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Scott D. Pierce: Some people are passionate about Pluto

Neil deGrasse Tyson gives Disney's Pluto "” the dog, not the planet "” an astronomy lesson.
Neil deGrasse Tyson gives Disney's Pluto "” the dog, not the planet "” an astronomy lesson.
Gene Duncan, Walt Disney World

PASADENA, Calif. — Neil deGrasse Tyson didn't realize that he was setting a match to a keg of gunpowder when he decided that Pluto wasn't exactly a planet.

"I was minding my own business. It's not like I made people care," said Tyson. "People — it was in them to care. And so it's not because I've forced it upon them."

And yet care some people did. More than you might imagine. A lot more.

"They were sending me e-mails and letters and hate mail from third-graders," Tyson said. "It was just rolling in."

Hate mail? About Pluto? Really?

Absolutely.

The question of Pluto's planethood was such a hot topic that Tyson made it the subject of a highly entertaining book, "The Pluto Files." And that, in turn, is the basis of the "Nova" episode of the same title. It follows the always entertaining Tyson as he travels across the country to try to understand why the debate over Pluto provokes such passion.

And provoke it does.

Among the stops on Tyson's book tour for "Pluto" was a library in Newton, Mass., not far from the home of "Nova" senior executive producer Paula S. Apsell.

"These people wouldn't let him go," she said. "And it was about 95 degrees in the room, so high was their passion."

"I remember that," Tyson said. "Yeah, it was steaming."

"This little planet arouses great passions in people," Apsell said. "I've seen it firsthand. I've witnessed how much people care."

Just to be clear, Tyson — who is the host of "Nova scienceNOW" and the director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History — has nothing against Pluto.

"In spite of how my position has been characterized over the years, I actually have no horse in this race — no dog in this race," he said. "What we did in New York was, in a way, abandon this concept of planet altogether. All we did was look around the solar system and find objects that kind of looked like each other in some fundamental way that we think is important, and we grouped them in just that way."

In one group, "the terrestrials" — Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars — "small, rocky, dense. In another group, the "the gas giants" — Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune.

And then there was Pluto, which didn't really fit in either group but was "just kind of grandfathered in with everybody else until we found the rest of these icy objects." A bunch of objects similar to Pluto that inhabit the solar system — none of them the planets that we were told about when we were kids.

Tyson thinks the problem lies mostly in that we're reluctant to disbelieve what we were taught in school. That there are nine planets in our solar system. And we're not taught much else.

"I'm just stating the fact that the solar system as an elementary school subject was taught, not as a discussion of the properties of planets, but as a memorized enumeration of objects in sequence from the sun. … If that's how you learn it, of course you're going to be angered. Of course you're going to be frustrated. Of course you're going to worry about the stability of knowledge in this world when someone ups and says, 'There's no more ninth object in your memorized list.'

"So I submit to you — had the solar system been taught differently as this tapestry of rich knowledge and insight about what's orbiting the sun, that, even if Pluto had been demoted, kicked out, whatever, no one would have cared because it would not have upset the apple cart. It would have simply added new information to it."

"The Pluto Principle" is not, however, about Tyson de-planeting Pluto. It's about his attempt to understand why the subject became such a hot topic.

"I actually spend maybe 20 seconds offering what is my sort of personal sentiments in this discussion," he said. "The entire film pivots on the views expressed by those who I go and speak to."

e-mail: pierce@desnews.com