NASA’s New Horizons probe is rounding Pluto as I write, reigniting the fervor over why Pluto was demoted from planet to dwarf planet in 2006.
The anger went deep, especially among my generation, even emerging as a plot point on The Big Bang Theory, when Sheldon Cooper slammed astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson for his role in Pluto’s descent: “I liked Pluto. Ergo I do not like you.” That summed up most people’s feelings about the matter. (And, yes, Dr. Tyson, we know it wasn’t entirely your fault.)
Why all the passion for a planet (er, dwarf planet) that before today most of us only knew through drawings and grainy images? Let’s deconstruct what’s behind Gen Xers obsession with Pluto.
Gen Xers grew up in an age of constant anxiety. Children of the Cold War, we hid under our desks during bomb drills, blissfully unaware that “duck and cover” would be irrelevant if there were an actual nuclear attack. All we knew was that we were squarely in the sights of the Evil Empire.
So we clung to what certainty we could. There were 50 states, seven continents, and nine planets. Madonna was the Queen of Pop and Michael Jackson was the King. These truths were fixed forever in our minds.
Then, bam, out of nowhere, Pluto’s not a planet? WTF? It’s as unthinkable as learning our TV dad, Bill Cosby, was a rapist. No wonder we were incredulous.
Pluto is so small, unlike big gassy Jupiter or hot-blooded Mars, and so far away. It’s lonely out in space, Rocket Man. It appealed to our love of the underdog.
We were the kids who drank Pepsi and cheered for the 1980 U.S. hockey team. We sang along to one-hit wonders like “Video Killed the Radio Star” and “867-5309/Jenny.” As we got older, we started grunge bands and computer companies in our parents’ garages. Of course we had a soft spot for little Pluto, the runt of the solar system.
We were the original Disney generation. Long before there were three separate Disney channels on cable, we had M-I-C-K-E-Y M-O-U-S-E with Christina, Britney and JT.
We trekked to Orlando on pilgrimages to Walt’s wonderland with our families, piled in an old station wagon with faux-wood paneling, sans seatbelts.
And who was there to greet us? Good old Mickey Mouse and his pup Pluto, the only one of the original main characters who didn’t speak or wear clothes. Lovable Pluto was frequently the cause of some sort of shenanigans, but always quickly forgiven.
We are the kids of Star Wars and Star Wars. Aliens and Star Trek. Black holes and Space Invaders. Intergalactic wars could be happening right this very minute!
With such a vast expanse looming around us, it was comforting to at least get a grip on our tiny solar system. Those nine planets circling ever-so-predictably around the sun, our little moon waxing and waning with reassuring regularity.
Now there might be five dwarf planets? As many as 100? More than 200? Estimates change frequently. Makes you want to send out a robotic Pac Man to start gobbling them all up.
5. The Acronym
The way I learned the planets was by memorizing the sentence: “My very eager mother just served us nine pizzas.”
Now it’s: “My very energetic mother just served us noodles.” Noodles vs. nine pizzas? Give me the pizzas any day.
(Aside: Why aren’t mothers allowed to be eager anymore? Now we have to be energetic too? While serving noodles? It makes you want to go with this alternative mnemonic: My Very Easy Method: Just Sleep Until Noon (Please).)