Kids get the Pluto thing

November 22, 2007

I just changed my mind about Pluto after speaking to a class full of six to seven year olds.

This was my position before I went to face the weenies. (i) Given that the IAU was taking a technical decision, a pretty good one was made. Maybe not ideal, but you can’t go round in circles forever. (ii) However, Pluto is a cultural object as well as a scientific one, so one should somehow respect this. (iii) At the same time, mass prejudice should not be allowed to bully science into one position or another. (iv) My personal opinion is actually that whether or not Pluto is a “planet” is not a suitable subject for standardisation, and in fact almost has no meaning. (v) Conclusion – popular culture can call whatever it likes a planet. Hey, no problem. Just don’t tell us what we must call a planet.

So whats changed ? Two things. First, normal folk, including kiddie-winkies, understand the Pluto thing perfectly well, and there isn’t a problem. Second, they want us to tell them the latest stuff, and are happy to accept it. In fact we have a responsibility to decide and to tell them.

Today I went to give a talk to Primary School kids. Basic stuff – Earth, Moon, Planets, the stars are Suns, what is a shooting star etc etc. I love doing this. As I came to Pluto, they said “So is Pluto a planet ? Cos you all voted it out ?”. My answer was “Well, kinda. Anybody know why we did that ?” About nine hands went up and several kids just blurted out “Cos we keep finding new wee ones”. Spot on.

So the pictures I had ready were just right. First a picture of Pluto; then a montage of Pluto and Eiris and Ceres, labelled “dwarf planets”. Then I said, “Well, so there are lots of planets. There are eight big planets, and lots of dwarf planets. Pluto was just the first dwarf planet we found”. Lots of nodding.

Done deal. Simple. And really cool. Wow ! There could be loads of dwarf planets ! Yup.