Third-Grade Students to Scientist: Pluto Is too a Planet!

By Smriti Rao | March 12, 2010 1:56 pm

The_Pluto_FilesPluto’s declassification as a planet may have drawn some disappointed murmurs from the grown-ups, but the pain is apparently even more real for a bunch of little school kids.

In his book, “The Pluto Files,” celebrity astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson showcases his collection of hate mail from third graders who were disappointed at Pluto’s reclassification in 2006 to a dwarf planet. The little Pluto fans demanded the immediate reinstatement of their beloved chunk of rock back into the official roster of the solar system’s planets.

The letters start as far back as 2000, when Tyson, as director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, New York, omitted Pluto from a new solar system exhibit because he didn’t consider it a planet.

Seven-year-old Will Gamot immediately noticed the missing exhibit and shot the director a letter with a helpful illustration (see below). Gamot wrote: “You are missing planet Pluto. Please make a model of it. This is what it looks like. It is a planet.”

In 2006, The International Astronomical Union endorsed Tyson’s position and yanked Pluto’s title as the solar system’s ninth planet. Scientists had realized that the distant Kuiper belt where Pluto resides probably has dozens of large icy objects, some of which may rival Pluto in size; rather than adding more and more planets to our list, researchers opted to create the dwarf planet category. This prompted howls of protest from other kids.

In her letter to Tyson, Madeline Trost of Plantation, Florida worried: “Do people live on Pluto? If there are people who live there they won’t exist.” She then demands a response from Tyson. “Please write back,” she implores. “But not in cursive because I can’t read in cursive.”

You can browse through an entire sideshow of what the kids had to say here; but here’s a sampling of their irritation at the whole affair.





Related Content:
The Intersection: That Mean, Mean Anti-Pluto Guy
DISCOVER: A Death in the Solar System
Bad Astronomy: Pluto’s big Hill to climb
Bad Astronomy: The Moon that went up a Hill but came down a planet

Image: The Pluto Files

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Space & Aliens Therefrom
  • BarMonger

    This is actually incredibly sweet. Sure they might not really understand what’s going on, but it is still fantastic.
    And the fact that they care enough about astronomy to write these letters is awesome :)

  • Haruspex

    It’s definitely adorable. It also speaks volumes about how poorly the transition was. Altering the classification of the planet to dwarf planet probably would have been a lot smoother without lines like, “yanked Pluto’s title as the solar system’s ninth planet.” That’s just not what happened, but when these kids hear things like that, they cry foul.

  • gribley

    Haruspex: Whaddya mean, “that’s just not what happened”? That’s precisely what happened. Sure, there was a complex and scientifically justifiable rationalization, but “yanked” is still quite an apt description.

  • Laurel Kornfeld

    What happened was a political decision by four percent of the IAU masquerading as a scientific one. The kids have more sense than the 424 IAU members who voted. Pluto is still a planet. Only four percent of the IAU voted on the controversial demotion, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately opposed in a formal petition by hundreds of professional astronomers led by New Horizons Principal Investigator Dr. Alan Stern. One reason the IAU definition makes no sense is it says dwarf planets are not planets at all! That is like saying a grizzly bear is not a bear, and it is inconsistent with the use of the term “dwarf” in astronomy, where dwarf stars are still stars, and dwarf galaxies are still galaxies. Also, the IAU definition classifies objects solely by where they are while ignoring what they are. If Earth were in Pluto’s orbit, according to the IAU definition, it would not be a planet either. A definition that takes the same object and makes it a planet in one location and not a planet in another is essentially useless. Pluto is a planet because it is spherical, meaning it is large enough to be pulled into a round shape by its own gravity–a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium and characteristic of planets, not of shapeless asteroids held together by chemical bonds. These reasons are why many astronomers, lay people, and educators are either ignoring the demotion entirely or working to get it overturned.

  • Brian Too

    Hey, the kid’s got a point. If the Plutonians (Plutons? Plutae?) don’t have a planet to live on then they’ll cease to exist. That’s just mean!

  • P Claeys

    I want the definition of PLUTONIC to still be appropos. Well, maybe it is even more appropos. Still, if they can find some other objects that are spherical, and inhabit our solar system, just give them names so we can have MORE planets, not less. Wouldn’t that be a more exciting and positive approach? We could look forward to those new discoveries with relish. Hmmm. Hot Dog!

  • Rafael Marquez

    Lauren, your comment rocks. I love how you said that it’s like saying “a grizzly bear is not a bear.” I have to say that my favorite of the kid’s letters is Madeline’s.

    Pluto is a planet!


  • Trevor

    I love the cartoon drawing of Pluto and Saturn crying! Kids are so great!

  • Stephanie

    I love these letters. My daughter is outraged about the change too. She loves astronomy, and we’ll be studying it together this next school year. I love Laurel’s explanation of why they’re using “dwarf planet” incorrectly.

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