Why did we think a lecture about Pluto, at a local winery, would be a fun event on a Friday night? Oh, right – winery. With the lure of alcohol to draw us in (if I was an animal, I’d be enticed into the open by a hunter with a nice glass of Pinot Noir) our small group found ourselves waiting for the lecture to begin.
I’ve always felt sorry for Pluto, since the removal of her ‘planet’ status. Definitely, she deserved a much better advocate than the one we faced that night. Then again, we didn’t exactly help her case.
We found a spot near the back of the room and turned a four-chair table into an eight-chair, overstuffed, lifeboat. Bottles of wine were purchased and placed strategically. Then, like moms in a movie theatre, treats and snacks magically materialized from pocketbooks, scattering across the tabletop.
After we settled in, a technically advanced science lecture ensued (‘technically advanced’ if I had time-traveled to 1972 and I was in eighth grade).
In an era of wireless, high-definition electronics, we were witness to an overhead project, and a papier-mache model of Pluto and her moon. It wasn’t a large venue, so the lecturer spoke without a microphone. At our age, hearing is one of the first things to go, so what happened next was forgivable.
A few minutes into the lecture, as most of us strained to hear the speaker, he named a scientist that many associate with Pluto, whose last name was Stern.
Someone at our table yelled out, “Baba Booey!” – then leaned toward me and asked, ‘He said Howard Stern, right?’
Yes, he did, because we all know that Howard Stern is a famous talk show host/astrophysicist. It was Alan Stern.
I should mention now, a fair share of ‘shushing’ occurred that evening, of course, directed at the table of rowdy, grade school kids who like heckling from the cheap seats…but now with more alcohol.
Periodically, a glass was knocked over. At one point, my brother’s sister-in-law knocked one wine bottle into another as she picked up the spare.
The talk continued. Each time the lecturer passed in front of the screen, the image jumped from the whiteboard to the front of his shirt, and then back again.
He went on to explain what makes a planet, and to illustrate he picked up his charming model. I pictured him in his basement, slathering sticky strips of paper to a balloon for the planet, and a rubber ball for the moon. He attached the two models together with a stick. In front of us, he spun the two objects in rotation, as he moved around a wooden column, a stand-in for the sun.
In space, no one can hear you yawn.
Apparently, Pluto is not a planet for two reasons. One, the moon and the planet rotate as one object, as demonstrated by the papier-mache ballet we just witnessed. Two, on the last day of a five-day conference somewhere in Europe, only newcomers and zealots remained. The older members, who knew you never stay to the end of a five-day conference, were off exchanging formulas in a hotel room somewhere. With no adult supervision, someone always gets hurt. This time it was Pluto; she never saw it coming.
They voted her out.
As the lecture about Pluto and the planets drew to a close, he asked for questions from the audience. A woman (one of the ‘shushers’, I believe) asked a long, complicated question; I felt she was a plant.
By now, I was in the back of the room, talking to my brother’s brother-in-law. The lecturer moved across the front, then said, “We have time for one more question. Yes, you in the back”.
He pointed at me, and I noticed my hand waving up in the air.
“Oh, I don’t have a question,” I replied, “I’m Italian, this is how I talk”.
We finished the wine, gathered the snacks, and made our way out to the car. We may have learned a thing or two about Pluto over the course of the last few hours, but there was one thing I definitely came away with that night.
No matter how old you are, when someone says ‘Uranus’, you are going to laugh.
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