Mars is red and Jupiter’s big
And Saturn shows off its rings
Uranus is built on a funny tilt
And Neptune is its twin
And Pluto, little Pluto, is the farthest planet from our sun

Thus sang Interplanet Janet on Schoolhouse Rock!, the creative, musical, animated series which covertly exposed my generation to a world of knowledge about science, math, grammar, and history while we watched Saturday morning cartoons.  It would not be too much of a stretch to say, “Everything I need to know, I learned from Schoolhouse Rock!”

But, alas, the Galaxy Girl misled us about Pluto!  Not intentionally, of course; she would have never done that.  She was just following the conventional understanding of our nearest cosmic neighbors as expressed in the song’s opening lines: “They say our solar system is centered ’round the sun; nine planets, large and small, parading by.” “Nine,” did she say?  Make that eight, at least since 2006.

In a post last week, I mentioned Percival Lowell, the mathematician and astronomer who postulated the existence of a ninth planet, Planet X, beyond Neptune.  It was not until 1930, 14 years after Lowell’s death, that Pluto’s existence was visually confirmed on photographic plates by Clyde Tombaugh.  Pluto would enjoy “planetary status” for the next 76 years, plenty long enough to become ingrained in our collective conception of our solar system and to influence the lyrics of “Interplanet Janet.”

Then came the demotion.  In short, the discovery of other bodies, one of them larger than Pluto, in the far reaches of the solar system caused many astronomers to question the correctness of Pluto’s classification as a planet.  On August 24, 2006, the International Astronomical Union adopted a new definition of “planet” which excluded Pluto.  The IAU created a new category of “dwarf planets,” and The Celestial Body Formerly Known as the Planet Pluto officially became Minor Planet (134340) Pluto.  Talk about being downgraded on a galactic scale!

Many people, including some in the scientific community, were not thrilled with the reclassification.  State legislatures in New Mexico and Illinois passed resolutions (seriously!) that retained Pluto’s status as a “legit” planet.  “To pluto,” the infinitive form of a new verb, entered English usage, meaning “to demote or devalue someone or something.”  “Boy, he sure got “plutoed” by the board of directors at the last meeting!”

What was the reaction of the former planet itself to the name change?  Nothing, as far as we can tell.  Apparently, it either hasn’t noticed or simply doesn’t care.  Its mass, rotational period, and orbital path have remained unchanged since 2006.  Imagine that!

All of us use labels.  Even the phrase, “I really hate to use labels,” is usually followed by the word “but” and a generous slathering of them.  Labels are convenient.  They are a type of “shorthand” that allows us to slap a tag on someone without being bothered by the hard work of really getting to know them, their character, their personality, or what makes them tick. 

Liberal; conservative; Republican; Democrat; redneck; snob; flag-waver; traitor; war-monger; peacenik; legalist; heretic.  Whether in religion, politics, or the culture wars, labels tell us how we should think about someone or feel about them.  Labels let us know what pigeonhole to poke them in.  Labels are for our own benefit, not for that of others.  Labels hide the humanity of other people and keep us from considering how much we share in common with all who have been created in the image of God. 

There is no way to prevent others from attaching names, labels, and epithets to us.  But names do not have the power to define us; they do not have the right to limit or bind us. 

“What’s in a name?  That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet.” (William Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet).

It’s true of roses, true of planets, and true of people.

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