Future Tense

Future Tense Newsletter: A Planet Is More Than a Spot in the Sky

A black and white image shows terrain, including mountains, from a far distance.
A close-up image of a region near Pluto’s equator taken by NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft as it passed within 7,800 feet of the dwarf planet on July 14, 2015. NASA/Getty Images

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I didn’t realize how little we know about the outer solar system until 2015, when the New Horizons mission sent back its first pictures of Pluto. Those pictures were, of course, a revelation, showing a craggy, icy surface, with a thousand kilometer­–wide basin shaped like a rosy heart. But what really shook me was the picture the new images were compared with our previous best shot of the dwarf planet.

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It was a fuzzy blob.

Everything we thought we knew about Pluto had been an inference, interpretation. And not just Pluto—you know the Oort Cloud, the halo of icy bodies from which comets fall toward the sun? Entirely hypothetical, never imaged at all. Almost every one of the more than 4,000 exoplanets astronomers have found orbiting distant stars is not known by a photograph but from artifacts of data, a star’s wobble of a brief dimming in its light. They are in some ways interpretations more than objects.

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But through that interpretation, scientists define objects and—this draws from the work of anthropologist Lisa Messeri—turn them into places.

Tuesday marked the 15th anniversary of a contentious redefinition in the skies, the “demotion” of Pluto from the ranks of planet to dwarf. Lisa Grossman wrote about this controversy for ScienceNews, and in the process tracked her own about-face on the question, from thinking a strict definition of “planet” was necessary to seeing the benefits of a more inclusive, expansive club. “One common argument in favor of the IAU’s definition is that it keeps the number of planets manageable,” she wrote. But Grossman found herself swayed by an argument for abundance:

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“Why do we need to limit the number of planets? Kids can memorize the names and characteristics of hundreds of dinosaurs, or Pokémon, for that matter. Why not encourage that for planets? Why not inspire students to rediscover and explore the space objects that most appeal to them? I’ve come to think that what makes a planet may just be in the eye of the beholders.”

I wrote last week about our quest to understand another mystery through the lens of planethood: the place of Earth in the cosmos. Hundreds of years ago, Copernicus and Galileo realized that the Earth was not the center of the universe but instead a planet, orbiting the sun alongside what turned out to be its brethren, Mars, Saturn, Jupiter, et al. Today, astronomers flip their perspective to look at Earth as an exoplanet, testing what a distant observer, vaguely out-there or on a specific distant star, can see of our little blue world.

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Seeing Earth as an exoplanet helps us feel a little less lonely, imagining alien observers searching for us through their telescopes as we search for them, but some astronomers think we may have more planetary company around the sun than we realize. No, not by reinstating Pluto and the other dwarf planets to full status, but with the existence of a hypothesized “Planet Nine,” orbiting billions of miles from the sun, far more distant than any of the known planets, but nonetheless exerting a powerful influence on the solar system’s shape.

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In 2019, Shannon Stirone wrote about the hunt for Planet Nine for Longreads, profiling the astronomers, Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin, who are trying to prove that this extra planet, about six times the mass of Earth, actually exists. They argue that it’s the only way to account for the strangely synchronized movement of some Kuiper Belt objects, the icy, rocky bodies the size of dwarf planets or smaller that orbit the sun out past the known planets.

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This week, Brown and Batygin published a new paper, calculating the probabilistic location of Planet Nine in the sky. Don’t reach for your telescope just yet—as Phil Plait writes in SyFy Wire (with great coverage of the new paper), “Even if Planet Nine is closer and brighter than expected, it’ll take a big observatory to find it, and even then by sweeping the sky for months to look for the slowly moving faint object.”

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Until then, Brown and Batygin will keep looking, and we’ll keep wondering who and what might be out there, and what observational and data-crunching gymnastics it might take to find them.

Here are some stories from the recent past of Future Tense.

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Future Tense Fiction

This month’s Future Tense Fiction tale is “Beauty Surge,” by Laura Maylene Walter, author of Body of Stars. It asks: What if your college dorm analyzed your sewage to find out if you’re pregnant or on drugs? In the response essay, Rolf Halden, a pioneering expert in wastewater-based epidemiology, writes about what privacy you can expect around your human waste—and why scientists want to look at it.

Wish We’d Published This

I Drove 8 Hours to (Maybe) Get My Baby the COVID Vaccine,” by Irin Carmon, New York

Future Tense Recommends

I read my toddler plenty of books about the planets, stars, and the possibility of life beyond Earth. (Gotta start ’em young!) But the one that makes me feel most connected to the Earth as a planet isn’t about the whole Earth at all, but just one bit of it: The Little Island, by Margaret Wise Brown, illustrated by Leonard Weisgard. This Caldecott Medal­–winning picture book from 1946 begins with a simple, lovely description of a little island, of nature in the seasons. But soon, a cat comes ashore with some people to have a picnic, and enters into a philosophical exchange with the island itself—is the island isolated, surrounded as it is by water, or is it a part of the world? There’s a discussion of faith, as the cat asks a fish what it knows of the island—and must trust its answer as the cat can’t swim. But I love this book most for its lyrical evocation of the world of the island, “A part of the world and a world of its own all surrounded by the bright blue sea.”

What Next: TBD

On this week’s episode of Slate’s technology podcast, Lizzie O’Leary talks to Rebecca Jarvis, ABC News’ chief business, technology, and economics correspondent and the host of the podcast The Dropout, about the trial of Theranos founder Elizabeth Holmes. (Jury selection starts Tuesday.) Last week, Lizzie and Saad Omer, director of the Yale Institute for Global Health, discussed COVID booster shots and what they might mean for countries with slow vaccine rollouts.

Upcoming Events

Unlocking Our Climate Imagination
Tuesday, Aug. 31, noon Eastern

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When we imagine our climate future, it’s easy to drift toward catastrophe, especially in view of this summer’s shocking examples of climate chaos—from floods and sinkholes to heat domes and unchecked wildfires. But while stories about impending doom are motivating for some people, they leave others feeling dispirited. If we’re already so far down the track to disaster, why stress about making changes in the present? So we also need positive visions of the future that we can work toward: stories about human thriving in more just, sustainable communities and societies.

The Climate Imagination Fellowship, a project of the Center for Science and the Imagination at Arizona State University, in partnership with the U.N. High-Level Climate Champions, TED Countdown, and the ClimateWorks Foundation, brings together science fiction writers from around the world to imagine those positive futures, but also to ground them in local complexities, and real scientific and technological insights.

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Join climate imagination fellows Libia Brenda, Hannah Onoguwe, and Vandana Singh, along with sci-fi author Kim Stanley Robinson and experts in global climate policy, and local journalism, to discuss the power of long-term thinking about the future to explore the stories we’re telling ourselves about the climate crisis today, and the kinds of narratives we’ll need to help chart a path toward a better future. RSVP here, and be sure to read Rebecca Onion’s interview with Robinson as well as the climate imagination fellows’ recommendations of works of literature to help you think about climate change.

Future Tense is a partnership of Slate, New America, and Arizona State University that examines emerging technologies, public policy, and society.