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My son and the icy little “planet”


I remember one of my son’s first trips to the Museum of Natural History years ago. He was at the height of his interest in astronomy — one of those rites of passage evey kid seems to go through. It’s like the interest all kids develop at one time or another in dinosaurs.

So there we were in the parking garage entrance area, where the ticket booths are. Along the far wall are models of the planets, and we followed them from the start: Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and so on. We followed the line down until we hit Neptune, then kept walking and wound up inside an adjacent gift shop.

“May I help you?” the woman asked.

“Yes, we’re looking for Pluto,” I said.

“It’s not a planet,” she said.

My son and I were greatly disappointed, to say the least.

Little did I realize at the time that we were at the height of controversy surrounding Pluto, which has since been officially demoted from planet status.

I’m actually in the midst of finishing a book about it all, titled the Pluto Files by Neil deGrasse Tyson, head man at the museum’s Haydn Planetarium. Turns out the museum started an uproar when it refurbished the planetarium without Pluto among the planets.

Anyway, it’s a story that, as they say in my business, has legs. Just last week, our neighbors had a dinner party which they dubbed “astronomy night” for all the kids, and we pulled out a couple of telescopes to see Saturn in the southern sky.

In the middle of it all, my son decided to poll everyone at the party on whether Pluto really was a planet. Needless to say, the results were inconclusive. But I couldn’t help but sense that a lot of the kids really miss Pluto as a full-fledged planet. My son certainly does.

The experience heightened my realization that our kids are growing up with some different realities than we had as kids.

These aren’t necessarily life-changing situations or ideals. It’s just different. When I was a kid T. Rex was supposed to have been a slow, lumbering creature that walked like Godzilla in the Japanese monster flicks, and there were a few less elements in the periodic table that I had to memorize.

But I’ve come to see it as a positive thing. Parents are traditionally supposed to help educate kids on the world around them. Now it seems my son and I are learning a thing or two together. And that’s kinda cool.

Even if I had one more planet than him.

This entry was posted on Monday, May 18th, 2009 at 12:05 pm by Jorge Fitz-Gibbon. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
Category: Activities, Astronomy, Blended families, Childcare, Developmental issues, education, Emotions, Entertainment, Environment, Family, Fatherhood, Growing, Learning, Media, Museum of Natural History, Parenting, Planetarium, planets, Pluto, Single parents, Technology, Values
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7 Responses to “My son and the icy little “planet””

  1. Laurel Kornfeld

    I was born in 1965, and I’m still going through that interest in astronomy phase!

    It is important to note that Tyson has distanced himself from the controversial 2006 IAU decision, which he himself admits is flawed. At this point, he even admits that the debate is not over, that it might be too early in the study of planetary scientists for anyone to be defining what a planet is in the first place. This was pretty much his message at the Isaac Asimov Memorial Debate, which he moderated at the American Museum of Natural History on March 10, 2009.

    Significantly, only four percent of the IAU voted on Pluto’s demotion, and most are not planetary scientists. Their decision was immediately rejected by hundreds of professional astronomers led by Dr. Alan Stern, Principal Investigator of NASA’s New Horizons mission to Pluto.

    This debate is far from over. For another perspective, anyone interested in this topic should read “Is Pluto A Planet” by Dr. David Weintraub. Also, please visit my Pluto blog, which discusses the scientific reasons for Pluto maintaining its planet status and chronicles worldwide efforts to overturn the demotion, by Googling “Laurel’s Pluto Blog.” In October, look for “The Case for Pluto,” another book on why Pluto is a planet, by David Boyce. Sometime in the indefinite future, look for the book I am writing about Pluto as well!

    The demotion is unlikely to stand, as both scientists and lay people are actively working to get it overturned.

  2. Jorge Fitz-Gibbon

    Thank you for reading and for responding.
    My point, givent his forum, was more in the context of drawing a lesson in parenting from the whole thing.
    In a more succinct sense, I think my son is like many children who were taught that there were nine planets, and then told there were eight. I grew up with nine, and at face value it’s disappointing.
    But my reading of it makes it a more complex issue. To define a planet is another matter, and it seems to me the characteristics of Pluto as a planet would dictate that various other Kuiper belt bodies be also classified as planets—at least if Pluto is to be one.
    The parent in me would prefer this option: That we have 12 planets instead of nine. Space exploration, after all, would seem to be geared towards expansion, not contraction.
    So on one level I am emotionally attached to Pluto as a planet and others to be added. The science of it, however, seems to suggest, at least to some, that we need to reduce the number of planets if Pluto doesn’t meet some criteria.
    The beauty of it all, as a lay person and a parent who shares these things with his son, is that it inspires discussion, research, exploration at a civilian level, and, most importantly, an educational topic I can share and debate with and against my son.
    That’s what I cherish most about this debate.
    Thanks for chiming in.

  3. Steve C.


    The answer is have your son read 1984.
    This will teach him how many times we are told one thing then another… custer was a murderer, custer was a hero .. etc..

    No new taxes. oh wait here’s a tax on carbonated and drinks with sugar.

  4. David V.

    There’s nothing wrong with kids seeing that we can revise the way we think of things as we learn new facts. It’s also a good lesson that not everything in life is black and white. There is often room for debate, as the debate on Pluto as a planet shows.

    I love astronomy too, though I don’t know that much about it. But I love the idea of the distant planets, and wondering what conditions really are like there. Many of them are beautiful too.

  5. Jorge Fitz-Gibbon

    Thanks, David. Well put.
    As I said, part of me held out hope we’d be adding planets rather than demoting them. But in the interest of science, why not? It’s a debate worth sharing with your kids.

  6. David V.

    I think your son is actually at a very opportune age for this sort of thing. Younger kids tend to think in black and white, in rigidly defined terms, but as they approach adolescence, they become more capable of more theoretical debate, and this is a good way to get things going. What defines a planet versus an asteroid? Where is the dividing line? Even for the experts, the answer is not so clear. That in itself is a very good life lesson, IMO.

  7. Laurel Kornfeld

    “The science of it, however, seems to suggest, at least to some, that we need to reduce the number of planets if Pluto doesn’t meet some criteria.”

    Those criteria were arbitrarily created by a small group of astronomers with a very narrow agenda. They represent just one interpretation. Many who support demoting Pluto have an inherent problem with a solar system that has a large number of planets. Yet if that is what the solar system has, then that is what it has.

    There are strong scientific arguments for keeping Pluto as a planet. The main one is that Pluto is in a state known as hydrostatic equilibrium, meaning it is large enough for its own gravity to pull itself into a round shape, a characteristic of planets and not of shapeless asteroids. Dwarf planets should simply be classified as small planets that are big enough to be spherical but not big enough to gravitationally dominate their orbits.


About this blog
Parents’ Place is a hangout for openly discussing the A’s to Z’s of raising a child in the Lower Hudson Valley. From deciding when to stop using a binky to when to let your teenager take driving lessons, Parents’ Place is here to let us all vent, share, and most of all, learn from each other.
Leading the conversation are Julie Moran Alterio, a business reporter and mom of a toddler, Jorge Fitz-Gibbon, a reporter and single father with joint custody of a 9-year-old son, and Len Maniace, a reporter and father of two sons.


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About the authors
Julie Moran AlterioJulie Moran AlterioJulie Moran Alterio, her husband and baby girl — “Pumpkin” — share their Northern Westchester home with three iPods and more colorful plastic toys than seems necessary to entertain one tiny human. READ MORE
Jorge Fitz-GibbonJorge Fitz-GibbonJorge Fitz-Gibbon has been a journalist for more than 20 years and a father for nine. READ MORE
Jane LernerJane LernerJane Lerner covers health and hospitals for The Journal News in Rockland, where she lives with her husband and two children. READ MORE
Len Maniace.jpgLen ManiaceLen Maniace is a reporter and father of two sons. READ MORE


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