Tonight (March 2, 2010) on NOVA: The Pluto Files, featuring Neil deGrasse Tyson, about the controversy over the "demotion" of Pluto from planetary status in 2006. NOVA airs at 8pm in most markets, on PBS -- check your local listings here.
Way back in 2000, Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the American Museum of Natural History, was faced with a dilemma. In displaying the solar system, he and his team had to figure out what to do with Pluto. The ninth planet, Pluto was much smaller and much farther away from the sun than the other planets in the display. It also had an unusual orbit and a few other odd properties. So the team didn't include Pluto in their main solar system exhibit, instead relegating it to a section downstairs amongst other Kuiper Belt objects. And then everybody went nuts.
NOVA's program The Pluto Files explores the controversy from all sides -- deGrasse Tyson interviews scientists who have opposing views, interviews the Tombaugh family (descendants of Clyde Tombaugh, who discovered Pluto), and even interviewed the scientist who discovered the "tenth planet" (Eris) -- something I'd never even heard of. The question here is twofold: first, what is a planet? And second, why is the demotion of Pluto such a hugely emotional issue for people? Both are discussed in some depth in the program, and a good conclusion is reached -- but I won't spoil it here.
The good news: there's plenty of material for both "sides" of the debate here. Honestly, deGrasse Tyson himself seems to have been cast as the villain here -- something he's willing to ham up on occasion -- but from a scientific perspective, his attitude is not at all black and white. So whatever you think about Pluto, this is worth watching. Also, it's totally family-friendly -- grab the kids and sit down for some fun science programming tonight!
Another interesting bit: NASA's New Horizons craft, which arrives at Pluto in 2015 -- with the ashes of Clyde Tombaugh onboard.