Nick Roth

Transcript of lecture given at Beckman Auditorium by Professor Adrianna Ayers on 14 December 2015, as part of the Ernest V. Bassinger Public Lecture Series.

The following is submitted for review to the Chair, Division of Physics, Mathematics and Astronomy, at the request of Alumni Association Executive Director Astrid Gwynn on the part of concerned alumni of the university.

Internal use only. Not to be distributed.

Transcript omits introduction by Professor Ajay Banerjee.

Ladies and gentlemen, it’s odd, but on occasions when I’m introduced to someone at a square dance – I’m a pretty frequent and avid square dancer, and I go to a lot of dances hereabouts – the introducer rarely finds it important to point out that I’m also an astronomer. But whenever I’m introduced before giving a lecture on astronomy, the introducer generally feels compelled, as Professor Banerjee did tonight, to mention that I square dance. Now, some of you here may have heard this sort of complaint before. I kind of borrowed it, stole it, from Dick Feynman, whom I knew a little when I was grad student here in the late-seventies. But it does seem to be just as true for me with my square dancing as it was for him with his bongo drums. Anyway, like him, I assume these introductions are given because square dancing is held in higher regard than astronomy. And why shouldn’t it be? I mean, I’m not a professional square dancer – if there is such a thing – I’m an astronomer, but sometimes after I’ve been staring at a computer screen for ten hours straight, I admit it: square dancing is more fun.

This probably isn’t what you were expecting to hear tonight – I mean that square dancing is more fun than astronomy – since you came here to listen to a lecture on why Pluto was demoted, some years back now, to dwarf planet status. I guess you didn’t come here to hear an old woman talk about square dancing. Well, it’s not so much square dancing I want to talk about tonight, anyway, but maybe I would like to mention the way in which my partner of the last sixteen years, my wife of the last eleven ... [Hiccups.] ... the way in which my wife decided to leave me on the slim pretext that I was too critical of her square dancing. I guess that is related to square dancing after all, but not in the way maybe you thought. [Clears throat.] I seem to be getting a little off subject, I guess. Anyway, she’s what you might call an inadequate square dancer, Phillippa is. Well, that’s really neither here nor there. I guess it shouldn’t count much in a longstanding relationship, you’d think. I mean whether she’s a good or a lousy square dancer. But you’d be wrong. Because apparently my insistence on Philippa’s getting her steps right drove her crazy. Anyway, this was one of the things she mentioned in court. I’m coming to that bit, I mean about court. Well, I think I said to her at one point, you either do it right or don’t bother. [Muffled voice heard in background.] Forgive me if this is a little off-subject, but I want to get this off my chest.

Now, Phillippa was a grad student when we started dating and I was already teaching here at Caltech, so she’s now thirty-eight and I’m pushing sixty. And in that time we’ve worked together and separately and did some interesting stuff together on globular cluster formation, the mechanics of double binary systems and metals in the ejecta of supernovae. But what, you’re asking yourself, has any of this got to do with Pluto? Well, here’s a funny fact about a lecture that’s supposed to be about Pluto: nothing, folks. [Hiccups.] Our break-up had just about nothing to do with Pluto. Barely had much to do with square dancing either, frankly. But, I’d like to take you back to 2006 for a minute, when Pluto was demoted to a dwarf planet.

When the whole thing started, when the whole idea of devising a new category for dwarf planets was come up with at the IAU conference back in ’06 – well, there was a conference back then and that’s where the idea of new categories was first dealt with officially – I don’t think either Phillippa or I had any strong opinion on the whole thing. I mean, ladies and gentlemen, we’re talking about a fucking name. [Voices in audience.] Pardon my French. [Hiccups.] Anyway, a name. I want that to be clear. Because there’s a great deal of misunderstanding among you out there in the public about this. Some of you here tonight probably think we found some new thing out about Pluto and decided it wasn’t a planet after all. Like you’d find out a bird is closely related to dinosaurs or something and that influenced your classification of birds. But that’s not what happened.

What happened was in the 90’s we started finding biggish, spherical bodies you’d generally refer to as “planets” if they weren’t in orbit around other planets, or “moons” if they were. We started finding these fairly large objects way out past Pluto. Not too long ago, we got a good look at Ceres, which floats around in the asteroid belt between Mars and Jupiter. We’ve known about Ceres for two-hundred years, but it wasn’t until a few years ago with a flyby that we got a close look at it. Turns out it looks roughly like our moon. Then in 2004 ... no, it was ’05 ... somewhere in there, we found Eris and some others. Eris and these others lie way out in the Kuiper Belt. I won’t go into what the Kuiper Belt is for the moment because I don’t feel like it. But now we’ve got Eris, and Haumea and Makemake, and Sedna and Quaoar and when we can see farther out in the Kuiper Belt we’re going to find more of these damned things. Well, guess what, Eris is a bitch. [Hiccups.] Pardon me. Eris is the real reason things got problematic, you might say, with Pluto. Not the only reason. Sort of the camel that broke the straw’s back. Or ... I think I got that backwards. Anyway, turns out, well, for one thing, Eris is about the same size as Pluto. So, now you have a choice: either you now have ten or eleven or however many planets in the solar system instead of nine or you rethink how you define a planet. So, what’s the problem? Why not just have ten or eleven or twelve or whatever damned number planets in the solar system? Well, because then the next question is, well, what the hell is a planet, anyway? [Hiccups.] Does a planet have to be spherical? Eris is spherical, but some of these other objects aren’t. They’re pretty damned big, but they’re not spherical. More potato shaped, most of them.

"Eris is the real reason things got problematic, you might say, with Pluto. Not the only reason."

Well, if you think Phillippa and I argued about any of this you’d be wrong. She didn’t care. I didn’t care. Call Pluto a planet, don’t call it a planet, we had other fish to fry. We were working back then on magnetic activity in brown dwarfs, as I recall. Golden days. We’d only been together a few years and our love was still so strong. She used to fall asleep in my arms. We showered together every morning. My body hadn’t gone completely to pot the way it has in the last few years. I still had some of my ass left and my breasts were still in pretty decent shape. [Audience voices heard.] All right, all right. Calm yourselves. In any event you’re stuck. Either you call all these little objects floating around in the solar system planets or you don’t, but then you can’t very well keep Pluto on the list, can you? You can’t have a definition of a planet that says it’s anything Pluto-sized or bigger, spherical, and in orbit around the sun, and then say Eris isn’t a planet. Because Eris fits all those criteria. Not only that, what exactly makes the size of Pluto such a special feature? See, now you’re kind of stuck throwing that out too. Astronomers don’t like arbitrary definitions. We don’t like purely historical reasons for something being defined a certain way. Pluto was found before Eris but after Ceres, that kind of thing. Who cares? What’s that got to do with anything?

So, the Astronomical Union decides something more consistent had better be come up with. They form a group to look into it. The group comes up with a perfectly consistent definition and that’s adopted and the next thing you know the public’s up in arms. Maybe some of you up-in-arms people are even here tonight because you’d like to see Pluto re-instated as a planet. Well, folks ... [Hiccups.] ... ain’t gonna happen. Let it go. Just because you’ve gotten comfortable with something, just because you’ve come to rely on your world being a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s gonna stay that way. My world’s falling apart but I’ll be damned if I’m gonna whine about it. Who’m I gonna appeal to anyway? The IAU? What should I do, go to the IAU and say, Phillippa has no right to leave me after sixteen years? Because, hell, she has a right to do whatever she wants to do.

"Just because you’ve gotten comfortable with something, just because you’ve come to rely on your world being a certain way, doesn’t mean it’s gonna stay that way."

For one historical period Phillippa was defined as my wife. That period lasted from February 22nd, 2004 – when we drove up to San Francisco soon as it was legal to do the deed – until Tuesday of last week, when our divorce got the state’s seal of approval. Not the way I wanted it. I still love her. I still love Phillippa. [Audience voices heard.] I can’t get used to the idea she’s not my wife. She’s being redefined, folks, from being my wife to being my ex-wife. She’ll still be around. She’ll still be Phillippa Loeb, but she won’t be my wife. Well, tough shit for me. Try and bring some objectivity to the table, ladies and gentlemen. If I can accept Phillippa having gone then you can damned well accept Pluto being demoted. Because I have a woman’s body to think about – I mean hers – to dream about – and even if Pluto had been thrown out of the goddamned solar system, what the hell would you really care? You can’t see the thing with the naked eye. It took Clyde Tombaugh months of staring at photographic plates taken through a huge telescope to even discover the thing. Its being gone would cause you no physical distress. Hell, it would barely have much gravitational effect. The other planets would pretty much go on spinning around the sun just like they had. Neptune might give a tiny damn, but the others would barely notice. But me, I wake up at night yearning for Phillippa’s body and reach over and all I get is a handful of cold sheets. I’m going to grow old without her. We have a daughter. She’ll be six next month. Her name is Charon. Sounds a lot like “Sharon,” but it’s with a “C” instead of an “S.” I guess that’ll give you a laugh, naming her after Pluto’s moon. Well, there’s not much to it. Phillippa had wanted to name her Sharon, after Phillippa’s late mother, and I said that wasn’t a very astronomical name for the daughter of two astronomers. I wanted to go with Callisto. So we compromised and went with Charon. Well, the judge gave custody to Phillippa. He gave me an idiotic little speech about the ties of blood, because she’s genetically Phillippa’s daughter. I get to see my daughter on weekends. Hurray for me! Well, she may be Phillippa’s daughter genetically, but she’s my daughter in spirit. She’s always been closer to me. I’m less detached. I’m more there. I pay attention. Phillipa gave birth to Charon but I’m really the one that’s raised her. I’m her Pluto, not Phillippa. I’m the one she gravitates towards. [Long pause.] Let’s not have any tears about it though. I try and look at it philosophically.

I try and look at it like this: I’m a body in the universe, subject to all the forces that other bodies are subject to. Including my own internal forces. As a lot of you probably know, before Tycho Brahe did his observations and before Kepler figured out the three laws of planetary motion – the laws that govern all celestial motion if you take relativity out of the equation – you had these systems of epicycles. Little wheels within bigger wheels within bigger wheels, to try and make sense of the movement of the planets. There were different version of these systems, some with all the planets except earth going around the sun, some with all the planets and the sun going around the earth. And contrary to popular belief, most of these systems worked pretty well. Why the planets would be dancing around like that, no one had any idea, but the epicycles did a good job of predicting planetary motion. And then one day, after Brahe and Kepler came along, it all made sense. Kepler’s layout for the solar system, well, that was based on the Copernican one, but Copernicus had used those weird Ptolemaic epicycles to make sense of things and Kepler didn’t. Now, what I’d like to point out is that we’re all in the position of using epicycles when it comes to love, you see, except that ... [Hiccups.] ... except that no Kepler is ever going to come along to make sense of all of it. We see how the world is but we have no idea why. We fall in love with someone, they fall out of love with us. A complex cycle. Maybe even a predictable one. But a complete goddamned mystery at bottom. And I’m not talking about any of those genetic explanations of why we fall in love, or any of that paleontological crap about what kinds of men cavewomen preferred or vice versa. I mean, suppose I knew every reason why Phillippa fell out of love with me – let’s say because I’m withering before her eyes, that I’m turning into an old lady, my hair is gray and thinning, et cetera; or that my ideas about raising Charon coincide less and less with Phillippa’s; or I criticize Phillippa too much about this or that, including her lousy square dancing; or any number of things – how would that get me one inch closer to understanding? I mean the kind of understanding that would do my heart any good.

I see some ugly expressions on your faces. I’m making you uncomfortable, am I? [Voices from audience.] Well, tough luck, madame. [Voice from audience.] I will not. I will not. Let me put it this way: suppose your heart and not just your head depended on Pluto being a planet. Because, let’s face it, as far as the layperson goes, as far as most of you people go, if you express any interest in Pluto being a planet, you can bet it’s because you want to be seen as the scientific type, the type who belongs to that silly group ... what is it ... what do they call it? I Fucking Love Science. Bullshit! What you love is looking like you’re more rational than people who don’t claim to fucking love science. [Voice from audience.] So what if there are children here. Let ‘em grow up a little then. Have they never seen the Internet? They can see and hear more of the foulest things ever brought to the world by mankind, see and hear more of them in an hour than a woman a hundred years ago might in a lifetime. They can have their hearts broken, their faith abolished, all before breakfast. [Voice from audience.] Oh, screw you all. None of you understand...

[The voice of Professor Banerjee is heard exchanging some words with Professor Ayers.] I will not and I’ll [inaudible] ... one last thing and then [inaudible] ...

Pluto. Pluto. Pluto floats around out there at a distance of four and a half billion miles, out of whack with the rest of the solar system, offset from the ecliptic by seventeen degrees, alone except for some orbiting bits of rock and Charon, which it’s only going to get to see on weekends from now on apparently. Pluto, covered with ice. Pluto, slowly orbiting a sun so far away it looks almost like just another star. Pluto, fooled into thinking there was anything permanent in the world. Pluto, smallest of the planets. Pluto, not even a planet. Pluto, the dwarf. Pluto, lost in near darkness. Pluto, whatever the hell you want to call it. Pluto.


Nick Roth attended UCLA and the School of Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California. His stories have appeared or are upcoming in Word Riot, Failbetter, The Forge Literary Magazine, Shooter Literary Magazine, Rivet Journal, Flexible Persona, Duende, Your Impossible Voice, Punchnel’s, Feathertale, and Prick of the Spindle.

He lives in Los Angeles.