Jul 14 2015

Why Pluto is Important

As I write this post we are just minutes away from the closest approach of the New Horizons probe to Pluto, the farthest world we have thus far explored (24 minutes and counting). It’s an exciting moment, not just for astronomy buffs or science enthusiasts, but for humanity. I’m glad to see an appropriate level of excitement among the media and the general public.

Still, a couple of people have commented to me or in my presence that they don’t understand what the big deal is or why this is important, so allow me a moment to explore why I think this is such a big deal.

First, let us not forget what it took to get there. New Horizons is the fastest thing humans ever built. It shot past the moon in 8 hours and 35 minutes, and made a journey of 5 billion kilometers (or 5 terameters, as my friend the Metric Maven would say). On its way it swung around Jupiter to get a gravity assist.

And after 10 years and all that distance, it is finally arriving exactly where the scientists wanted it to – smack in the middle of the target, the Pluto system. We know this is true because we are being rewarded with close up, high definition, pictures of Pluto, Charon and its other moons.

Think about the implications of that fact. That is a stunning validation of not only astronomy and physics, but of science itself. No other intellectual tool developed by humans has achieved such a success. No dowser, psychic, or spiritualist could have divined the information necessary to target the probe. No astrologer could have given us this information. Alchemy could not have powered the rockets so powerfully and precisely.

As Carl Sagan said – “Science delivers the goods.”

The New Horizons mission is also a transcendental moment for humanity. The probe is not just increasing Americans’ knowledge about Pluto, but the world’s knowledge. Everyone gets to benefit, gets to look as the beautiful images of this frozen world. Everyone has a slightly better appreciation for the scale of the universe and our place in it.

This will be remembered as an achievement of our species, of our civilization, and of the power of science. This is one of the things I respect most about science – it is universal and transparent.

7 minutes 24 seconds and counting.

New Horizons also represents the pure joy of discovery. Why do I want to know what Pluto actually looks like? Because it is there, and I want to know. My curiosity calls out to it and wants satisfaction. Because we love mysteries, and now we have some more – the dark bands on Pluto, what are they? What process made them? Why are they so evenly spaced out?

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And let’s not forget the benefits of pure basic science. We cannot always foresee how basic scientific knowledge will translate into a concrete benefit, but that is part of the point. We don’t know. We find stuff out because it is empowering, it is better to know. Knowledge has a way of cascading, leading to more knowledge, greater insight, seeing patterns in the fabric of reality we had not considered. Knowledge is beneficial for its own sake, even if one bit of knowledge is not itself directly useful. The indirect benefits are incalculable.

And there might be some downstream direct benefits. Knowing about how planets form and evolve may prove quite useful to our species.

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The New Horizons probe is a promise fulfilled, and it did not disappoint. Its mission is also not over. Now it ventures into the darkness of the Kuiper belt. This is the outer regions of the solar system, a place where we have never explored. Who knows what it will encounter there.

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