Celebrity clips toe nails. Woman loses phone signal. Man doesn’t see point of twitter. Space ship reaches Pluto. Am I alone in thinking that the media and the public may have lost their collective sense of wonder? I mean we have recently witnessed quite possibly the most remarkable feat of technology and engineering for a generation and the press seemed positively underwhelmed and the few conversations into which I have managed to slip the word Pluto have been met with glassy eyes and soft pleas to talk about anything else. Anything. Which is strange because this particular piece of news was exciting, exhilarating and astonishing. It had legs yet fell from general discourse with all the haste and dignity of a lead plate. So please indulge me.
Pluto is very, very distant and for most of its known existence was considered to be a planet. It was never much more than a smudge on a telescope lens and its exact size was difficult to determine. When after years of observation Pluto’s vital statistics were finally calculated it was deemed to be too diminutive and not dominant enough in its area of space. In 2006, with impeccable timing, the esteemed gentlefolk at the International Astronomical Union downgraded it to a dwarf planet, just weeks after a spaceship had been launched to visit what had been the ninth planet, reducing the number of planets in our solar system to eight and somewhat diminishing the mission. Why being a dwarf planet should be considered a downgrade is not clear, apparently the IAU have not heard of Peter Dinklage. He may be small but he is truly massive. Size should not be considered an impediment, no one ever thought Pluto was big, it didn’t suddenly shrink it was always small, quite a bit smaller than our moon in fact but still it loomed large in our imaginations. Well, in mine at least, so much so that when I was fourteen I wrote a gloriously uninformed story about it.
Pluto was were the Plutocrats came from. Civilised aliens who arrived on Earth and were immediately welcomed due to the fact that they possessed unimaginable quantities of ploon, a metal they considered almost worthless because Pluto was pretty much made of the stuff. But with great distance came great value and on Earth ploon was known by a different name, gold. Everything the Plutocrats had was made of it, their clothes were spun from it, they ate off it and their space ships were not only constructed from it but their alchemy engines and weapons were powered by it. It was the weapons that most interested the human governments however because anyone shot by them was miraculously turned into their weight in gold. This encouraged them to declare an unwinnable war on their once feted and technically superior guests and in their greed literally millions of fattened up human soldiers were sacrificed so that their dead bodies could be melted down for precious metal. I didn’t say it was a fun story.
My point is Pluto was always a planet of incredible mystery, not least because it was billions of miles away and we never had any chance of ever going there and if I wanted it to be made of gold it could be, no one could tell me otherwise. Pluto was the pie in my favourite mnemonic, but now my very educated mother just serves us nachos, I don’t like nachos, I want pie. So thank you NASA for such a big slice, because here we are making the impossible look easy, cruising through Pluto’s neighbourhood, rolling down the windows and taking a few snaps. As it turns out Pluto isn’t made of gold it is much more extraordinary than that, it is a confounding place of rock and ice, mountains of ice, thousands of feet high. Frozen canyons roiling with methane and plains covered in nitrogen snow, a place so hostile it is hardly surprising the Plutocrats left, but then again if Pluto looks this amazing from Earth just imagine how amazing Earth must look from Pluto.