Aired Tuesday March 2nd, 2010 at 7:00 pm on KUED HD Ch. 7.1
NOVA "The Pluto Files"
When the American Museum of Natural History's Hayden Planetarium stopped calling Pluto a planet, director Neil deGrasse Tyson found himself at the center of a firestorm led by angry, Pluto-loving elementary school students who wrote letters like the one above. But what is it about this cold, distant, icy rock that captures so many hearts? Now, almost 10 years after the news broke on the front page of The New York Times, "Pluto Not a Planet? Only in New York," and nearly four years after the IAU (International Astronomical Union) officially reclassified the ninth planet as a plutoid, NOVA travels cross-country with Tyson to find out. Based on Tyson's book of the same name, "The Pluto Files" airs Tuesday, March 2, at 9:00 p.m. on PBS.
From Boston to California, Tyson's spirited journey uncovers the history of Pluto - from the time of its discovery to its fall from planethood. Along the way, Tyson meets a fascinating cast of characters, from scientists who argue over Pluto's status to die-hard "Plutophiles." Regardless of where they stand, they have one thing in common: strong opinions about Pluto. "The Pluto Files" also includes special appearances by Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart, Diane Sawyer and Brian Williams, who share their affection for the former planet. "I'm sorry, I thought planets might be one of the constants in life," Colbert jests. "But scientists just love change more than anything else. I'm sorry that's not change I can believe in."
At Harvard University's football field, Tyson meets up with some heavy hitters at the top of their scientific game. In a good-natured debate over Pluto's status, Tyson keeps "score" of Pluto's planet-like characteristics vs. its oddball traits with the help of planetary scientist Mark Sykes, astrophysicist Brian Marsden and Harvard science historian Owen Gingerich. Pluto's miniscule size and oblong orbit are some of the reasons Marsden says Pluto is not a planet, while Sykes says Pluto is a planet because it's round, like all the other planets, not potato-shaped like most asteroids.
"Like any good road trip, "The Pluto Files" is filled with great stories; this one includes scientific history, current debate and human emotion," remarks Paula S. Apsell, senior executive producer for NOVA and director of the WGBH Science Unit. "Pluto sparked something in the American people, and this program is a wonderful tribute that viewers of all ages will find entertaining and enlightening."
At Walt Disney World in Orlando, Florida, Tyson meets world-famous cartoon character Pluto and Walt Disney's great-nephew Roy Patrick Disney. While there's no written documentation to prove the good-natured bloodhound was named after the planet (one of the most frequently asked questions at the Disney archive), it is well known that Walt was fascinated with space exploration. Roy Patrick believes it "wasn't an accident, it was fate." However the loveable pup got its name, Tyson thinks it's had a profound effect on planet Pluto, giving it a "warm and fuzzy feeling," says Tyson. "Cosmic objects don't normally trigger warm and fuzzy feelings."
One of the most memorable stops along the way is Streator, Illinois, home to Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh. In 1930, Tombaugh, a self-taught 24-year-old farm boy with a passion for studying the universe, reported his discovery, one that remains the talk of the town. Tyson gets a strong sense of Tombaugh's "hero" status from chatting with folks at the local barber and coffee shops. They take great pride in Tombaugh's renowned discovery - honoring him with plaques and naming their main street after him.
So then, what is Pluto? Is it a planet? Is it just an ice ball? The debate continues.
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