Pluto, icy like Pluto, with elongated orbits like Pluto, with tipped orbits like Pluto. And we thought to ourselves, maybe it’s not that Pluto was the 9th planet. Maybe Pluto was the first object of a new class of objects that populates this outer zone in the solar system.

That museum exhibit at the American Museum of Natural History in New York led to what Tyson called a “firestorm” of response and debate. Six years later, in 2006, astronomers voted to demote Pluto to dwarf planet status. The controversy continues. But Tyson pointed out there’s a much bigger picture out there to know and understand, for example in the 400 planets now known to orbit stars beyond our sun.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Let’s celebrate the infinite variety in the universe rather than ignore it and worry about just these nine objects that have been discovered historically.

Dr. Tyson’s recent book is called The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America’s Favorite Planet. It’s the subject of a NOVA documentary set for release in early March 2010. Many people were upset when Pluto was demoted from planet status to dwarf planet status, thus disrupting the mnemonic, “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas,” and Mother no longer served pizza. Dr. Tyson advocates that educators re-imagine how we teach the solar system.

Neil deGrasse Tyson: Want to learn about the solar system? Choose physical ideas. How about rings? That would be Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. How about ice? That would be all the comets, plus Pluto and some of the moons of Jupiter. How about ice caps? That would be Mars and Earth. How about magnetic fields? How about the possibility of life? How about liquid water? How about habitable zones? Choose your scientific subject and then call from all that is in the solar system; those objects that serve the needs of that particular conversation. That’s how we should be thinking about the solar system. Not rote memory about the sequence of the names of these nine objects in order from the sun. There’s no science in that.

February 15, 2010

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