Still Waiting to Be Consulted

Fleur LaDouleur considers the demise of Pluto and why humanitists weren't in on the big decision.

September 7, 2006

Those of us in the humanities were reminded recently of our place in the universe. Here's the deal: When space was handed out, we were out having coffee and lost our place in line to ... wandering cognitive scientists. But the coffee was good and gave us a chance to ponder yet again what we thought were the very serious questions: Was Heidegger a Nazi? Was Manet an Impressionist or was that Monet? Is the universe -- oops, the university -- in ruins?  We learned on August 24, however, that a decision of importance to those interested in knowledge in general was made without our input and that -- on top of it all -- this decision involved shrinking the available space in the university -- oops, the universe -- allotted to humanistic endeavors. Is this gerrymandering? You bet. And Pluto's out. We're down from nine to eight in our naming rights, and that's what humanists do -- we name things.

I was prepared to research this decision. Before going to Belize last summer, I had taken my daughter, Lucy, to the Kennedy Space Center and we had bought a book about space. Find the Constellations was written by H.A. Rey and published first in 1954. You might remember that H.A. Rey was the illustrator of the Curious George series, which his wife, Margret Rey, penned. In fact, one of the Curious George stories has George blast off into space ( Curious George Gets a Medal). H.A. was an amateur astronomer so he wrote and illustrated this guide to the wandering planets for children. Here's what it says in the index, under "Pluto":  "Planet Pluto discovered as recently as 1930." Here is how the planet is described: "Ninth, and so far, last of the planets; 3,700 million miles from Sun; only about 1,400 miles across. One moon. His trip around Sun takes almost 250 Earth-years. Don't go there unless you are equipped to stand a cold of about 400 degrees below." You don't have to be a literary critic to see that Rey was promising ("so far") that even more planets would eventually be discovered.

I needed to check more sources, so I consulted Lucy's bookshelf. Here's what 1,001 Facts About Space, published in 2002, has to say about Pluto: "The most distant of all the planets, Pluto is the least understood." And here's what Dogs in Space (1993), by Nancy Coffelt, has to say: "There is very little light on Pluto. Dogs in space are far from the Sun. They are very near the edge of the Solar System, where it is cold and dark and lonely." Coffelt claims that dogs like it in space because there are no cats there -- but the dogs cramped on Pluto don't look too happy. I had learned that Pluto was small, dark, cold, lonely, and misunderstood. Was this why scientists were cavalierly jettisoning it?

I turned to the Internet and found that the body of scientists responsible for the momentous decision is called the International Astronomical Union. This organization has 8,858 members. The Modern Language Association, by contrast, has "over" 30,000 members (notice which number is more precise). Clearly, democracy was not at work. I read the IAU resolutions that were passed in August. They apparently come from what is known as the "Planet Definition Committee" (I'm not kidding). Resolution 6A creates a "new class of objects for which Pluto is the prototype" and which are called (see Resolution 6B) "plutonian objects." We are told that astronomers chose the term "plutonian" instead of "pluton" after checking with geologists. I also found out that "plutonians" are really just a sub-category of "trans-Newtonian objects." In a footnote, we read that "An IAU process will be established to assign borderline objects into either dwarf planets and [sic?] other categories." How can I get elected to the borderline objects committee?

Just when you think you are a humanist finished with playing with language for the day you discover another doosy. The IAU states that one of the main reasons for no longer considering Pluto a "classical" planet but a "dwarf" planet is that Pluto "has not cleared the neighborhood of its orbit." WOW.  Neighborhood -- are we talking community here? What does Pluto need to clear its neighborhood of, exactly? I see racial overtones looming.

My colleagues in Classics are pissed, with Latinists especially up in arms. You've got the Sun at one end of the solar system -- is anyone going to mess with the designation of "the" Sun as a sun? -- so it was proper, even poetic, to have H-E-double-toothpicks at the other end, where it's really dark and lonely and cold (pace the idea of burning in Hades). Now we have, hmmm ... the Sun (let's rename it Apollo) at one end and Uranus?, Neptune? -- who can really keep them straight? -- at the other. What's next? Should we replace all the names of planets or pieces of rock out there with numbers and rely on the mathematicians to keep track of them? Are the nice stories of lions and tigers and bears going to Pluto in a hand-basket also? On that note, should we pretend there is really no hell and that our parents invented it so we would do our homework?

When I was a graduate student in the humanities I had a boyfriend who was in physics. I was pretty proud to be dating a "theorist," a word that all us would-be literary theorists liked to say as often as possible. He was odd in a good way with some odd-in-a-bad-way friends, and even though it didn't work out I've always had a crush on the discipline of physics. I can report, however, that he once told me very seriously that his professors believed they were the ones answering "the big questions" and that he had bought into this. In other words, anyone else's questions just weren't as big. Even history's.  Even philosophy's. Being in a humanistic discipline that doesn't attain to such heights, I marveled at the chutzpah. In any event, I think this goes a long way toward explaining why Pluto has suddenly been cut down to size: physicists and astronomers don't only want to reserve the big questions (Where do we come from? What are we? What's going on? -- to quote Gauguin, or maybe Joyce Carol Oates) for themselves, they want to demote celestial bodies. The universe is a big chess game and someone's got to move the pieces, they imagine. (You have probably noticed that all physicists play chess.)

Finally, as a baby-boomer -- and therefore as a tenured radical -- I bring, along with my humanities baby-boomer colleagues, a perspective on Pluto's demise that may be traced to German Romanticism and all that crying over the ruins of Greece and Rome: I loved Pluto. I loved having nine planets because I could then divide them into threes. This was not only a good mnemonic device, it looked pretty. Dividing eight into fours or twos does not come natural. I also liked the recognition of the outsider, the little guy, the underdog. As children, we liked the fact that Pluto was always dark and always cold, like the spooky closet in our rooms. No matter how many times we mixed up Jupiter and Neptune and Mercury and Saturn, we knew that Pluto was there, at the end of the line, the caboose of the solar system. I know many people of my generation who would much rather have seen a man walk on Pluto than on the Moon, even if it took him 2,000 light years to get there and even if he never came back.

Other recent decisions in the scientific community have also been pushed through committees without the input of the humanities. As everyone knows, any bona fide humanist reads The New Yorker. The bona fide among you will recall a recent article in that magazine on the "Fields Medal," the big shot medal in mathematics (we thought it was the Nobel Prize -- wrong again). According to The New Yorker, this Fields Medal business could lead to increased global warming, as Russian and Chinese scholars duke it out. (By the way, the Russian guy, who lives with his mother and has no friends, sounds suspiciously like a humanist). I am not saying that if someone from, say, modern languages and literatures had been on the committee that world peace would be ensured; I am saying that that person could have communicated in the native tongues to help sort out misunderstandings -- translation is, after all, just another way of naming things.

There's another science decision that has a human aspect, but about which we have been, again, not consulted. I refer to President Bush's insane desire to get a man back on the Moon by the end of the decade and (presumably) a different guy on Mars by the end of some other decade. I know a bit about this controversy and here's what I've been able to gather: Bush is a humanist; most scientists aren't. Hmmm ... make that Bush is a media hog, most scientists aren't. I've read a lot about the history of humans going into space and I know that the friction between scientists who want to do science in space and guys who want to do road trips there has been around at least since Eisenhower. Scientists, in other words, want to learn about space; the other guys want to go there. It's kind of like Galileo and Newton debating Lewis and Clark. Now, if I truly believed that sending a guy to the Moon and to Mars would actually yield something -- say, the discovery of a lost Munch painting or the Holy Grail (to get Dan Brown off our humanist backs) -- then I might be all for it. What we do know scientists will find there, however, is in the end excruciatingly boring:  sand, dust, rocks, evidence that a bazillion years ago there was water, rocks, Jesus' face on the side of a cliff, more rocks. And although some of the snippets thought up by the Apollo astronauts to describe their experiences on the Moon could be termed poetic -- "It was so empty, man" -- most showed no sign of poetic impulse, or even a poetic pulse -- "My wonker stings, too, man." If they'd send humanists to the Moon it might be a different story, but they won't. They haven't even sent a woman or a person of color of color. When NASA had the chance to send an old person to space they sent Glenn and he had already been there! Hello? Or should I say Hell-o?

I'd like to end with Georges Méliès, who started the whole "film the Moon" craze. Méliès was a wonderful silent film director and he was French. That gave him all kinds of license. He made two short films that are of interest here: A Trip to the Moon (1902) and The Eclipse (1907). In the latter film, the Sun (a woman) and the Moon (a man) flirt with each other to the point of undergoing some kind of climax, that is, eclipse. It's pretty racy. In A Trip to the Moon, a fat rocket catapults into the cheesy Man in the Moon and this is a good scene for teaching students the phrase "phallic symbol." W.E.B. Dubois is famous for having written in the early 1900s that the question of the century would be the color line; Méliès revealed the second major question, the goings-on on the Moon. Some would have it that in the 21st century we are past the color line; they are, unfortunately, wrong. Others would like to believe we are done with the Moon; they are, unfortunately, wrong. But we do seem to be done with the nine planet consortium.

Returning to nomenclature, I wonder the following: Can we take the name Pluto and give it to the Moon? Other planets' moons have names -- why can't ours? Or how about Charon? That was the name of Pluto's moon, but since Pluto is no longer a planet Charon has been recategorized as a "satellite" of Pluto. Can I get on the committee that decides these things? Who's on the committee on committees for the IAU? Will this count as "professional service"? Will I get a boost in salary?

Not in this universe -- oops, university.


Fleur LaDouleur is the pseudonym of a professor of humanities at a Midwestern university.


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