In 2000, astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of New York City's Hayden Planetarium (for us scientist-loving types) and People Magazine's Sexiest Astrophysicist Alive (for us celebrity-loving types), downsized Pluto from:
a) a super-cute planet that shared a name with a super-cute Disney character
b) a tiny, icy body with a drunken orbit in the Kuiper Belt.
His decision impacted Earth with galactic speed. Which is to say, no one noticed for a year.
At which point, New York Times reporter Kenneth Chang "cast our decision in the manner of a headline that would do the New York Post proud," Dr. Tyson noted in a phone call from Las Vegas (where the airport bookstore didn't have a science section. "No critical thinking before you bet," he hypothesized.)
"Pluto's Not a Planet? Only in New York," Chang's headline read.
Cue: the all-American freak-out.
School kids demanded Tyson's "Why" in block letters, "because I can't read cursive."
Pro-Pluto-planetary astrophysicists saw the data differently.
Relatives and former neighbors of Clyde Tombaugh, the self-educated astronomer who realized a Boston patriarch's astro-dream and rightly forged a place in America's DIY myth when he discovered Pluto in 1931 using a telescope built from farm equipment, powered by lenses ground in his family's kitchen, found their local hero's Big Find re-called as some kind of quasi astro-zero.
Why was the new technical designation for the same small cold lump of stuff getting folks so hot and bothered? Tyson wondered.
You can see the answer for yourself when NOVA airs their TV version of Tyson's book, The Pluto Files, on March 2.
(I believe this is where I'm supposed to say, "Check PBS listings for your local channel and time." And then ask you to donate money. But I'll point you to the show's promos instead, which feature Stephen Colbert, Diane Saywer, Jon Stewart and Brian Williams being très sci-geeky/funny as they skewer the reflexive dead-end-ness of "l'universe? c'est moi!" partisan thinking.
("Are you saying 'separate but equal?'" Colbert asks Tyson with a grin that betrays their mutual fan-dom.)
The Pluto Files is informative, fun viewing, especially if you're the kind of person who cracks a smile watching two camps of opposing scientists build a scale model of the solar system using pediments, Hoppity-hops, bocci balls and bb's on the Harvard University football field.
But what makes the show, um, rock, is its positive working model of how to have - and survive - an intellectual disagreement.
Could Americans apply this coolly passionate mindset to hot political issues like health care?
You betcha, Tyson says. And by gum, we should.
"In science, there's a fundamental truth inside the argument we're trying to have," he says.
Opposing parties are "educated on the facts." Both sides believe "that ultimately there's some hope of convergence."
"That's an important model for the world."
In politics as traditionally practiced, "everyone's got to fight from one corner to the other," he says.
As a child, Dr. Tyson wondered how many scientists had become U.S. presidents. He paged through his World Book encyclopedia and discovered:
"Attorney, attorney, attorney, business guy, attorney."
"I said, 'Why are they all lawyers?'" he recalls.
"Lawyers are paid to argue. In that model, there's no appeal to objective truth. This told me why the world is so marked with conflict."
Which brings us back to how The Pluto Files can improve the current tenor of American debate - and our ability to discuss what divides us with passions intact.
The players in The Pluto Files retain their passion as they pursue a truth based in fact.
Pro-Pluto-as-Planet scientist Alan Stern of Boulder, CO faces off with Tyson in wearing dark glasses and cowboy boots at high noon, celebrating their disagreement by sending it up lightly, as they set their facts side-by-side.
The residents of Tombaugh's home town offer their take on Tyson's decision while paging through gun magazines in the barber shop... and listen to his.
And then there's Tombaugh's daughter, who visits the Hayden Planetarium to see her father's once-and-possibly former planet in its new home: the basement.
"It's there," she says, with reality-based grace that should be required of Congress.
In science, Neil Tyson says, there is one answer. Getting to it is part of the process. How we get there, emotionally, it would seem, is up to us.
"We agree to disagree, yet simultaneously keep looking for answers in the hope and expectation that will we will eventually agree," Dr. Tyson says.
"That's an important model for the world... I tell people what's lovable about the universe," Tyson says.
And part of what's lovable about it is - you guessed it - change.
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