With Pluto’s Ousting, a Realization that Curiosity is Invaluable

As South Valley kids get back in classes
 with the new school year now beginning, they’re in for a big
shock when teachers tell them that there are only eight – not nine
– planets in our celestial neighborhood. The solar system ain’t
gonna be the same now that Pluto’s no longer a planet.
As South Valley kids get back in classes with the new school year now beginning, they’re in for a big shock when teachers tell them that there are only eight – not nine – planets in our celestial neighborhood. The solar system ain’t gonna be the same now that Pluto’s no longer a planet.

I used to tell folks Pluto was my favorite planet named after a Walt Disney cartoon character. Alas, I can’t say that anymore – thanks to the International Astronomical Union’s ganging up last week against poor Pluto and voting it off the island of planetary bodies. Bunch of bullies, those stargazers.

In Mrs. Hart’s second-grade class at Hollister’s Sunnyslope School, I recall a mobile hanging from the ceiling showing the different planets’ positions around the sun. The four rocky worlds of Mercury, Venus, Earth and Mars balanced nicely with the four gas giants of Jupiter Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

But Pluto … well, I always felt sorry for tiny Pluto. It never seemed to fit in. Way on the outskirts of our solar system, its runty size was far out of proportion to the other worlds. Consider it the underdog, the neighborhood’s geeky kid who wandered around in its own oddball orbit.

Adding to its mystique was the fact it was discovered – somewhat by accident – by a Kansas farm boy. Clyde Tombaugh was working at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Ariz., searching for a mysterious “Planet X” that Percival Lowell predicted existed beyond Neptune’s orbit. Before the age of digital computers, Tombaugh spent hours on a contraption called a “blink comparator” that contrasted photos of sections of the sky, taken over a span of several nights, so that a moving object would “jump” positions when the observer switched from one image to the next.

On Feb. 18, 1930, Tombaugh noticed one distant object “jump.” And that’s how he discovered a tiny world that became – for 76 years at least – the solar system’s ninth planet..

An 11-year-old girl in England named Venetia Burney suggested the name “Pluto.” As a matter of record, she didn’t name it after Mickey Mouse’s pet dog. It was named after a classical deity of Roman mythology. Pluto was the lord of the dark and cold underworld, a realm much like the one Tombaugh’s celestial body inhabited. Also, the first two letters of the name formed Percival Lowell’s initials.

It’s appropriate a school kid named Pluto. Astronomy – and science overall – is filled with amazing marvels. And the natural curiosity inside children leads them to want to discover these wonders.

We live in the most exciting age of scientific exploration, and most people don’t realize it. Every week, amazing new scientific discoveries are revealed. Perhaps because it happens so frequently, the public has grown use to it. Society has become a bit blase about scientific news items.

For example, on the same day as Pluto’s demotion in our solar system’s hierarchy, astronomers announced a major discovery far more significant than the re-classification of an orbiting body. They announced they’d found evidence that the mysterious “dark matter” of the universe really does exist.

This is a story of literally cosmic proportions. And yet, news reports virtually ignored it. Dark matter makes up 25 percent of the universe. “Normal matter” – that atomic stuff that makes up stars and planets and our bodies – makes up only about 5 percent of the universe. And a perplexing something called “dark energy” makes up the remaining 70 percent of the universe. In coming years, scientists will make revolutionary findings as they figure out what “dark matter” really is and how it forces our universe to expand against the pull of gravity.

On this “pale blue dot” – as scientist Carl Sagan called the Earth – we live on a mere mote in the vast expanse of the cosmos. And yet we tiny creatures can look up and speculate about the stuff that’s out there. The sky holds a great big detective story – a beautiful puzzle that can be solved by us primates if we only use our brains to figure it out.

There are puzzles aplenty. Magically, their solutions always lead to even more intriguing questions.

American schools – including schools here in the South Valley – don’t really inspire students with that mystery and wonder. Recently, teachers have become focused too much on testing kids – rather than instilling in them the awe of discovery for the secrets of the universe.

Developing the innate scientific curiosity in kids and their sense of wonder is more important than making sure students get a “good” grade on a test paper. Hewn that curiosity and thrill of learning, and straight “A’s” will come naturally. Many educators have forgotten that basic fact.

My own interest in science started as a kid. On the playground near my home on Park Hill overlooking Hollister, I’d play on the dome-like jungle gym with my friends, pretending it was our spaceship. We were aliens from a faraway world who had just landed on Earth on a science mission. It was a great game. It made us see the world around us with a different perspective.

We’d look at the park’s vegetation – the trees and bushes– and think they were astonishing species unlike anything we’d seen before in our adventures through the universe. What was this green stuff that stuck out of the ground – stuff called “grass?” And those creature that flew – the birds?

Examining earthlings as we spied on the town of Hollister below, our “alien” eyes saw humans as a strange species using primitive technology. We’d laugh at how backwards was this funny water world three planets away from the star called the sun.

With school starting up, I hope every South Valley teacher who might read this will remember how important the imagination is to a child’s learning process. I hope they also remember we learn best those things that ignite our human joy of discovery.

A true teacher touches not just the head but also the heart.