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Wednesday, March 03, 2010

Tyson’s The Pluto Files Now Made for TV

Posted by Darin Hayton on 03/03 at 10:30 PM

Neil deGrasse Tyson’s best selling book The Pluto Files has become a PBS-Nova special by the same name. The TV-version of “The Pluto Files” is remarkably true to the book: approachable, lighthearted, at times comical and at times touching. To complement the show, PBS also put together a webpage that includes some of the letters Tyson received from grammar-school children, mnemonic devices to recall the names of the planets, Tyson’s account of meeting Clyde Tombaugh’s wife and other supplementary material. The program itself is still available online: “The Pluto Files”.Neil deGrasse Tyson’s best selling book The Pluto Files has become a PBS-Nova special by the same name. The TV-version of “The Pluto Files” is remarkably true to the book: approachable, lighthearted, at times comical and at times touching. To complement the show, PBS also put together a webpage that includes some of the letters Tyson received from grammar-school children, mnemonic devices to recall the names of the planets, Tyson’s account of meeting Clyde Tombaugh’s wife and other supplementary material. The program itself is still available online: “The Pluto Files”.

Mural celebrating Clyde Tombaugh in Streator, IL(Source: PBS-Nova Special, “The Pluto Files”)

The overall trajectory of the program follows the now well-worn path: Percival Lowell, the wealthy aristocrat from Boston, established his observatory to search for life on Mars. When this project failed, he turned his attention to finding Planet X, the planet that was thought to be responsible for perturbations in Neptune’s orbit. Lowell died before he found his Planet X. A little over a decade later, Clyde Tombaugh, the farm boy from Illinois, goes to the Lowell Observatory and within a year discovers Planet X. The young Venetia Burney proposed the name Pluto.

As technology improved, astronomers kept looking for planets at the edge of the solar system. By the early 1990s they had begun to find such bodies in a region they labeled the Kuiper Belt. Initially, these other Kuiper Belt Objects did not rival Pluto in size, but it was only a matter of time. Mike Brown, using even more advanced technology started looking for large objects in the Kuiper Belt and soon discovered one larger than Pluto, which he named Eris. This object forced the IAU to consider for the first time the definition of a planet, for it couldn’t approve the a name for the object until it had classified it. The infamous IAU decision in 2006 defined Pluto out of planethood. Some people, like Mike Brown and Brian Marsden, agree that Pluto should not be a planet. Others, like Mark Sykes and Alan Stern, reject the IAU definition and Pluto’s demotion.

Planets then and now—
“The Pluto Files” occasionally dips into the history, providing just enough detail to be interesting but not so much as to take away from the thrust of the program. Some engaging graphics illustrate Tyson’s narrative about the notion of planet from antiquity to the seventeenth century. The classical seven planets were overthrown in the sixteenth century when Copernicus published his De revolutionibus orbium coelestium. Copernicus’s heliocentric system demoted earth to a planet, the moon to, well, a moon, and promoted the sun to the center of the solar system.

Copernicus decentered the earth, making it a planet along with the others (Source: PBS-Nova Special, “The Pluto Files”)

Galileo Galileo, Christian Huygens, and Giovanni Cassini all discovered new celestial objects: the moons of Jupiter, the rings of Saturn as well as a handful of Saturnian moons. Then, in 1781 William Herschel discovered Uranus. Although Neptune’s discovery remains mired in controversy—did John Couch Adams or Urbain Leverrier “discover” it?—there is no denying that the German astronomer Johann Galle was the first to notice it. This quick history is meant to show that both our understanding of what objects there are in the sky as well as what to call them has changed over the past 450 years.1

There is nothing new to this story. What “The Pluto Files” adds is a chance to see what Tombaugh represents, especially for citizens in his hometown of Streator, Illinois, as well as how the quasi-mythical image of Tombaugh continues to structure discussions about Pluto.

Tombaugh in Streator—
Hometown pride ensures that Streator’s most famous citizen will always be remembered for having discovered a planet. Memorials can be found throughout the city, from the name on main street, to the local museum that has a permanent exhibition celebrating his life, to the large mural painted on a wall in the middle of the town.

Main street in Streator, IL, is named after Clyde Tombaugh (Source: PBS-Nova Special, “The Pluto Files”)

Even today Tombaugh is a local hero. When people learn about the solar system, usually in grammar school, they learn that one of their own discovered the ninth planet. Tombaugh’s discovery brings notoriety to their town, which would otherwise garner little recognition beyond the state. When Tyson visits a barbershop and a local cafe to find out what people think of Tombaugh, he finds that they all defend Tombaugh.2 They don’t really care what evidence there might be for reclassifying Pluto. Indeed, it is clear that Pluto’s status is bound up with Tombaugh’s fame and local pride.

Citizens of Streator talking about Tombaugh’s importance for the city (Source: PBS-Nova Special, “The Pluto Files”)

The Tombaugh Myth—
“The Pluto Files” repeats some of the conventional parts of this story. The core trope is Tombaugh’s overcoming his simple origins and becoming successful. Tyson’s opening line establishes this importance of this convention: “In 1930 a farm boy with a passion for the universe notices a tiny dot moving across the night sky. He discovers Pluto.” Tombaugh is described as the “unlikeliest” of people to have discovered a planet. He was, after all, a “self educated farm boy who attended a one-room school house.” When he first arrived at the Lowell Observatory, we are told, he was assigned janitorial tasks, and only after cleaning up did he have a chance to look for Pluto. During his visit to Tombaugh’s family, Tyson hears this same story retold in slightly different terms. Tombaugh’s widow claims that the Lowell Observatory wanted a worker they didn’t have to pay very much. On his way out of town, Tyson stops by a church where there is a stained glass window memorializing Tombaugh. Tyson notes that the memorial “celebrates his life. How many scientists have stained glass windows of them. More than just a celebration of his discovery, but a celebration of his life overcoming obstacles that would keep most people down. To me that’s the message here.”

Clyde Tombaugh pictured against the American flag (Source: PBS-Nova Special, “The Pluto Files”)

“The Pluto Files” does more than raise questions about Pluto. It also provides one model for how science and its history can be made accessible to popular audiences. The entire program is told through the personal stories that shape the Pluto debates: astronomers are shown cooking hamburgers, Tyson sits down with Tombaugh’s family and gets a beard trimming at the local Streator barbershop, Tombaugh’s daughter comes to New York to see the Hayden Planetarium and the display that started it all. The science and the history complement this these human stories. Yes, both the science and the history are simplified, but not to the point of doing violence to either.

My lingering question about the program has to do with its intended audience. At times the show seems aimed at young people, maybe as young as pre-teens. The almost comic like early scenes, the overly dramatic Tyson and Stern looking at each other like gun slingers seem to target a young audience. By contrast, the scenes of Tyson driving what looks like a lowered 1959 Cadillac into Streator, IL, seem to appeal to a more mature audience, as do the scenes in the barbershop and the cafe. While the disparity is not so large as to be distracting, it does detract from the show’s coherence.

In the end, “The Pluto Files” is an entertaining show that ultimately leaves the question of Pluto’s status unresolved. The last two scenes in the program juxtapose Annette Tombaugh looking at the display in the Hayden Planetarium and commenting, “It’s there. Okay. I don’t see anything wrong with this presentation at all. … I wish it were a little bigger. And a little higher,” with Tyson speaking to the people in Streator arguing for a richer lexicon that can encompass our growing understanding of what is out there.


Notes—
1Interestingly absent from this history is the Piazzi’s discovery of the asteroid Ceres, and the ensuing controversy over whether or not to call it a planet.
2As with all histories, the selection of evidence influences the argument. According to The Times (published in Ottawa, IL), Tombaugh’s daughter contacted Siobhan Elias, of Streator, and asked “her if she would be willing to help arrange the Streator leg of the production. Elias suggested Streator locations to include to Terri Randall, the producer, as well as Streatorites who had an interest in the debate” (see “‘Pluto Files’ a hit: Participants Proud of Roles, Outcome”). So maybe local pride isn’t as strong as it appears in the program.

Tags: alan stern, clyde tombaugh, kuiper belt objects, mike brown, neil degrasse tyson, percival lowell, pluto

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