It’s time to let Pluto be a planet again

In 1882, Nietzsche killed God. In 1967, Roland Barthes killed the author. And in 2006, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) killed Pluto. At a now-infamous meeting in Prague, the IAU determined that Pluto could no longer be considered a planet because it can’t “clear the neighborhood around its orbit,” meaning that it fails to dominate the gravity of its immediate surroundings. As a conciliatory measure, they classified Pluto as a “dwarf planet” and allowed it to become the first “Trans-Neptunian Object” instead.

Many prominent astronomers stood by the IAU’s decision at the time. While the world was still grieving the loss of Pluto, for example, celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson essentially crashed its wake to tell us to “get over it.”

But the Internet wept for Pluto in meme form. We coined the verb “to pluto,” meaning “to demote something.” We started defiant efforts like PlutoIsAPlanet.Org to try to preserve Pluto’s dignity. What were we we supposed to tell our children about Pluto, we demanded? That it went out for cigarettes and never came back? In 2006—that harrowing year—we felt some small semblance of what it must have been like for people in the 17th century to hear that the earth was, in fact, round.

Now, eight years since Pluto’s demotion, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics (CfA) may have put an end to our mourning. Last month, the CfA held a debate over Pluto’s planethood with the audience voting strongly in favor of restoring the now-dwarf planet to its former glory. The winning arguments came from scientists who argued that planets should be defined culturally or as “the smallest spherical lump of matter that formed around stars.” Either way, Pluto would get its wings back. The CfA has taken the first step toward un-plutoing Pluto.

With Pluto almost back in its rightful place, the Internet has been downright exultant this week. Bustle declared that “your childhood no longer feels like a lie” and a host of celebratory Twitter users agreed that all was finally well in the universe:

But why do we care so much about Pluto? And why does its return to planethood mean so much to us? For most of us, our first answer might be simple childhood nostalgia. We grew up daydreaming about that cold and distant rock, we had nine rather than eight styrofoam balls in our grade school dioramas, and we carefully memorized the mnemonic “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas.”  When Pluto got demoted, we felt it as an attack on our childhood, just as we did when the brontosaurus got erased from history or when indigo got ousted from the Roy G. Biv color spectrum.

But the IAU didn’t seem to care very much about our childhood attachments; they shattered our solar system and slinked out of the spotlight after soaking up some free press. In our pain, we saw these astronomers as nefarious villains who could only feel a sense of power by toying with our childhood attachments. After years of quietly conducting their research in solitude, they had finally found a way to hit us close to home: killing Pluto. And to add insult to injury, they even suggested that we memorize “My Very Educated Mother Just Served Us Nachos” instead. Really, IAU? You think Neptune Nachos can replace Pluto Pizza? Never.

But our attachment to Pluto stems from more than our playground memories. It’s also an inherently lovable planet. Pluto was always the underdog, the small planet that had to chase down its own friends after school while shouting, “Wait up, you guys!” Pluto isn’t even as big as the moon. It’s so slight that the other kids push right past it in the hallways, its small stature playing a big role in its inability to “clear its neighborhood.” Ironically and tragically, one of the reasons we may want so badly to keep Pluto as a planet is the precise reason why the IAU demoted it to dwarfhood in the first place.

Pluto’s distance from the sun, too, was one of its most endearing qualities. At over four billion miles away from earth at its furthest orbit, Pluto was like a beloved but distant pen pal in our collective solar imaginary. And at the far reaches of the solar system, Pluto is oh so cold, over three times colder than the coldest place on Earth. If we have loved Pluto so ardently all these years, perhaps it’s because we were hoping that our affection would be able to keep the little guy warm. We always knew that Pluto was the odd one out but we didn’t have to say it out loud lest we hurt its feelings. We just let it hang out with the big kids anyway until the astronomer bullies swooped in to steal its lunch.

But our seemingly irrational attachment to Pluto might also have a deeper cultural meaning as well. The long-lost ninth planet seems to be lodged deep in our collective consciousness. In hindsight, it seems as if Pluto’s exile has become something of a symbol for the lost happiness of the late 20th century. Just as Galileo’s discovery of the spherical nature of stars and planets exacerbated the religious and cosmological anxieties of his time, the IAU’s demotion of Pluto seems to have curiously heightened our own anxieties about living in a postmodern world.

Consider that Pluto’s time in the sun has spanned almost a century of American history from its 1930 discovery in Flagstaff, Arizona through the Great Depression to the Second World War and beyond. Our grandparents were still alive when Pluto became a planet, our parents grew up watching Pluto the Pup on television, and those of us in the Internet generation spent our childhoods daydreaming about Pluto as the most distant point in our solar system.

Through it all, Pluto has always been a quintessentially American planet; as NASA scientist Kevin Zahnle is reported to have said: “Pluto is a true-blue American planet, discovered by an American for America.” Whatever generational divides have defined and fractured American culture over the last century, we all shared Pluto, at least. Pluto was an obscure touchstone, a subtle throughline, and a faraway dream.

But that uniquely American brand of Disney optimism passed away along with the ninth planet. The world has changed so much since Pluto first scampered around on TV. Cats have replaced religion, memes have replaced writing, patriotism has become a punchline in the form of Stephen Colbert, and cartoons are now an inchoate mess of non-sequitirs that only make sense while under the influence. In the postmodern destabilization of meaning that has defined the 21st century, the death of Pluto was one of the last straws. When entire planets can disappear overnight with a few keystrokes from some scientists, it’s hard to believe that anything can be real or lasting.

Stripping Pluto of its planethood reinforced the death of a distinctly 20th century genre of hope, a hope that we are only now beginning to reclaim with the news of its reinstatement:

If the return of Pluto can bring back this lost hope, we should never let astronomers take this feeling away from us again. Science doesn’t matter. Pluto is a planet. It always has been and it always will be. And if astronomers ever decide that it’s not a planet again, we can always convene our own meeting of Pluto enthusiasts and decide that the IAU should no longer be considered a legitimate astronomical body. However irrational our attachments might be, Pluto means too much to us for us to ever let it go again. It’s our childhood love, it’s our unsung hero, and it’s our lost soul. Pluto is dead, long live Pluto.

Photo via Lunar and Planetary Institute/Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen

Samantha Allen writes about sex, sexuality, and gender. She's a senior reporter at the Daily Beast, but she's also contributed to Paste, Hello Giggles, Salon, the Advocate, Mic, and others. Allen holds a doctorate in women's, gender, and sexuality studies from Emory University, and her piece "Why Bisexual Men Are Still Fighting to Convince Us They Exist" won the GLAAD Media Award for Outstanding Digital Journalism Article in 2018.