Don't cry for pluto, cry for rote learning

In the space of one hundred and seventy-six years the Lower Mississippi has shortened itself two hundred and forty-two miles. That is an average of a trifle over one mile and a third per year. Therefore, any calm person, who is not blind or idiotic, can see that in the Old Oolitic Silurian Period, just a million years ago next November, the Lower Mississippi River was upwards of one million three hundred thousand miles long, and stuck out over the Gulf of Mexico like a fishing-rod. And by the same token any person can see that seven hundred and forty-two years from now the Lower Mississippi will be only a mile and three quarters long... - Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi

Using the same logic, sometime before autumn in the year 2614, our solar system will be fresh out of planets. But I'm not concerned about the IAU's reclassification of Pluto as a dwarf planet. I'm more concerned that some educational systems are heavily focused on rote learning, and therefore quickly obsoleted. Fortunately, my childhood interest in the "stuff" out there never stopped at the end of the "My Very Easy..." or the articles in my 1959 World Book Encyclopedia claiming that "One day man may travel in space.". ROY.G.BIV doesn't encompass the colours of all rainbows and Renoirs and "Every Good Boy Does Fine" is only a stepping stone to Mozart. Likewise, Pluto was never the last planet (especially between 1979 and 1999). In the age before telescopes it was easy, a planet was a wandering star. The stars in a constellation stayed together, rising a few minutes earlier every night over the course of a year. But planets moved separately from this background and sometimes they moved in the opposite direction. IAU's categorization is useful but for the rest of us, other categories might be more useful:

  1. SEEUMS:Solar system objects which were known in antiquity and which we can see with our own eyes. That is, the Sun, moon, bright comets, mercury, venus, mars, jupiter and saturn. (though mercury, mars and saturn might not be noticed above the glare of a medium sized city.)
  2. UHOHS(or OH @$&\^#!):The 800+ known solar system objects which could hit the earth one day.
I recently read James Gleik's Genius: The Life and Science of Richard Feynman from Sun Ireland's book club. This and Richard Feynman's own book: "Surely Your Joking Mr. Feynman" demonstrate that Feynman wasn't just a nobel prize winning quantum physicist, he was also gadfly to the U.S. education system. I love the part in "--Joking" where he sends a blank book through the textbook review process and it is voted "above average!" Feynman inherited his aversion to rote learning from his father:
"You can know the name of a bird in all the languages of the world, but when you're finished, you'll know absolutely nothing whatever about the bird... So let's look at the bird and see what it's doing, that's what counts. I learned very early the difference between knowing the name of something and knowing something." - Richard Feynman

So, rather than focusing on the names and IAU categorizations of the planets, shouldn't we encourage students to look at the night sky and see how it works? My daughter pointed out mars to me when she was two years old. She could recognize the bright reddish untwinking star which hovered over the glare of Pope John Paul school's insecurity lights. For northern hemisphere classrooms, september is ideal for astronomy. The cluttered dusty center of our galaxy is still visible early in the night and beautiful autumn asterisms such as the pleides are moving into the night sky. The angle of the sun is ideal for viewing artificial satellites, zodiacal light and aurora. My homework assignment would be that on the next clear night, turn off the T.V., put away the textbook for an hour before bedtime and find a dark place outside. Look for something you haven't seen before and try to discover as much as you can about it. We have allowed criminals, television and outdoor "security lights" to take away our night sky. Let's take it back.

...There is something fascinating about science. One gets such wholesale returns of conjecture out of such a trifling investment of fact.
- Mark Twain, Life on the Mississippi
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