Thursday, July 23, 2015

The Pluto Formerly Known as a Planet

I've been reading news stories about the Pluto fly-by with excitement over the expansion of the human mind into the vastness of space beyond the conventionally recognized boundary of the Solar System. Pluto (known as Yuggoth, home of eldritch entities, in the Lovecraftian mythos, and discovered to be the outpost of an interstellar invasion in Robert Heinlein's HAVE SPACESUIT, WILL TRAVEL) has geological activity and several moons. When I learned about the Solar System as a child, Pluto was a full-fledged planet of inert, icy rock and had no moon.

A not-uncommon SF trope speculates that the shared beliefs of human minds collectively shape reality. For instance, the Earth was flat until we decided it was round. There were only four elements until chemists decided otherwise.

From an early story on this premise, THE NEW REALITY (1950) by Charles L. Harness:

"And I repeat, the universe is the work of man. I believe that man began his existence in some incredibly simple world-- the original and true noumenon of our present universe. And that over the centuries man expanded his little world into its present vastness and incomprehensible intricacy solely by dint of imagination. . . . Even this brilliant man would probably say that the earth was round in 600 B.C., even as it is today. But I know it was flat then--as truly flat as it is truly round today. What has changed? Not the Thing-in-Itself we call the earth. No, it is the mind of man that has changed. But in his preposterous blindness, he mistakes what is really his own mental quickening for a broadened application of science and more precise methods of investigation--"

Heinlein plays with a similar notion in WALDO (1942):

"Suppose Chaos were king and the order we thought we detected in the world about us a mere phantasm of the imagination; where would that lead us? In that case, Waldo decided, it was entirely possible that a ten-pound weight did fall ten times as fast as a one-pound weight until the day the audacious Galileo decided in his mind that it was not so. Perhaps the whole science of ballistics derived from the convictions of a few firm-minded individuals who had sold the notion to the world. Perhaps the very stars were held firm in their courses by the unvarying faith of the astronomers. Orderly Cosmos, created out of Chaos -- by Mind! The world was flat before geographers decided to think of it otherwise. The world was flat, and the Sun, tub size, rose in the east and set in the west. The stars were little lights, studding a pellucid dome which barely cleared the tallest mountains. Storms were the wrath of gods and had nothing to do with the calculus of air masses."

Along those lines, speaking postmodernly, did the Solar System end at Saturn before more powerful instruments revealed Uranus? Did Pluto exist before the anomalous wobble in Neptune's orbit was discovered? Did the former ninth planet objectively lose its planet status and become a dwarf planet when astronomers decreed it so? In my childhood, was it really a moonless world?

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

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