Lost in space

Sep 27, 2006 at 12:00 am

Though it may come as a shock to generations of stoners who could imagine no higher purpose for it than as a vehicle for Laser Floyd, the planetarium does have other uses.

An equally stunning astronomical factoid is that in addition to a post office, radio station and supermarket, the Vatican has an observatory. Lovers of irony will note that though it comes 375 years too late to help Galileo, the Catholic Church has joined the astronomy game, and now-noted Vatican astronomer, Brother Guy Consolmango SJ, will be appearing at Cranbrook's planetarium to discuss such important cosmic matters as why exactly poor little Pluto recently got the shaft.

This August, those party monsters over at the International Astronomical Union, of which Brother Consolomango is a member, ruled that Pluto is no longer a planet, relegated to the celestial kiddie table of "trans Neptunian objects" and reclassified as a "dwarf planet." (Though I hear Plutonians prefer the term "little world.") A far-off ball of nitrogen and methane ice, which at 2,274 kilometers in diameter is actually smaller than several moons, including our own, Pluto is so distant it takes the puny planetoid 248 years to complete one orbit of the sun.

So what's all the hubbub about a tiny, frigid, lifeless spheroid on the outer rim of the solar system that cannot be viewed by the naked eye and has yet to generate even one invading interstellar army? Well, for 76 years Pluto has enjoyed elite status as one of nine planets, toasted in all the best scientific circles and included in the polystyrene mobiles of untold millions of elementary school students. Though we never were able to lay eyes on it or visit it, Pluto was familiar — it was family and we liked it that way. Then suddenly Pluto found itself on the outs, callously shoved to the wrong side of the solar system's velvet rope, and the confusing change had many people feeling left out in the cold and demanding answers. Heck, Pluto shares its name with an element and a beloved cartoon dog — and even if he isn't smart enough to wear pants or drive a car like Goofy, he's still Disney and that's got to be good for something.

Unfortunately the laws of science are not governed by the gravity of pop cultural significance, adhering instead to more rigorous criteria than simply what's popular. Faced with ever-improving cosmological measuring equipment and decades of nitpicking by the fussier brethren of the scientific community, Pluto was downgraded, in part for its own relative insignificance and in part by an authoritative review of just what constitutes a planet anyway. Now Pluto faces the indignity of being just one in a crowd of round objects drifting in something called the Kuiper belt, a cluster made up of dwarfs, comets, asteroids and other assorted extra planetary space riffraff.

So while the lords of science have been sated, those that kept Pluto in their minds and hearts all these years will find themselves grasping for meaning on a star chart they thought the knew so well. But maybe it's not all bad, perhaps we should take comfort that Pluto has been born again, now officially the outcast that it always seemed to be. The reality is that Pluto is a badass, not meant to play nice with other astral bodies, forever content to follow its own lonely path through the void like some astronomical version of James Dean. —Corey Hall

Brother Guy Consolmagno SJ will deliver a talk, "Pluto and Planets X: Is Pluto a Planet?," at 11 a.m. on Sunday, Oct. 1, at the Cranbrook Institute of Science, 39221 Woodward Ave., Bloomfield Hills. Preregistration required for lecture and 10 a.m. continental breakfast. Members $8, non-members $10. Call 248-645-3210 or visit science.cranbrook.edu.