Pluto's Identity Crisis
A Great Story Parable
(Long Version for Reading Aloud to Young Children)
by Connie Barlow and Bella Downey
SCIENCE BACKGROUND: In the late 1990s, top astronomers engaged in a public debate about whether or not Pluto should be considered a planet. Here Pluto learns that is a dwarf planet, but also what it shares in common with all the bigger planets. In addition, this parable helps children develop a positive attitude toward adoption. * * * Click for a shorter version of this parable intended for ADULTS AND OLDER CHILDREN. Click for a a multi-part SCRIPT for KIDS (in PDF) that is a dramatic translation of this parable for acting out by children who can read.
Once upon a time, not long ago, the nine planets were all playing in their orbits around the Sun, as planets are prone to do. Jupiter was stirring its Great Red Spot. Venus and Uranus were playing peek-a-boo through thick clouds. Mars was kicking up a storm of red dust, and Saturn was smoothing its rings.
Meanwhile, Neptune and Mercury had gotten into a scuffle, and now Neptune was coldly ignoring Mercury's hot temper. Our own lovely Earth, of course, was playing with dinosaurs.
Just then, a comet made of ice approached Pluto, who was getting ready for a nap. Icy Comet was doing exactly what comets like to do: testing how close it might fly by a stranger without risking capture.
"Ho there, Comet!" Pluto called out.
"Ho there, Space Rock!" responded Icy Comet.
"Hey!" said Pluto, angrily. "I am not a Space Rock. I'm a Planet. My name is Pluto, and I am the ninth planet of our Solar System."
"That may be what you think," taunted Icy Comet. "But I can tell from the slant of your orbit that you are not like the others. You are different. And I have heard that the Sun is not your parent star."
"The Sun not my parent star!?!" gasped Pluto. "You are wrong. The Sun is my Mother-Father!"
Icy Comet said nothing.
Pluto began to speak again, softly. "Well, I do sometimes wonder why my orbit is different from the rest. All the other planets glide around the Sun, as if skating on the surface of a vast pond. Yet I plunge through that surface at an angle, sometimes above the other planets and sometimes below."
"And unlike the others," offered the comet, "occasionally you even cross over inside of Neptune's orbit. When that happens, Neptune becomes the outermost planet, instead of you."
"I thought I was the only one who knew about that!" protested Pluto, who was beginning to cry. "You won't tell on me, will you?"
Icy Comet felt bad. "No, I won't tell," said the comet, moving closer. "And, hey, I'm sorry I said anything. You know, I might be wrong."
"I have an idea," said the comet. "If you will turn down your gravitational force for awhile, I will invite you to join me on my journey into the solar system. You may be able to learn more about who you are along the way."
Pluto was happy to comply. As soon as the gravity was turned down, Icy Comet curved a long icy tail around the little planet.
Thus began Pluto's journey toward the very center of the solar system, in the company of a comet. One by one, Pluto and Icy Comet would meet and greet the other planets.
"Ho there, Neptune!" called Icy Comet. "Please tell us how you know that you are a planet."
"Certainly," said Neptune, flashing its loveliest hue of sea-blue blue. "Whenever I look inward, toward my Mother-Father Sun, I can see all my sibling planets, like boats sailing across the surface of a sea. That is how I know that I am a true planet of this solar system."
"Thank you, Neptune," said the comet. "You have answered our question. Goodbye."
"That is not how I see the other planets," whispered Pluto to the comet. "I see them through my slanted orbit. They look like snowflakes swirling in a blizzard, every which way!"
Icy Comet was silent, then offered brightly, "Pluto, I think you are ready to ask the questions yourself."
Pluto was indeed ready. As they approached the next planet, it was Pluto who called out.
"Ho there, Uranus. Please tell us how you know that you are a planet."
"With pleasure," replied Uranus. "I know I am a planet because I am wrapped in thick clouds of gases, just like my Mother-Father Sun."
"I do not have thick clouds of gases," Pluto whispered to the comet.
"Thank you, Uranus," Icy Comet called out. "You have answered our question. Goodbye."
The journey continued, and now another planet was coming into view.
"Ho there, Saturn," said Pluto, while making sure that Icy Comet's tail did not disturb Saturn's rings. "Please tell us how you know that you are a planet."
"Oh, that is easy," Saturn replied while smoothing its rings. "Look how beautifully Mother-Father Sun shines on my rings. They glisten silver and gold!"
"I do not have rings," whispered Pluto to the comet. "I do not have anything that glistens silver and gold."
"Thank you, Saturn," Icy Comet called out. "You have answered our question. Goodbye."
The journey continued. An enormous planet with orange and brown bands loomed ahead.
"Ho there, Jupiter," said Pluto. "Please tell us how you know that you are a planet."
"I will be glad to tell you," replied Jupiter, while stirring its great Red Spot. "I am nearly as big as my Mother-Father Sun. That is how I know I am a planet."
"I am not big," whispered Pluto to the comet. "Does that mean I am not a planet?"
"Thank you , Jupiter," Icy Comet called out. "You have answered our question. Goodbye."
The journey continued. Something red was now coming into view.
"Ho there, Mars," said Pluto. "Please tell us how you know that you are a planet."
"That is easy," replied Mars, while kicking up a storm of red dust. "My own name can be found inside the name of Mother-Father Sun. M-A-R-S. Surely I am a planet."
"Oh dear!" whispered Pluto to the comet. "My name cannot be found inside Mother-Father Sun. U, T, and O are there. But where is the P, and where is the L?"
"Thank you , Mars," Icy Comet called out. "You have answered our question. Goodbye."
The journey continued. A blue-and-white pearl of a planet was coming into view. It had splotches of color that no other planet had: brilliant green.
"Ho there, Earth," said Pluto. "Please tell us how you know that you are a planet."
"Certainly," replied Earth, admiring a young T. rex just hatching from an egg. "All of my plants feed on the light sent to me by Mother-Father Sun. And these, in turn, feed my vegisaurs, who then feed my carnosaurs. This is how I know I am a planet."
"I don't have any plants or dinosaurs," whispered Pluto to the comet. "Perhaps I am not a planet."
"Thank you , Earth," Icy Comet called out. "You have answered our question. Goodbye."
The journey continued.
"Ho there, Venus," said Pluto. "Please tell us how you know that you are a planet."
"With pleasure," replied Venus, still veiled beneath thick clouds. "See how bright and lovely my clouds shine in the light of Mother-Father Sun. This is how I know that I am a planet."
"I don't have bright shining clouds," whispered Pluto to the comet.
"Thank you, Venus," Icy Comet called out. "You have answered our question. Goodbye."
The journey continued. The two travelers were becoming uncomfortably hot. Icy Comet worried about melting if they lingered long this close to the Sun.
"Only one more planet to go!" Icy Comet told Pluto. "And then we can retreat to cooler realms!"
"Ho there, Mercury," said Pluto. "Please tell us quickly how you know that you are a planet."
"I am happy to oblige," replied Mercury warmly. "I know I am a planet because my surface temperature is hot like my Mother-Father Sun. It is hot enough to melt lead."
"I am not at all hot at least not when I am in my own orbit," whispered Pluto to the comet.
"Thank you , Mercury," Icy Comet called out. "You have answered our question. Goodbye."
Icy Comet turned sharply, with Pluto still snug in the curve of its tail. The two headed back toward the cool relief of the outer solar system.
Pluto cried out in despair, "Oh, Icy Comet! Our journey has ended, and I am quite sure now that I am not a planet. I am not sailing on the same sea as Neptune. I do not have the thick clouds of Uranus, nor the rings of Saturn. I am not big like Jupiter, and my name cannot be found inside the name of Mother-Father Sun. Unlike Earth, I do not have any dinosaurs to play with, and unlike Venus I have no bright clouds to reflect the light of Mother-Father Sun. I am far too cool to melt any of Mercury's lead."
There was nothing that Icy Comet could do to comfort Pluto, except stroke the would-be planet tenderly with a somewhat melted icy tail.
All of a sudden their journey came to a standstill. Neither Pluto nor Icy Comet could move, even an inch. Something was holding them back.
"Whew!" exclaimed Pluto. "I have never felt this much gravity coming from Mother-Father Sun before. Something must be wrong!"
"It is only to remind you, Pluto, that wherever you go, you are forever held within my gravitational embrace."
Pluto recognized that powerful voice coming from behind, and turned to face the abundant light. "Mother-Father Sun! It is you!"
"Yes, my dwarf planet. I am your Mother-Father Sun."
"You just called me a planet!" Pluto exclaimed. "Am I really a dwarf planet? Am I your dwarf planet?"
"Indeed you are!" responded the Sun, reassuringly. "Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune are NOT dwarf planets, but you are."
Pluto asked, "What, then, makes me a dwarf planet?"
Mother-Father Sun replied, "A dwarf planet is very much like a regular planet. It is big enough to be round, but it is too small to clear its own path, so your orbit is a bit messier than the rest."
"Oh," said Pluto, sadly. "I guess I'm not a real planet."
"Oh, dear one," responded the Sun. "You are my dwarf planet, and I love you just the way you are. Besides, there is something far more important than size when you are a member of this family."
"What is that?" Pluto asked.
The Sun replied, "It is something that your Comet Friend shares, too."
Icy Comet cried out in surprise, "What? You mean me?????"
"Yes, you, dear Comet," answered the Sun. "What you and Pluto all share with the big planets is my loving gravitational embrace. That is what holds all of you in your orbits!"
Pluto and Icy Comet looked at one another with surprise, then they both began to jump up and down with joy.
"It is true," the Sun continues, "that you, Pluto, are different from the rest. Your orbit is slanted because you came to me from outside my original family of planets. You see, I adopted you. Yes, dear Pluto, I adopted you. And now, I hold you in my gravitational embrace just like I hold all the rest. . . So, go now, dear one, and return to your orbit in the company of Friend. I believe you are overdue for a nap."
Pluto and Icy Comet happily returned to the outer reaches of the Solar System, where Pluto promptly fell asleep, dreaming happy dreams, as planets and dwarf planets are prone to do
But wait! Our story is not yet over! Many years have passed since that grand adventure. Icy Comet is still seeing how close it can fly by planets and dwarf planets without risking capture. And Pluto is still orbiting on a slant. But now, whenever Icy Comet visits Pluto, this is how they greet one another:
Pluto says, "Ho there, Icy Comet!"
And Icy Comet replies, "Ho there, Dwarf Planet Pluto!"
Note: Connie got the idea to write this parable after a program she gave at the Unitarian Church of New Brunswick, New Jersey, in 2002. The children had just called out the names of all the planets, when one of the older boys challenged, "Pluto is not a planet!" Connie hemmed and hawed, as she was well aware that some scientists, including the director of the Hayden Planetarium in New York City, had stripped Pluto of its planethood because all agreed that Pluto had been added to the solar system through capture. In contrast, the other planets had formed from the same cloud of gases and space dust from which our Sun coalesced nearly five billion years ago.
Two days later, Connie was having breakfast with New York friends, Leslie Pilder and Carol Deangelo. She told the story of the boy's challenge and her own inability to respond. But here in this little group, the solution emerged. "Of course Pluto is a planet! Pluto is an adopted planet!"
Connie thanks Leslie Pilder for excellent suggestions in the honing of this parable.
Then, in August 2006, astronomers finally decided to call Pluto a dwarf planet. Connie knew that the parable needed to be changed to accommodate the new scientific decision, but she didn't know what to do. So she asked if anybody had a good idea how to update the parable. That is when Bella Downey, came up with an idea and emailed Connie what changes to make. Then Connie incorporated them into this version of the parable.
* * * Click for a SCRIPT version of this parable intended for ELEMENTARY SCHOOL CHILDREN with different reading abilities. Click for a 5-PART SCRIPT (in PDF) that is a dramatic translation of this parable for acting out. Suitable for adults and older children. No rehearsal necessary. Volunteers can be recruited from audience and need no time to prepare.
Home | About The Great Story | About Us | Traveling Ministry and Events
What Others Say | Programs and Presentations | Metareligious Essays | Writings / Rituals
Great Story Beads | Testimonials | Parables | Sacred Sites
Highlights of Our Travels | Favorite Links & Resources | Join Us!