Friday, September 22, 2006

Of Mountains and Planets

A couple of days ago I happened to watch the 1995 comedy The Englishman Who Went Up a Hill But Came Down a Mountain, a film that naturally brings to mind a recent controversy. I'd intended to see this film for quite some time. I've long been an admirer of the actor Hugh Grant even though I have disliked many of his films, including the massively overrated Four Weddings and a Funeral. Only in recent years have I warmed up to his work, most notably with About a Boy and Love Actually. He has a particular presence that shines through even his lesser roles.

I got a little worried by the film's opening sequence depicting an old man telling a story to his grandson. Movies about adults telling stories to kids tend to have an artificial feel (though there are exceptions, like The Princess Bride). Fortunately, the film doesn't dwell on this contrived story device, and it quickly becomes an engaging British comedy that is hard to look at today without being reminded of the Pluto controversy.

The film takes place during World War I. Two English mapmakers (the younger one played by Grant) are sent to a Welsh village to survey a local mountain to see if it's really a mountain. Their readings show it to have only a 986-foot elevation, which means it has to be demoted to a hill, because it falls short of the 1,000-foot minimum needed to be considered a mountain. The villagers are tremendously upset by this revelation. As the grandfather narrator explains, "The Egyptians built pyramids, the Greeks built temples, but we did none of that, because we had mountains. Yes, the Welsh were created by mountains: where the mountain starts, there starts Wales. If this isn't a mountain...then [Grant's character] might just as well redraw the border and put us all in England, God forbid." (A great deal of the movie's humor comes from the cultural pride of the Welsh villagers and their antagonism toward these English outsiders.) Grant insists that he's only a scientist, out to discover the truth, and that the mountain, hill, or whatever is still a wonderful landmark regardless of its height. The villagers won't have any of it. They quickly craft a plan to fill in the missing 14 feet, while devising ways to keep the mapmakers from leaving town. The film manages to take this premise and stretch it to 90 minutes, with even a love story thrown in to boot.

For those who've been following recent news, does any of this sound awfully familiar? The film is from 1995. I've heard that the controversy over Pluto's status goes back to 1992, though I personally didn't hear about it until a few years ago. I doubt that the people who made this film had it in mind. But it's hard not to notice the parallels.

The controversy was provoked by the discovery that, well, Pluto is too small to be a planet. But what exactly defines a planet? Given that almost all our knowledge of planets comes from our solar system, there's very limited information to work with. You can call Pluto a planet, if you like. The problem is that, to be consistent you then have to include in your definition hundreds of other objects in the solar system that have not previously been considered planets. (Actually, they've previously been known as minor planets, or dwarf planets.) Not only are some of those objects larger than Pluto, but Pluto itself lacks many of the characteristics that the other "official" planets possess, such as a uniform orbit.

But the demotion of Pluto was met with outrage by some, depressed resignation by others. Part of the problem is that it's the only "planet" discovered by an American. When you listen to people's reaction to the demotion, you hear echoes of an emotional plea. As one curator of the American Museum of Natural History put it, "We had enormous numbers of telephone calls and I would say things that verged on hate mail from second-graders--very angry children who said, 'What have you done? This is the cutest, most Disney-esque of the planets. How could you possibly demote it?'"

Of course, unlike in the film, there isn't going to be any campaign to add piles of dirt to Pluto so that it qualifies as a planet once again. With no way to reach Pluto, much less change its appearance, the best we can do is argue about definitions. Still, the clash of science with culture must be something of a universal theme. Someone now ought to write a sci-fi parody titled The Astronaut Who Landed on a Planet But Left an Asteroid.

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