Pluto, Weddings and Equality

I’ve been thinking about Pluto a lot, and with your wedding happening at the same time, it’s probably inevitable that I find connections.

Pluto is overwhelmingly the planet most claimed as a favorite across every demographic. This may be simply because of its (somewhat) recent reclassification. Marriage itself has been (more) recently reclassified, so it’s also been considered more of late. In Pluto’s case, the reclassification was seen as a negative move, while marriage’s reclassification was a victory for morality, ethics, and humanity. However, Pluto also benefits from the new way we humans have decided to regard it.

Pluto was once called a planet. It was never more than a smudge of a few pixels on even our most sensitive instruments. It was a shore too foreign to know. And so, like assholes, we called it a planet because what else could there be? How can a hunk of rock or whatever orbit the sun and not be a planet? How can someone be born a man and feel they should be a woman? How can someone want to change gender, but not also be (or not be) homosexual? These are labels of ignorance, and they shame we who presume to label.

Pluto, like our trans community, is an object that does not fit the clean and unjustly simplified model we once held. Pluto is trans, too. Well, it’s a Trans-Neptunian Object, at least. At times, it is closer to the sun than Neptune. It doesn’t orbit in the same plane as the planets. Its orbit is more elliptical than the planets. When we discovered Pluto in 1930, no other object did these things. Pluto was our first direct exposure to a solar system that was far more rich and diverse than we thought possible. So we called it a planet without regard to the wonder we had just uncovered.

Finally, in 2006, we recognized Pluto’s non-conformance to our narrowly-prescribed existence. So we more carefully defined one aspect of that existence, the planets, as a matter of respect for what Pluto is, not what it isn’t. Where it was once the least member of a group it never identified with, it was now the trailblazer and major player of a new aspect we had been blind to. Soon other Trans-Neptunian Objects and Kuiper Belt Objects were revealed to us, thanks partly to what Pluto had taught us about the universe.

It just so happens that you two were married on July 12, two weeks after the victory of marriage equality and also on the cusp of the arrival of our first robust, dedicated mission to Pluto which arrives on July 14. You celebrated a major step in an endeavor you both set out on a few years ago. The New Horizons mission will do the same tomorrow, an endeavor 9 years in the making. So they took it a bit slower than you did, but science often leavens its love with extreme caution (sometimes to its detriment). So as this is being written, New Horizons hurtles toward discovery at somewhere near 36,000 miles per hour, perhaps just a touch slower than you two on your journey.

July 12th and July 14th are major milestones for both teams; milestones that are the ending of an extended effort fraught with peril and circumstance into a newer journey that will be richer and stronger for all that you’ve learned during what came before. Many say science is dispassionate and calculated, and they aren’t completely wrong. But they forget that no scientific endeavor survives without true and deep passion, without a drive that cannot be ignored. We shouldn’t forget that marriage, for all its perfume and tenderness is also mortgages and scheduling. Many quote that love is patient and endures. Well, sometimes that love must patiently endure checkbook balancing and orbital insertion trajectories.

It also hasn’t escaped me that Pluto, in the social consciousness is both the ruler of the underworld, a man with a dark but not entirely unkind outlook on humanity (I’m raising an eyebrow of significance at you, sir) and a guileless animated character with unwavering loyalty and an idyllic outlook even as Disney characters go (I’m raising an eyebrow of significance at you, madame).

But that’s a facile observation. Perhaps more interesting is Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Now, Charon is traditionally pronounced with a hard K. However, the discoverer of Charon (Jim Christy) honored the thematic tradition of the naming of celestial objects after Roman gods or Shakespeare characters, but with a twist. Instead of the traditional Greek pronunciation, he used a soft ch (an “sh” sound). So Charon became “Shar-on” with the first syllable pronounced as in “shard.” Why? Char was the nickname of his wife, Charlene.

It’s the only solar system object named almost directly for a specific non-fictional person. I don’t know of any diamond big enough to beat that.

My mind is then drawn, as it often is, to the physics of the situation. Orbital mechanics, to be precise. You see, as we should have learned in primary school, all objects orbit each other. The apple that falls does so while also attracting the earth up toward it. Just as the moon does. When one does the simple math that Newton taught us, there is a point between any two objects at which the pull that each of them feels is centered. This is called the barycenter, and it’s the point around which both objects revolve. In the case of the Earth and the Moon, that barycenter lies a few thousand feet away from the center of the earth. So the end result is that the Moon makes the Earth wobble a very tiny bit. Jupiter makes the sun wobble, Io makes Jupiter wobble, and really everything makes everything wobble. Fortunately, it’s usually by such tiny amounts that it rarely has much noticeable effect.

Well, with Pluto and Charon, they are so closely matched that the barycenter of their relationship lies outside both of them. Neither possess the center of the union, and they truly orbit each other as almost nothing else in the solar system does*.

And so, Pluto and Charon, named for loved ones and complex characters of nearly diametric opposition are each the moon to the other as they dance along a path unconstrained by what’s established by the planets we once thought them so similar to.

I don’t know what any of that means to you, but I hope it at least provides a few moments of interesting connection to both the heavens and one of the noblest endeavors of humankind: exploration.





* The Sun/Jupiter barycenter is above the surface of the sun, but only just barely

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