Poor Pluto: reclassified from planet to mere ice body. Does Pluto care? It’s still a heavenly body, and it seems to have been content these past several billion years to keep pushing along the rim of the solar system. No, it’s people who care.
A while ago, at the urging of a friend, I listened to a podcast that made me think about our resistance to new information and ideas. The astrophysicist and educator, Neil deGrasse Tyson, appeared on an episode of the “Hot Ones” podcast series, where famous people submit to being interviewed while eating increasingly hot chicken wings. Toward the end of this exercise in masochism, Tyson says that when he and his colleagues removed Pluto’s status as planet in 2006, he got hate mail from third graders. Those third graders are now adults, and they still hate him.
The bits of information we collect at a young age turn into fixed points in our psyches. Nine planets revolving around the sun, and “God’s in His heaven / All’s right with the world.” Eight planets? The solar system is going to hell in a handbasket.
The uproar is puzzling considering that Pluto was named as a planet only in 1930, too late for Gustav Holst to compose a movement for it in his Planets Suite (1914-1916). The nine-planet count lasted only seventy-six years, and yet long enough to win over several generations.
It wasn’t a repudiation; rather, a recharacterization. No one denies that Pluto still exists. It’s just been assigned a different category in our mental taxonomy.
I call the 2006 reversal puzzling, but I was among those who were disappointed. I was wrong to be. Pluto’s discovery in 1930 was a wonder of astronomical observation. Its revised status in 2006 demonstrated an ongoing determination to get it right.
The mind goes through a lot as it learns, but once ideas have been absorbed, it finds in them comforting certainty. After that, the mind feels it’s unfair to yank it out of that pleasant place to make it start over again. But life requires periodic adjustments. If we don’t make them, we don’t adapt, and if we don’t adapt, we stagnate.
On the one hand, resistance to change keeps us on a course of continuity. Without continuity, there aren’t any standards, norms, morals. There’s no order. Without order, there’s no society. On the other, without a capacity to adapt to inevitable changes, an openness to an ever-evolving society, there’s no civilization. Civilization is many peoples, with their different ideas, traditions and tastes, honoring each other with grace. Preservation and flexibility, conservatism and liberalism: one without the other is stagnation or chaos. Together, they are a dynamo.