Contemplations on Pluto: An Interview with Dana Wilde
Categories: Interview Science & Cosmology
In celebration of the New Horizon’s fly-by, we interviewed Pluto contributor and CentralMaine.com columnist Dana Wilde about his thoughts on space exploration and the former ninth planet. Below, he shares his enlightening insights on these topics and on the nature of human beings and the progression of our relationship with the cosmos over time. You can find similar contemplations on the physical as well as the symbolic nature of Pluto in our recent anthology edited by North Atlantic Books founder Richard Grossinger.
NAB: Why is it worth investing money in space exploration, prioritizing Pluto over opportunities closer to home?
Dana: The roughly $700 million that eventually will have gone into the New Horizons mission could have been spent on other things, such as caring for the needy, medical research, or other, more practical space missions—“practical” meaning, in our day and age, endeavors likely to result in financial payoffs, such as figuring out how to efficiently mine the moon.
But what we continually ignore in our time—despite occasional superficial chatter on the topic—is that the inner, psychological needs of humans are as important as the material needs of humans. In reality, physical well-being and psychic well-being are partners, yin and yang, for us. The mind, to be healthy, requires nourishment the same way the body requires nourishment. By “mind” I mean that consciousness that comprises thought, emotion, moral disposition, imagination, archetypal understanding, intuition, spirit, and whatever else, conscious or unconscious, makes up our inner being.
The unknown fires the human imagination. The stars and planets are the most awesome, most immanent, alluring, inspiring, immediate figure of the unknown. So in our time, space exploration is the most imagination-firing public activity we engage in: We feel like we are all imaginative participants. So visiting a far-distant planet—even by robot—is probably the most powerful tangible action a government can take to actively nourish the mind of its people.
Space exploration is critical to our well-being. It is money extremely well spent.
In “Pluto on the Borderlands,” your essay in Pluto: New Horizons for a Lost Horizon, you reference George Mallory’s reason for climbing Mount Everest: because it’s there. What does the fly-by and the exploration of Pluto reveal about human nature?
We sense the world is much larger than us, we want to find out where we are and what our relationship to it is, and the starting point is the exploration of our physical surroundings. Who first went down into the Chauvet caves in France 35,000 or more years ago, and why? They went because it was there: They wondered what they might find there and how they might be able to use it. It turned out some kind of power was down there that they transformed into artworks, and who knows what else. That’s what humans do. Sometimes it doesn’t turn out too well, other times it takes a turn you don’t expect—like a turn into the world of dreams and visions, which might be more edifying than science has any way of talking about for now. Maybe something will be spotted on Pluto that fires up Elon Musk’s or Donald Trump’s imagination so powerfully that they start pouring money into a manned mission there (which has already been talked about in a general way at NASA, by the way). No one knows. That’s why we go.
Throughout history, humans created a framework for understanding outer space and their relationship to it. In an age of hyper-rationalism, what can we learn from our forebears’ conception of the cosmos?
If you ask me, the critical emotional/psychological/spiritual issue of our time takes form in our assumption that rational understanding is the crown or pinnacle of human intelligence. Most scientists, I believe, subscribe to this idea. But the fact is, it is wrong. The human psyche, its conscious and unconscious components, operates in vast areas, many or even most of which are ungraspable by our rational, logical intelligence. Ancient people knew this, though by and large they did not frame it this way in their own minds because they did not create the same deeply separating analytical categories we do.
Dante represents the situation with a clarity we can grasp pretty easily here because it is analytical and rational: In the Divine Comedy, he journeys through hell and ascends most of Mount Purgatory with Virgil, who serves as his guide because the strength of his rational intelligence is required to navigate the shattering suffering in both places. Just before the summit of Mount Purgatory, Dante turns around to find Virgil has disappeared. What happened to his rational guide? The answer is: In the ranges of human experience Dante will now enter, his rational intelligence no longer serves a significant purpose; he next will be guided by a different kind of intelligence, which in the figure of Beatrice is “love,” though the way we use that word radically oversimplifies the complexity and purity that characterizes Dante’s vision of this way of knowing. It is a sort of transcendent intelligence outside the limits of rational understanding.
Our forebears, to answer the question, did not view the cosmos with exclusive rational objectivity. Their experience of it equally involved emotional/moral/intuitive/spiritual areas of their conscious and unconscious mind. We might call this today “holistic,” but that word is baggage-laden and not very accurate to what I mean. Our ancient forebears framed stories rather than scientific essays to convey their understanding of the cosmos because stories can convey the whole feeling of the understanding, not just the objective facts. What we can learn from that: Rational knowledge by itself is only part of the meaning, and often—even usually—a small part of it. The best minds among our ancestors possessed an integrated consciousness of who we are and where we are—the experience (not just the rational understanding) of our natural integrated place in the cosmos. In ancient times, the experience of the vast cosmos of stars and love was, in Giorgio de Santillana’s way of talking about it, available to everybody, not just a small number of mathematically trained astrophysicists. The world is much larger than our rational understanding of it.
How has our relationship to the cosmos changed over time?
The answer to this question, I guess, is implicit in the answer to the previous question: A critical change for us has occurred over about the last five hundred years, where we have almost systematically devalued all our ways of knowing that are not directly related to rational understanding. This has led to a sharp, subject-object division between us and nature, which has been beneficial in many material ways but outright destructive in many psychological ways—specifically, especially, moral, and spiritual.
Is there water on Pluto? What would be the significance if there were?
If there is water on, or somehow liquid under Pluto’s surface, then that could imply that water occurs more frequently in weird places than has previously been thought. If it’s warm enough for water to be liquid way out there, then it’s plausible to expect life as we understand it to exist much more commonly than has previously been thought possible (though probably not on Pluto itself, for various reasons). The one thing that excites practically everybody equally is the possibility of life beyond Earth. The significance of such a find—we can’t really figure that out until we come directly up against it.
Can you explain what seasons are like on Pluto?
Pluto takes 248 Earth-years to make one orbit of the Sun; its track is a much flatter ellipse than the Earth’s, and it rotates tilted over at a steeper angle to the Sun than the Earth. So even though it’s on average about 3 billion miles out, when it gets closer to the Sun, Pluto’s atmosphere gets warmer and thicker; when it’s in the far winter reaches of the ellipse, the atmosphere gets colder and thinner—maybe even disappears—because the nitrogen freezes out. It’s parallel to (though not “like,” really) the difference on Earth between humid, hazy summer days and crisp, clear winter days.
Why is Pluto no longer considered a planet? Do you agree with its status?
Some people get very emotional about Pluto being recategorized—by a possibly unrepresentative group of astronomers—from planet to dwarf planet. The main reason the astronomers debated about this is that it’s looking like there are many bodies out there in the Kuiper Belt (the region of space which Pluto inhabits) around the same size as Pluto or possibly even larger, and by the traditional definition, you would have to call all of them planets. Pretty soon there could be, not nine or ten, but scores or even hundreds of “planets.” Are all these little balls of rock and ice 4 billion or 5 billion miles from the Sun really in the same category with gigantic Jupiter and Saturn? To me it’s understandable that the definition be sharpened, even if it means putting Pluto in another category. Some people are very upset about it, though, which I can understand, too, because our attachments even to facts and names have to do with identity—not just with the object Pluto’s, but with our own too. It is a psychological activity operating at least partly in our moral consciousness, which forms its realities very young and tends to keep them. Pluto’s identity as a planet is a moral issue for people. Fascinating.
Tell us about the interesting orbit of Charon and about Pluto’s other moons.
Well, Charon is not your conventional natural satellite, like our moon, because it’s more than half the size of the object it circles, Pluto. In a way it’s not a moon-planet system at all, it’s two dwarf planets orbiting each other. One fascinating feature of this is that the center of Charon’s orbit is not Pluto; the two are revolving around a point in space between them. Another fascinating feature is that Charon and Pluto are locked in a one-to-one orbital resonance; in other words, Charon makes one orbit around Pluto in exactly one Plutonian day (which is equal to 6.387 Earth days). (Proportional orbital resonances like this are not uncommon, by the way.) This means that Charon is always positioned over one face of Pluto. Compare this to our situation: Our moon takes roughly twenty-eight days to make one orbit around the Earth, so you can see its position in the sky changes each night. Charon never moves because it’s revolving at the same exact rate that Pluto is rotating. Because of its size and closeness, it would look about seven times as big as our moon does from Earth. If you lived on the other side of Pluto, you’d never see Charon at all.
The other four moons of Pluto—Styx, Nix, Hydra, and Kerberos—are much smaller than Charon.
What have we learned so far from the fly-by?
As I write (July 18, 2015), only a few photos have been circulated so far. One is a view of the “heart” region of Pluto, which has spectacular, 11,000-foot mountains. Another is of a plain with intriguing looking tracks of some kind caused by surface disturbances that the astronomers are of course unsure about so far. An image of Charon shows on the rim of the disk a massive split, a canyon of some kind four or five miles deep. They named a large, dark, plain-like area on Charon “Mordor,” which seems kind of weird, but not for scientists, I guess, many of whom seem to think words and names are whimsical tags rather than forces.
What do you hope we discover about Pluto after all the data have returned and been analyzed?
I hope they can establish exactly what Pluto’s internal structure is and exactly what its atmosphere consists of and how it behaves. Just the name Pluto implies the wealth underground. And accurate descriptions of the atmosphere (and surface geology) are the keys to getting a handle on what it would be like to actually stand there on the place itself, which is in some ways the most interesting to me. Kind of like wondering what was down inside those caves in France, and wanting to at least get a mind’s-eye view of it based on its actual material substance, that might suggest its meanings and value.
Philosophically, what does Pluto represent?
To me, Pluto is a figure of that baffling transition zone between the known and the unknown. It’s on the border of the conventional solar system, which we know and love by long association with the planets, and the unknown territories of the Kuiper Belt, which we know almost nothing about but which seem deeper and darker than anywhere we’ve been so far. This is one of the feelings we have about the other side of life, too: Is it a place of tremendous, untapped, Pure-Lands wealth? Or is it a bleak, motionless, frozen nowhere? Or, more likely, is it something entirely unimagined, entirely out of the range of any experience most of us have on Earth? Pluto is a signpost of some kind to the next world.
That’s a metaphorical sense of Pluto, rather than a philosophical one. But maybe the best philosophy starts with intuitions of likenesses, structures and connections, then proceeds along cautious lines of reasoning to understanding. To state my feelings about Pluto more accurately than I can: “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.”Tags: Dana Wilde