inside my brain

Pluto, Pennies, and Paradigms

Originally Posted: August 15, 2006 (Age 18)

You might want to sit down for this, folks. Everything you learned in grade school is about to be turned upside-down. Well, not quite. But the International Astronomical Union is having a huge meeting to decide if Pluto should still be considered a planet.

See, it turns out that Pluto’s not the only little chunk of rock going in circles at the far end of the solar system. There are a bunch of other chunks, some of which are even bigger than Pluto, and they’re not called planets. So it only seems fair to make it an all-or-nothing. Either demote Pluto’s favored status among the nine members of the Fellowship of the Planets, or include all of its friends and just make it a big party.

This is simply too shocking for some people. After all, we’ve grown up learning that Pluto is one of the nine planets. To say that there is only eight would be preposterous! Astronomer Mike Brown said in The New Yorker, “I felt as if there [is] a public sentiment that you couldn’t get rid of Pluto. If you did, you were a mean person… I wondered why there appeared to be an emotional attachment to an inanimate object that most people who are arguing had never seen.”

So why are people so adamant about retaining Pluto’s planetary position? Because that’s the way it’s always been, and we like it better that way.

A month or two ago there was a big fuss about the government’s recent report that it now costs them more to make a penny than it’s worth. The solution to that problem is rather simple: stop making the penny. But 65% of Americans want to keep it. Why? Because that’s the way it’s always been, and we like it better that way.

And it’s not just with Pluto and pennies. Don’t forget that America is practically the only country that still uses miles and gallons. We know that using meters and liters and their units of 10’s makes a lot more sense and makes easier math for everyone, but we don’t bother to change it because that’s the way it’s always been, and we like it better that way.

It’s not that we Americans are averse to change itself. We happily trade CD players for iPods, dial-up for wireless, VHS for DVD. Upgrades, breakthroughs, improvements ~ bring them on, and we’ll pay whatever you charge. But ask us to accept something that will change our way of thinking? Bah. Go somewhere else.

It is really quite ridiculous. At least it’s understandable that folks want to keep old measurements, even if it doesn’t make sense, or to keep old pennies, even if it doesn’t make cents. But to insist on keeping the status of an object about 6 billion kilometers ~ excuse me, 4 billion miles ~ from the sun, that’s when you know our culture has an issue with comfortability.