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The Paths of Planets and Weather

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11.08.24

Five years ago, Pluto was officially demoted from beloved ninth planet to dwarf planet status. Who could do such a thing to a favorite American cultural icon? 

Neil DeGrasse Tyson traces the rise and fall of America’s favorite planet in The Pluto Files. In 2000, the American Museum of Natural History in New York opened the Rose Center for Earth and Space and the Hayden Planetarium, and showed Pluto as an icy, dusty comet in its exhibits. This was the first public institution to take a stand on Pluto. The New York Times soon followed with this front page headline: Pluto Not a Planet? Only in New York".

This news raised the ire of the American public, who rallied to the defense of a new extraterrestrial underdog. The notion of dropping Pluto from the pantheon of planets hit a raw nerve with the public and produced a media firestorm that has continued unabated.

On August 24, 2006, the International Astronomical Union adopted Resolution 5A on the Definition of a Planet, officially voting Pluto out of planethood and, within days, the state legislatures of New Mexico (home to Clyde Tombaugh, Pluto’s discoverer) and California (home to Pluto the Dog at Disneyland) were proposing resolutions to protect Pluto’s planetary status within their borders.

Pluto rose from an obscure position to its revered status thanks to a cultural convergence. In 1930, Pluto was discovered and named for the Roman god of the underworld. That same year, Disney created a lovable pup and gave it the same name. Since then, Pluto has become entrenched in our cultural view of the cosmos. Tyson, at the center of the controversy as project scientist for the new displays at the Rose Center and director of the Hayden Planetarium, is the best person to tell this particular story. Plutophiles have freely shared their opinions with him, including endless hate mail from third graders.

With great wit, Tyson shares a minihistory of the planets, portrays the colorful characters of the people who study them, and recounts how America’s favorite planet was ousted from the cosmic club. Liberally illustrated with photos, cartoons ("Look who they’re trying to vote off Dancing with the Stars"), and letters from school children, this is a gem of a science lesson.

On this date in 1897, Charles Dudley Warner, editor of the Hartford Courant, published the now-famous and oft-quoted observation: "Everybody talks about the weather, but nobody does anything about it."  This is often mis-attributed to Warner’s friend and colleague Mark Twain. They were part of the notable American literary circle of the 19th century, and collaborated in writing "The Gilded Age" in 1873.

We still talk about the weather. Marq de Villiers writes eloquently about it in Windswept: the story of wind and weather. Although sometimes enormously destructive, wind is also one of the elements that make life on Earth possible. It moderates the intense heat of the equatorial regions, warms the higher latitudes, and carries evaporated moisture from oceans to land, where the moisture descends as rain. Wind sculpted the rivers that watered the earliest civilizations. And even hurricanes, as destructive as they are, are an essential part of Earth’s self-regulation.

From the wind gods of ancient times to early discoveries of the dynamics of air movement to high-tech schemes to control hurricanes, deVilliers explains the science of wind and tells dramatic personal stories of encounters with gales and storms, including Hurricane Ivan, the only storm on record to reach Category 5 status three times in its progression from the Sahara to Texas to Newfoundland.

For these and more accounts of earth and space, visit www.tcplweb.org or call 988-2541.

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