Although my academic inclinations have always been with the liberal arts, I’ve been impressed since elementary school by how much more specific and quantifiable the fields of math and science are. There is something so appealing about only one right answer to a math problem and only one correct way to balance a chemical equation. Even the most nebulous concepts in science seem safe from the usual Doubting Thomases. As Albert Einstein cleverly noted: “Tell a man there are three billion stars and he’ll automatically believe you. But put a ‘wet paint’ sign on a park bench and he’ll have to touch it — just to be sure.”
That is why I found the past controversy over the status of the planet Pluto so disheartening. Scientific certainty was toppled. You probably remember that astronomers had been trying to decide whether the planet should be reclassified and downgraded to the status of a mere “trans-Neptunian object.” The prestigious Hayden Planetarium in New York removed Pluto from its planetary display. The director explained that Pluto never did fit the planetary mold: it’s neither rocky like four of our planets nor gassy like the other four, and its size is even smaller than seven measly moons in the solar system, including Earth’s. If scientists can wipe out Pluto’s planetary status at will, can Neptune be next?
We studied the planets in my fourth-grade class and had to memorize their order from the sun. I was enchanted with the phrase that prompted the nine planets in their proper order: My Very Excellent Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas (Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, and so on). Now we learn they’ve taken out Pizza — no Pluto anymore. Sigh.
I feel for Pluto. As an English professor, I’ve been witness to this same trendy reclassification — be it upgrading or down — with the stars of the literary firmament. For example, during the entire nineteenth century Sir Walter Scott was thought to be one of the greatest novelists, and yet today we note that he is not only unread but virtually unreadable; on the other ghoulish hand, Edgar Allan Poe’s works during most of his lifetime were considered nonsensical and monstrous; today he is in every literary anthology from middle school on and ranked as a baroque genius by most critics.
And, of course, in our own lives, we up or downgrade those we know and even love in a different way. Occasionally, people who at first seem to be the very Sun of our emotional universe can become nothing more than a comet that blazes and then vanishes. We are constantly relearning the lesson that those who seem an anchor in our lives can sometimes be revealed later as morally rudderless.
This is the most common theme in literature: appearance versus reality. No writer expressed it more succinctly than Shakespeare. As early as the tenth line of Macbeth the witches chant: “Fair is foul, and foul is fair.” Ah, if only we did live in a world where fair always looked fair and foul always appeared foul — indeed where appearance was reality — what a boon it would be for our making easy ethical choices.
But what a loss it would be for literature. Great stories thrive on dealing with personal morality, the agonizing decisions we all must make that eventually determine the quality of our character. Think of how all of Jane Austen's heroines are defined by the wisdom or foolishness in their choice of husband. And here, in both fiction and life, the certitudes we can count on in the realms of science and math are nowhere to be found. We grope through our most consequential life decisions with nothing more than our fragile consciences for guidance. But those decisions we make will certify whether we shall be remembered like a Sydney Carton or an Atticus Finch - -true shining stars --or, sadly, if we are destined to become, like poor Pluto, a demoted luminary. In our own morally murky Milky Way, it takes but a few bad choices to send us from the Planet of the Angels to that of the Apes.