Pluto is no longer classified as a planet. It’s classified as a dwarf planet. This reclassification happened in 2006, which was 12 years ago. And yet I still get questions every day about it.
There were good reasons to reclassify Pluto and I’m not going to get too far into it—that’s not why I’m writing this. What I’d like to talk about today is that last part. The “why are we still talking about this?” part—and I think it comes down to a couple of factors.
First and foremost, people like Pluto. And I mean they really like Pluto. Which I completely understand. It’s a little rebellious—it was unique amongst the planets being a small icy object on an elliptical orbit with a noticeable inclination to the plane of the Solar System (ironically, these are the same properties that led to its reclassification). There weren’t any other planets quite like Pluto. It’s a rebel. A cute, plucky rebel.
Lots of people like to imagine they’re cute, plucky rebels like Pluto. So when the MAN came along and told them THEY WEREN’T PLANETS ANYMORE, many folks took it personally. Add in a sprinkling of what you learned in school is wrong and you have a recipe for discontent. But I think there’s another compounding factor that cranked this whole thing up to eleven.
Like most of the problems in the world today, I blame Facebook. In September of 2006 (the same month that Pluto was reclassified) Facebook went public and exploded. For many, this was their first foray into social media and people were looking to stand out—to transcribe their identity into a single profile page. How can you tell the world that you’re both into science but also a little bit of a rebel? Why not join one of the hundreds of groups like “When I Was Your Age, Pluto Was a Planet” (which in 2008 reportedly had over 1.4 MILLION members)? Suddenly people weren’t just interested in a cute planet—it was inscribed as a part of their identity.
And this isn’t just something I’ve noticed, but news outlets have, too. There is an article published about Pluto’s planethood or lack-there-of at least once a month, going back as long as far as I’m willing to look.
Pluto is no longer classified as a planet. It might have been the right call at the time, but we know now that it isn’t appropriate to call it a planet today. But that doesn’t mean that Pluto isn’t special or important!
The 2015 New Horizons flyby showed us that Pluto is perhaps the second most interesting object in the Solar System (after Earth), and gave us countless mysteries to ponder over. And it hasn’t gone anywhere. Just because we’ve reclassified it doesn’t mean it’s gone from the sky and we can’t study it anymore. Pluto fans, you can still love Pluto—I certainly do—even if you ought to describe it using its proper classification.
I think like many of the biggest questions in science, the crux of the issue has nothing at all to do with the phenomenon in question and everything to do with us. And at the end of the day, you’re welcome to call Pluto whatever you want: I promise it really doesn’t care.