It’s normal to choose favourites for everything the way you’d choose your favourite ice cream, even if it’s effectively irrelevant. Favourite colour, favourite season, favourite planet. The latter, of course, is Pluto. A mysterious, frozen landscape spinning so far from here even the centre of the universe seems closer (but that is wrong, for the record.)
In 2006 the International Astronomical Union (IAU), a collection of stuffy jerks who probably don’t even like ice cream, suddenly announced that Pluto is not a planet. Why? Apart from the stuffy jerk thing, the truth is “a planet” had not been properly defined before this. I guess for the first few thousand years of stargazing it seemed obvious enough to say “big spherical thing spinning around a star” without writing that down.
So Pluto was no longer a planet, specifically because it hadn’t cleared its orbit of debris. It was a dwarf planet, which sounded a lot to me like the IAU’s way of saying “Okay guys, we know you’re going to hate this, so we’re going to keep planet in its designation anyway, because we’re tired of never being invited to parties, and we do like ice cream a little bit, well, we like frozen yogurt, that’s nearly the same thing.” And the kerfuffle settled for a decade.
This week two astronomers have announced a new ninth planet far, far beyond Pluto, at a distance of 200 to 1200 AUs (1 AU = the distance from Earth to the sun) compared to Pluto’s puny 40 AUs. Astronomers have been announcing a possible Planet X for most of my lifetime, but this time it’s more or less confirmed. And it’s exciting. Very exciting. I should be over the moon (ha!) but I find myself irrationally resistant to the hype. One of the astronomers who found this new planet is the very same who made the discovery that led to Pluto’s reclassification as a dwarf planet. He’s even quoted as saying, “Killing Pluto was fun.”
It’s normal to feel defensive on behalf of a frozen ball of dirt 6 billion kilometres away, right?
Studies have shown a link between mental and physical exhaustion that means being mentally burned out causes you to physically burn out more quickly. Despite that your heart and muscles could continue, your brain convinces them to give up when it’s already mentally ready for a break. Your perception of how much effort is involved is more important than the straightforward reality of how much you could actually physically accomplish.
All of this shines an uncomfortable light on the squishy mutability of the divide between physical reality and mental perception. By that I mean: What divide? Where? Each of us is stuck here looking out from between our own ears, and our reality is made up of what we believe we perceive. If we believe we’re tired, we can’t continue. If we believe we’re in love, we’ll do ridiculous things and be happy about it. If we hold our nose, bad milk tastes like nothing at all. If our reality is our everything, and our reality is an unreliable, subjective thing, reality is equally unreliable except as a philosophical idea.
We have a particular literary term for when a fictional character demonstrates the same thing. As we are all heroes in our own lives, so we are all unreliable narrators, too.
Hypatia lived from 355 to 425 and was the leading astronomer and mathematician of her time. As she was Neoplatonist, Hypatia was considered pagan. She was murdered by Christians who may have been associated with Saint Cyril, or maybe not. It was a long time ago.
But Hypatia’s story fascinates me. She was around as the ashes of the Library of Alexandria were cooling (metaphorically–it was being destroyed for ages in one way or another) and her life’s work, as far as we can tell, was to ensure the survival of Greek mathematics and astronomy. But nothing she wrote has survived to our time. The Encyclopedia Britannica says “her philosophy also led her to embrace a life of dedicated virginity” and here we are accepting knowledge about the sex life of a woman who lived 1600 years ago. Sure we are.
I don’t know how she spent her days. Maybe she woke at 5am and wrote in a journal until heading out to debate and breakfast. Maybe she had two good years and spent the rest of her life in a crushing depression. She might have been a virgin until her death, or she might have been gay, or she might have been asexual and relieved to be removed of the burden of sex by academic structure. All I needed was these few details: math, astronomy, a woman, a pagan, remembered. It makes me wonder who alive today will be remembered 1600 years from now, and for what.