Happy Pluto Day!

plutolithograph1Image courtesy of Windows to the Universe. “This is an artist’s conception of Pluto and Charon. Pluto is in the background and Charon is in the foreground. Pat Rawlings, Science Applications International”

The Illinois State Senate has redeemed poor Pluto from dwarf planet status to its rightful place in the universe, and established March 13 as Pluto Day. This was done in large part to honor Illinois native Clyde Tombaugh. One justification for this was that Tombaugh was the only American to discover a planet. Another was that there were no real problems left to work on.

There are of course a few problems with the Senate’s idea. Early Native Americans undoubtedly discovered most of the planets in our solar system, even if official histories don’t credit them. Other Americans have discovered many planets outside of our solar system. And what Tombaugh discovered isn’t really a planet, under current definitions.

225px-clydetombaughBut Pluto is now part of our culture. Even if it’s not a planet, do we really want children going around saying “My very educated mother just served us nine”? Nine what? Pluto gives us a reason to add “pizzas,” which might be reason enough to keep it.

Tombaugh did do something. Eric Jakobsson, points out that they should have honored him for “discovering the first of the Kuiper objects (as opposed to the last of the planets). Arguably, that was a more important discovery than another planet, because it added a whole new dimension to our understanding of the solar system.”

Eric’s argument highlights two different conceptions of learning. In one, authority gives us the answer, case closed. In another, ideas become tools for further inquiry. Richard Shaull, puts it this way in the foreword to Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed (1993):

There is no such thing as a neutral educational process. Education either functions as an instrument to facilitate the integration of the younger generation into the logic of the present system, or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women participate in the transformation of their world.

We should remember and honor Tombaugh’s dedication, intelligence, and painstaking studies of photographs. His work on Pluto and asteroids contributed to transforming our scientific understanding of the universe. That was not the social world that Freire means when he says the “practice of freedom,” but in its own way represented a challenge to the “present system.” Unfortunately, the Senate’s rearguard action has become an internet joke that fails to express what Tombaugh really accomplished.

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