Pluto, You Will Always be a Planet to Me
Why did we think a lecture about Pluto, at a local winery, would be a fun event on a Friday night? Oh, right - winery. With the lure of alcohol to draw us in (if I was an animal, I’d be enticed into the open by a hunter with nice glass of Pinot Noir) our small group found ourselves waiting for the lecture to begin.
I’ve always felt sorry for Pluto, once the status of planet was removed, and she deserved a much better advocate then the one we faced that night. Then again, we didn’t exactly help her case.
We found a spot near the back of the room and turned a four-chair table into an eight chair, over stuffed, lifeboat. Bottles of wine were purchased and placed strategically. Then, like moms in a movie theatre, treats and snacks were pulled from pocketbooks and scattered about.
We settled in and were promptly treated to technically advanced science lecture, if the lecture was presented in nineteen-seventy-two and I was in eighth grade.
In an era of wireless, high-definition electronics we were witness to an overhead projector, and a Papier-Mache model of Pluto and her moon. It wasn’t a large venue, but the lecturer spoke without a microphone. At our age, hearing is one of the first things to go, so what happened next was forgivable.
A few minutes into the lecture, as most of us strained to absorb what was said, the speaker named a scientist who is associated with Pluto, whose last name was Stern.
Someone at our table yelled out, “Baba Booey!” – then leaned toward me and asked, ‘He said Howard Stern, right?’
Yes, he did, because we all know that Howard Stern is a famous talk show host / astrophysicist.
It was Alan Stern.
I should mention now, we were ‘shushed’ a few times during the evening. The rowdy kids in grade school who heckled from the cheap seats, but now with more alcohol.
Periodically, a glass was knocked over. At one point, my brother’s sister-in-law knocked one wine bottle into another as she picked up the spare.
The talk continued. Each time the lecturer passed in front of the screen, the image jumped from the white board to the front of his shirt, and then back again.
He went on to explain what makes a planet, and to illustrate he picked up his Papier-Mache model of Pluto and her moon. I pictured him in his basement, slathering sticky strips of paper to a balloon for the planet, and a rubber ball for the moon. He attached the two models together with a stick. In front of us, he spun the two objects in rotation as he moved around a wooden column, a stand in for the sun.
In space, no one can hear you yawn.
Apparently, Pluto is not a planet for two reason. One, the moon and the planet rotate as one object, as demonstrated by the Papier-Mache ballet we just witnessed. Two, at the last day of a five-day conference somewhere in Europe, the only people who remained were the newcomers and zealots. The older members, who knew you never stay to the end of a five-day conference, were off exchanging formulas in a hotel room somewhere. With no adult supervision, someone always gets hurt. This time it was Pluto; she never saw it coming.
They voted her out.
As the lecture about Pluto and the planets drew to a close, he asked for questions from the audience. A woman asked a long, complicated question (I think she was one of those that shushed us), and I felt she was a plant.
By now, I was in the back of the room, talking to my brother’s brother-in-law. The lecturer moved across the front, then said, “We have time for one more question. Yes, you in the back”.
He pointed at me, and I noticed that my hand was indeed up in the air.
“Oh, I don’t have a question,” I replied, “I’m Italian, this is how I talk”.
We finished the wine, gathered the snacks, and made our way out to the car. We may have learned a thing or two about Pluto over the course of the last few hours, but there was one thing I definitely came away with that night.
No matter how old you are, when someone says ‘Uranus’, you are going to laugh.