The Last First


Pluto used to be a planet. Humans, in our unfaltering confidence, have downgraded it to a sub-planet, a dwarf planet, as if we know how big a planet ought to be. Even so, the arrival of New Horizons at the mysterious ice world has us all interested once again in the has-been wanderer. For ancients looking into the fixed stars of the night, the planets were all mysterious. They move against the backdrop of the stars that always maintain their places. When the planets came to be named, the gods suggested themselves. Our modern names, of course, reflect the Roman borrowings of Greek gods. Many of the Greek deities go back to ancient West Asia, where even Zeus has a strong counterpart in Hadad, or Baal, and Aphrodite is recognizable as an aspect of Ishtar.

Pluto, or Hades, was the ruler of the underworld. He was known to be decidedly rich since, well, if you can’t take it with you, someone has to inherit. Pluto, like the devourers of Ugaritic mythology, was forever hungry. Insatiable. This association of wealth and death gives us our word “plutocracy,” rule by the rich. As Bruce Springsteen sang, the poor want to be rich, and the rich want to be kings. “And a king ain’t satisfied til he rules everything.” Who says mythology isn’t true? As New Horizons flies by, we will learn more about the hellish world perpetually frozen so far from the sun. We wonder if perhaps we’ll learn more about ourselves by peering into the farthest rock from our star, Sol’s youngest child. Hades was the brother of Zeus, the king of the gods. Even Zeus had to dispose of the Titans to claim that title. In a scenario going back to ancient times, the younger generation—those we recognize as gods—struggled to make it to the top. As the paper describes it, Pluto is the last first—the last “planet” that is being closely examined the first time.

I grew up in a nine-planet solar system. I recall learning of Clyde Tombaugh’s discovery of Pluto, marveling at the math and patience required. Now that we’ve reached the outer fringes of our solar system, our little piece of the galaxy, we’re still uncertain how to occupy the earth. Many claim that science will vanquish religion completely, and that those who believe are hopelessly superstitious and uncritical in their thought. And yet, if we were to take a close look inside New Horizons, this technological wonder that has reached the farthest point of our sun’s gravitational influence, we would discover a small package of Clyde Tombaugh’s ashes inside. The man who discovered Pluto is the first to actually go there, although he’s been dead for nearly two decades. Even the most stoic of scientific minds must pause for a moment and appreciate the profound symbolism of this illogical gesture.

Martian Religion

The early morning sky has been putting on a beautiful, celestial waltz this week as the crescent moon, Venus and Jupiter swing close then part along the ecliptic. On such days it is easy to see how ancient people would have attributed motive and intentionality to the solar system—there’s definitely something going on up there. Then we get the images from the Mars rover Curiosity, showing us ourselves, lost in space. One of the truly iconic photographs from the last century was the earthrise taken from the moon. Until that moment it was difficult to conceive that we really were spinning through space, unattached to any biblical pillars with an affixed firmament above. Now we are looking at ourselves from a distance of some 225 million kilometers, and our troubles have never seemed less significant, our god never smaller. We are the eyes in our own sky—or, more impressive yet—the eyes from some other planet’s skies. I can’t see how this would fail to have religious implications.

Is this real life, or just fantasy?

Religion often involves introspection—looking at oneself from the outside, or from another perspective. Our religious ancestors, who had no way to assess what the planets were with their conceptual framework, generally assumed them to be alive. Some cultures called them gods, others creatures, but their movement in the sky is often lost on modern people who only occasionally glance at the sky, when their smartphone is taking a little too long to download something. How sobering it is to consider that we are one of those bright dots when seen from Martian eyes. (Unfortunately I’ve been unable to confirm the stunning image that’s been circulating on the Internet claiming to be from Curiosity.) Ancient religions, by necessity, are geocentric. The earth is all they knew. Of course, religions have grown increasingly defensive as new realities have been discovered; even the Book of Mormon was written before the planet Neptune was decisively named and claimed. Changing worldviews is never easy.

From NASA’s photo library

Religion is often a coping mechanism to keep us grounded. Many concepts of divinity are celestially based—pointing to some divine realm in the sky. That is the perspective of an earthling. Once in space, what direction is God? We find that our up and down, near and far, are only relative terms. What the means is that increased knowledge forces further reflection on religious beliefs. We can’t stand still and let the universe revolve around us like an obsolete firmament. Religion must engage reality to remain relevant. And right now reality is rolling across the surface of Mars, looking homeward with alien eyes. How small our steeples and cathedrals look from our solar system sibling’s perspective.