My obsession with Pluto began when my six-year-old daughter asked how many planets there were. Nine. Nine! Nine? There had always been nine, and I couldn’t bring myself to say “eight.”
In 2006, when the International Astronomical Union (IAU) announced to the world that Pluto was no longer a planet, it felt like the end times, a projection of the doom impending: apocalyptic floods, the walloping of a clandestine planet, a searing irate sun, continents throwing us overboard. Why the drama?
I wanted to understand why I was having such a visceral reaction to the demotion, so I began looking for answers. Why would they do such a thing? I immersed myself in research, seduced by the language surrounding Pluto: this cold planet in a tilted orbit.
Orbit: a path on which an object embarks as the result of centripetal force pulling it to its center of rotation. As in: you spin me right round, baby, right round. Although most orbits are elliptical, more oval, more like an ellipse—an absence, a closed curve. What’s left unsaid, a suggestion of more, less…
Pluto always sort of hung off the edge of the world. It was the boho planet, the way it collapsed categories. Its elusiveness was appealing. I could relate to its quirkiness, having never really fit in myself. When I was in elementary school, my parents were concerned about my tendency to prefer imaginary friends over neighbor kids, or how I named and talked to inanimate objects, like toothbrushes. I lived in my head, creating stories. My teacher told my parents they should seek help for me if I never escaped my head. That is, if I could not distinguish reality from fantasy.
To many, Pluto was a period, a symbol of security, an ending. We trusted our limits because the illusion was time, was linear, after all. We begin, we end. Hello (I love you), goodbye (this is the end). There’s comfort in this, security. The unknown is dangerous, threatening. But for me it was the opposite: reality was dangerous. I felt safer in my imaginary world. I scratched stories and poems into notebooks, rereading and rewriting worlds. In my imaginary one, I was in control of outcomes. I think of William Carlos Williams: “No ideas but in things.”
But the problem is that Pluto was more than an abstraction. We saw it in books, named it, attached ourselves to it, plastered it on our ceilings, and named our dogs after it. We all know the rule: if we name it, we become attached. “It” becomes something with a face, an identity, a soul (although the last is a bit of an exaggeration). Pluto was a distinction that offered a sense of permanence. Words seem stable enough.
My husband and I have been teaching our two-year-old son the words for objects: moon, sunflower, avocado. I walk him through the garden: tomato, vine, earthworm, green onion. I am teaching myself the scientific names of plants, mostly because I like the sound: Tulbaghia, Buddleja, Chrysanthemum. This is how we navigate. Words. Words. Words. They are signposts. Our compass for unknown territory.
And yes, I tell my composition students often, words matter. Each word must have a purpose, a function. Watch what you say. Words can conjure up baggage, history, meaning, emotions, power.
At least for me, words were very powerful. They had the magic to bend time, collapse boundaries.
Recently, we took the kids to the Griffith Observatory in Pasadena, California. The observatory sits at the top of a mountain, closer to the brilliant sky. Inside the dome, I felt like I was walking through tunnels of intertwined minds. I read closely each exhibit’s caption, trying to trace the beginnings. I learned how the “eye” was the most important astronomical instrument in the early days of discovery. These early observers sketched drawings and detailed notes describing the positions, movements, and brightness of objects in the sky. They called these dots “planets,” meaning “wanderers.” To wander is to roam. Is to drift, is to hover, is to stray. I wondered how they could name something so transient. These early flecks of light were named after Roman deities: Jupiter, king of gods; Mars, god of war; Mercury, messenger of the gods; Venus, goddess of love and beauty; Saturn, father of Jupiter and god of agriculture. These wanderers were seen as otherworldly, heavenly, drifting around a static Earth.
It was Nicholas Copernicus, discoverer of the solar system, who declared the sun the center, surrounded by six planets: Mercury, Venus, Earth (with moon), Mars, Jupiter, Saturn. As centuries piled on, the system grew more complex. Uranus was seen through a telescope in 1781; it had been spotted at least six times before but mistaken for a star because of its slow movement.
I was fascinated with the minds of these astronomers and their obsession for answers. One of the exhibits displayed replicas of Galileo’s telescope, made of wood and leather. It wasn’t the first telescope, but his version enhanced observing power to eight-times magnification. With the invention of the telescope, planets were popping up everywhere: Ceres, Astraea, Flora, Hygeia, Kalliope. And in 1846, Neptune emerged: a beautiful blue balloon. By 1854, there were 41 planets! But the planets were supposed to be ethereal, distinct. So it seemed fair that only the biggest survived as planets—after all, people might get overwhelmed. Too many planets meant too many distinctions. How could they possibly remember so much? The smaller ones were to slip into minor categories/subtypes/subsections, below the norm, below the surface. Almost, but not quite. See also: the subconscious. But the planet criterion was still broad, blurry. And when Pluto surfaced, it pushed boundaries.
Helen Keller: “When I learned the meaning of ‘I’ and ‘me’ and found that I was something, I began to think. Then consciousness first existed for me.”
Going back again. After German astronomer Johann Gottfried Galle discovered Neptune in 1846, astronomers realized it didn’t move in its orbit as predicted. Speculations emerged that there was an unseen object introducing “gravitational perturbations” in the planet’s orbit. As in: some other force, some other misshapen body. Or what scientists called “Planet X.” Or later “Pluto.” The origins of Pluto are as murky and multilayered as the mind. Many attribute the discovery of Pluto to American astronomer Percival Lowell, who had a promising career as diplomat but shifted focus and decided to pursue his interest in astronomy, which came in part from possibilities on Mars. I love him for losing himself in his passion.
In 1878, Italian astronomer Giovanni Schiaparelli published a memoir of his observations on Mars: a detailed map of the northern hemisphere, showing islands and peninsulas divided by blue bands of water, which he labeled canali—Italian for “channels.” Soon after, these terms were mistranslated in the English-speaking world as “canals.” Lowell loved this, became obsessed with the canals of Mars. He insisted that the canals were indicative of intelligent life on Mars. He produced his own detailed maps with more canals. He swore that Mars was growing excessively dry as a result of “planetary evolution.” He visualized inhabitants pumping water from poles to desert-like populated areas near the equator. He said: “The amazing blue network on Mars hints that one planet besides our own is inhabited now.”
His observations are so beautiful, I want to believe them to make them real. He was more storyteller than scientist, more dreamer than realist. He drifted in wonder, meandered in shaded skies. He built his own observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, 7,200 feet above sea level, staring into black space, where boundaries didn’t matter and dream merged with reality. He publicized his findings in magazine articles and wrote three books on the subject. Somewhere along the way, his visions became more than stories, more than observations. They became factual, so much so that he had a mental breakdown in 1897 after scientists refused to believe his theories. Imagine a mind that can travel that far and not be taken seriously.
I used to hide all of my notebooks filled with endless lists of names and stories under my bed. I was terrified of losing these or of someone finding them and disregarding them as silly, childish, strange, or make-believe. I was afraid of being misunderstood.
Lowell continued to spiral downward. In 1907, astronomers released photographs that showed no sign of canals, concluding that they were an optical illusion. After this, Lowell took his mental break. Four years later, he emerged to observe, even more determined than before, as if he’d been asleep all that time. This time, he widened his obsession to include Mars, Venus, Mercury, and Saturn. He hired more staff. One of his assistants, Vesto Melvin Slipher, made an important discovery about “spiral nebulae.” They moved away from Earth. Which was the first evidence of the universe expanding.
Lowell also initiated the search for Planet X beyond Neptune’s orbit. His fixation shifted to capturing an image of the mysterious planet that he knew was there. He photographed the wide sky week after week, night after night, studying each image. But he always came up empty-handed. Years later, after his death, it was found Lowell did actually discover an image of Pluto on film, but its presence had eluded his assistants.
The credit for the discovery of Pluto instead goes to Clyde Tombaugh, another Mars Hill staff member who spotted an intangible planet during a search in 1930 with his makeshift telescope built from old Buick parts. The ghostly planet would later be termed “Pluto,” or god of the underworld, a moniker proposed by an eleven-year-old girl named Venetia Burney.
I love the wonder of all this: minds bending and slipping into the space where few can enter, where language can send us but also limit us at the same time. Sometimes, there aren’t any words to give a shape or name to what we find.
After my sister died in a car accident, I immersed myself in language, like I had done when I was a kid. I buried myself in unfamiliar books about DNA, evolution, physics, astronomy, things I didn’t understand. I wanted to find answers, or at the very least, patterns, so I’d know what to look for and how to prevent another loss. But the more I obsessed, the more blurred the answers became. Even words couldn’t provide the same comfort and security they had when I was a child.
The English word “conscious” was derived from the Latin conscius (con, “together” + scire, “to know”), meaning “knowing with or having shared knowledge with another.” In its earliest usages in the 1500s, the English word “conscious” held the Latin meaning. Thomas Hobbes in Leviathan wrote: “Where two, or more men, know of one and the same fact, they are said to be Conscious of it one to another.”
Which makes me think of the subconscious. Of everything under/below/beneath/besides. There’s so much that’s unpredictable.
Can we unlearn what we know? I’ve always loved William James: consciousness is a stream, or wave. A continuous fluctuation of images throughout the mind. It rests, takes flight, roams, drifts. I think of foggy pregnancy days: senses were heightened (I could smell bad breath a foot away), but memory faded. Even more so the second time around. Once my daughter asked me what a half man, half horse was called. I saw the image in my head: a muscled man torso placed on top of a horse’s defined body. But the word kept slipping from memory. I was restless, agitated. It drove me mad. I paced around for several minutes, kicking things, trying to remember the damn word but the closer I got, the more pathetic my variations became. Centile. Caesura. Censor. Damn. Finally when I was sitting on the porch, staring into the yard, not at all obsessing over it, the word emerged: Centaur! Centaur!
In 2005, the “trans-Neptunian object” Eris emerged. Trans is a Latin noun or prefix: “across,” “beyond,” or “on the opposite side.” By “trans-Neptunian,” they mean any object in the solar system that orbits the sun at a greater distance than Neptune. Eris complicated already-complex things. But it was so slight, near infinitesimal, considering that it was smaller than the smallest planet, Pluto. They couldn’t have another small one; that was Pluto’s role. Besides, it confused things. So the International Astronomical Union redefined a planet as “a body that orbits the sun, is massive enough for its own gravity to make it round, and also has cleared its neighborhood of smaller objects around its orbit.” Under this new definition, Pluto and other trans-Neptunian objects fell short and were demoted.
During my research, I stumbled upon information about the Kuiper belt on the NASA website. It’s an amazing cluster of objects orbiting in a disc-like zone outside the scope of Neptune. Pluto is a member of this far-flung other world multiplying with thousands of tiny ice worlds. These miniature worlds formed early in the history of our solar system. They offer some of the best evidence of the origins of our solar system. Or of us. Imagine our histories folding in, folding out. But this is language.
I realized in my obsessive pursuit that the demotion or the renaming of Pluto represented another loss in my history, in my making. It’s a reminder of how little control we have in this universe. It’s unsettling to say the least. Eight planets just doesn’t feel right or accurate. But despite its renaming, I’m also strangely attracted to it all the more—the way it embodies that uncomfortable yet alluring space between question and answer, science and wonder, intellect and materiality. The distance between these dualities isn’t quite as defined as language has made it out to be. There is so much more to explore, even if there are no sound answers.
Listen to Liz read her essay: