Do you remember when Pluto used to be a planet?
Of course you do; it was so designated until just a few years ago, when in 2006 the International Astronomical Union first defined the term “planet” and decided that Pluto didn’t fit the bill.
At the time, I recall being unsure what surprised me more: that Pluto was no longer a planet or that the IAU had gone that long without deciding what a planet is in the first place.
What prompted this little reflection was a bumper sticker I saw while out for a drive recently. “Honk if you believe in Pluto,” it said.
At first, I thought that the emphasis of the bumper sticker was somewhat misplaced. After all, it’s not that anyone doesn’t believe in Pluto. We all know that it exists, that it’s still out there, traveling around the sun at an average orbital speed of 4.66 kilometers per second. (Ok, so maybe Wikipedia helped me out with the last bit.) “A rose by any other name,” and so forth…
But I quickly realized that of course this is not the point.
Actually, I was reminded of J.M. Barrie’s Peter Pan, in which the title character encourages all of the listening children to clap their hands if they still believe in fairies. In addition to being a fantastic example of metafiction, Barrie’s brief scene allows his child audience to feel that a fervent belief in something can truly make it real, make it come alive. (If you’re unfamiliar with the scene, an excerpt from the 1960 Mary Martin version is available here, though I don’t recommend you watch it if you’ve had anything volatile to eat recently…)
Clap if you believe in fairies. Honk if you believe in Pluto.
Both of these beliefs derive from our early childhood. While still at home, our parents read us fairy tales, and our young minds saw no contradiction between the fact that Peter Pan is a story and the possibility that we could really bring Tinker Bell back to life—even every night, if the story became a favorite. Later, we went to school, where we learned about the planets… all nine of them. I don’t know about your elementary school, but at mine there was a whole unit on the solar system, sometime in the second or third grade. We colored pictures of the planets, learned which one had the highest gravity and which one had the longest year, and (if we were really talented) could even recite their names in order by the end of class.
Pluto was always last.
It was the smallest planet, the runt of the litter—indeed, this was the very reason for its recent demotion. And to the extent that anyone had a “favorite” planet, I doubt Pluto was frequently chosen. But now it’s gone, so to speak… at least in the sense that schoolchildren will no longer learn of nine planets, but only eight.
At this point, hopefully Neptune is considering its options.
For me, the ironic part is not that our belief in Pluto probably outlasted our belief in fairies, but that learning the truth about fairies probably shocked us less than learning the news about Pluto. At first, I thought that this might be because there’s a difference between the two notions: Pluto really exists; fairies, to the best of my knowledge, do not. Thus one instance represents knowledge of a fact, while the other represents belief in a fiction.
In this sense, while finding out that fairy tales are only stories simply taught us the important distinction between fact and fiction, learning that Pluto is no longer a planet taught a slightly different and more unsettling lesson: facts themselves can change, and what is actually true today may not be factually correct tomorrow.
In short, while Peter Pan asks us to believe that fiction can become fact, Pluto asks us to believe that fact can become fiction.
On the other hand, though, the two are not so different as we might think, since both also have the capacity to teach us the same truth: whether regarding something as small as a children’s story or as large as the solar system, beliefs formed in childhood outlast the facts we learn later more than we might think.
Why else would someone have created that bumper sticker?
Somebody, somewhere is not listening to the International Astronomical Union. Somebody, somewhere has had the insight to recognize that people who learned of Pluto at an early age may cherish it even now—not because of any technical label given to it by the IAU, but because of what, as children, we were taught to believe.
Does this mean that it’s correct to call Pluto a planet—or, for that matter, to believe in fairies? No. There are rules about these things, and responsible adults follow the rules.
But the next time I see that bumper sticker while driving, I plan to honk.