We are all Pluto now
by Dwayne Day
|How does the world change? Slowly and then all at once. All at once and then slowly.|
One year ago this Thursday the world changed. Or did it? One year ago this Thursday a tiny spacecraft hurtled past a cold, lifeless (maybe?) rock on the edge of our solar system and took us all, all of humanity, into the post-flyby world. There was the time before, when Pluto was only a speck in even the best telescopes, and the time after, when Pluto has now become a vibrantly complex world full of nitrogen glaciers and cryovolcanos and ice mountains and wispy haze and imagination and theories and speculation. And everything is different. And everything is the same.
How does the world change? Slowly and then all at once. All at once and then slowly. Did the world change when Galileo first pointed his telescope at Jupiter and noticed the little stars around it? Did it change when he did that the second, third, fourth time and noticed that those little stars had moved? Did it change when he published Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems, or The Assayer? Did the world change (400 years ago this year!) when he was ordered by the Catholic Church to retract his discoveries and never voice or write them again? And since they could not stuff that demon back in the bottle, the words were out there. When did Galileo’s words change us?
Did the world change when Newton published his Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy? When Copernicus wrote On the Revolutions of the Celestial Spheres? It did and it didn’t. Chances are that the next mornings after all of these things happened, when the world woke up, nobody was any different.
Science changed. It changed quickly, but slowly. A sudden shift when somebody—Galileo, Newton, Copernicus, Einstein—made a discovery or an observation that led to whole new ways of looking at the universe. But those discoveries, those papers, books, theories, they all took time to travel, to pass from one scientist to another, and eventually to find their ways into newspapers and magazines and textbooks and the minds of college students and schoolchildren and finally the public consciousness. How many years, decades, passed before we could say that Galileo had changed the world? And did he really? There are billions of people alive today for whom Galileo’s discovery 400 years ago means nothing; it affects their lives not one bit.
When we say that the world changed, of course, we mean the culture changed, the unwritten rules and behaviors that are passed on from person to person. Knowledge—not just in books, but in the heads of people—changed. It was different, new information supplanting and driving out old information (at least for some, even today, with space travel and gene splicing some people still believe that the world is 6,000 years old and that dinosaurs are a myth). Equally important was that human thinking changed—after the knowledge, the way people looked at the world changed. Human thought changes even if the brain chemistry that enables it remains the same.
|Pluto was a mystery wrapped up in an enigma buried in the distance and dark. Now it is something different. And until we discovered it and began to explore it, Pluto also did not matter. We give it meaning. We are Pluto. And Pluto is us.|
Before July 14, 2015, there was nobody on this planet (you know, Earth) that had ever seen Pluto as anything more than a tiny speck. Nobody. That was the reality. That was universal knowledge. Today there are millions of babies who will grow up and their only understanding, comprehension, image, of Pluto will be the complex world that was revealed by the New Horizons spacecraft. That is going into the textbooks now, it is the dominant image of Pluto on the Internet. It will be the new reality that replaces the old reality of Pluto as a speck. And then decades from now there will no longer be a single person on Earth who will remember what Pluto was like before it became this complex world, nobody left who will remember it was once a tiny, featureless, unknown dot.
What does it matter? It doesn’t matter. If your life is different now than it was in July of last year, that certainly has nothing to do with Pluto. Your life is defined by love, loss, birth, death, all the personal experiences that are unique to you and/or shared with the ones closest to you. The movement of a cold rock in the depths of space does not affect you, just as it did not affect humanity before now or terrestrial life before humanity. For billions of years, before the first hominids climbed out of the trees, before the first invertebrates flopped out of the primordial ooze, Pluto orbited the sun out there in the cold. It had no effect on us, or the life that came before us. We did not affect it, and it did not affect us.
We are all star stuff, as Carl Sagan once so poetically said, composed of the heavy atoms birthed in the thermonuclear fires of long gone supernovas. But our bodies are more than atoms. They are thoughts and emotions too. The celestial bodies affect those as well. The North Star guided mariners for hundreds of years. The Moon has inspired lovers and dreamers far longer. Pluto was a mystery wrapped up in an enigma buried in the distance and dark. Now it is something different. And until we discovered it and began to explore it, Pluto also did not matter. We give it meaning. We are Pluto. And Pluto is us.
We have affected Pluto, and Pluto is affecting us, even if most of us don’t know it. Even if the vast majority of humans today have not seen the photos of Pluto, the knowledge we have gained about it is flowing through the scientific community and gradually, ever so slowly, seeping into our culture. That knowledge carries forward. That demon is out of the bottle. And we’re better for it.
There will be other more important changes to us for sure. Yes, the actions of humans. Wars. Violence. These things change humanity, they change daily lives, they hurt, shock, terrorize, inspire. Somebody will find a cure for a disease and it will change many lives for the better. People will live who previously would have died. Somebody will blow up an airplane, or try to, and it will change many lives for the worse. The world was different after Hiroshima. It was different after September 11. It was different after the discovery of penicillin.
|Pluto is a small shift in our consciousness and our culture. You have to know about it, and you have to think about it, for it to matter, and most people around the world don’t know or think about it.|
Those events will have far more real effects upon our daily lives than the things we discover and learn beyond Earth. But these things still matter. Maybe less and less now—a scientist can only discover that humans are not the center of the universe once, not twice—so maybe our exploration of Pluto is not that important even in the grand scheme of science. Maybe all the biggest discoveries and shifts in scientific thinking have already occurred, centuries ago. Or maybe not. We know that at some point scientists will aim a telescope at a distant star and discover a planet that has the characteristics we know are necessary to support life. And it seems likely that at some point, maybe a decade from now, maybe a millennium, that somebody will aim a telescope at a star and discover unmistakable signs of life. And that will change us too. Those aliens will forever be out of reach—curse you, physics—but we don’t need to talk to the aliens for our perspective to shift and for people to think differently forever afterwards. Will that discovery change us more than Galileo, Copernicus, Newton, Einstein? It could.
William Gibson has said that the future is here now, it just isn’t evenly distributed yet. Pluto is a small shift in our consciousness and our culture. You have to know about it, and you have to think about it, for it to matter, and most people around the world don’t know or think about it. Of course, even then knowing and thinking about it does not change the time you wake up in the morning or the clothes you wear or how often you call your mother on the phone. But it changes us. Somehow. Only time will enable us to begin to understand it.
Nothing is different.
And nothing is the same.
Thank you Pluto.