In 2005, astronomers in California announced the discovery of a new solar system object larger than the planet Pluto. Eris was quickly inaugurated as a planet, our tenth!
The next year, the International Astronomical Union designated Pluto and the new object “dwarf planets.” Eris and Pluto were quickly tossed out of the club.
I continued to speak my mind about the new designation. I voiced my opinion as often as I could. My behavior may have bordered on the annoying from the perspective of some of those around me.
I even took advantage of a chance encounter with Neil deGrasse Tyson at my telescope to bend his ear about the change. He listened politely, then hurried on his way.
In the Fall of 2008, Guilford Technical Community College held it’s annual Fall Astronomy Day lecture. This year the guest speaker was Dr. Harold Levison from the Southwest Research Institute . He spoke about the Nice model and other ideas about the early history of the solar system.
But in some down-time during his visit, he heard me complain to a small group about the change in the status of Pluto. Levison, too, listened politely. Then he stepped in. He asked me “Why?”
Pluto had always been a planet for me. I was comfortable with it. I was comfortable with the idea of ten planets. I liked having a planet with the same name as a cartoon dog. I liked it and wanted to keep it that way.
Levison responded that science is different from other areas of study. In some religious faiths for example, there are ideas, concepts and dogmas that are considered eternal, permanent and incontrovertably true. Dr. Levison may have mentioned a few examples at this time to drive home his point.
But science is different too, Dr. Levison reminded me and the other listeners. In science, we continue to observe with new technologies and experiment in ways unthinkable just a few decades ago. We think and sometimes adjust our models to better fit the observations.
That’s a notable difference between science and religion, Levison emphasized. So, he looked straight into my eyes and said that maybe I needed to decide which one I teach.
Do I teach science? Or religion?
You could of heard a pin drop. I knew my confusion was over.