To Infinity (Or At Least The Far Edge Of The Solar System)

Those of us over a certain age learned that Pluto was the ninth planet in the solar system, and the one farthest from the SunIn 2006, however, Pluto was “de-planetized,” when the know-it-alls at the International Astronomical Union concluded that Pluto should be relegated to “dwarf planet” status.  Pluto itself could not be reached for comment.

Since it was dissed nine years ago, tiny Pluto has stolidly borne its politically incorrect “dwarf planet” label.  Still, it’s an intriguing object.  It’s tiny (smaller than our Moon), its orbit is different from that of any other planet, it’s unimaginably far away (on average, 3.6 billion miles from the Sun, 40 times farther away than Earth) and its deeply mysterious because we’ve never gotten a good look at it.  Even though Pluto was discovered in 1930, we still don’t have any decent picture of the object.

That’s about to change.  Recently, NASA’s New Horizons spacecraft entered its Pluto exploration zone.  It was launched in 2006 and has traveled more than 4 billion miles to get near Pluto.  For most of that time, the spacecraft’s active systems have been “sleeping.”  Now, New Horizons has been awakened, and last Sunday it began to take its  first pictures of Pluto.  It’s closest pass will come in July.

As New Horizons transmits its photos back to Earth, we’ll learn far more about Pluto than we’ve ever known before.  I’m rooting for little Pluto, which has basically been ignored in favor of studies of Jupiter, Saturn, and Mars.  I’m hoping that Pluto turns out to be the most fascinating object in the solar system.  Who knows?  Maybe Pluto is small and weird because it’s not a planet at all, but instead an alien spacecraft, or a marker like The Object in 2001.  Probably not . . . but a Plutophile can dream.

Pinocchio

I’m pretty sure that Pinocchio was the first movie I ever saw in a movie theater.  In those pre-video and pre-DVD days, the classic animated Walt Disney films were reissued to the movie theaters on a multi-year rotation basis, there to be enjoyed by a new generation of little kids.  The Webner kids saw Pinocchio on one of the reissuances, in a full-sized movie theater with a huge screen and top of the line sound system.

When people think of Pinocchio, they typically think of the charming and friendly Jiminy Cricket and the helpful Blue Fairy, of Pinocchio’s funny nose growing with each implausible lie, of Pinocchio dancing with Geppetto and his squeeze box, and of the great songs — Give A Little Whistle, Hi-Diddle-Dee-Dee (An Actor’s Life for Me), and of course When You Wish Upon A Star.  Not me.  I thought Pinocchio was terrifying, and even now when I think of the movie the little boy inside still cringes.

Of course, Pinocchio is a morality tale; real boys are supposed to be honest, good and true and listen to their consciences.  But the real eye-opener for this little kid was the notion that there are bad people lurking out there who act like your friends but are ready to lure you from school, clap you into a bird cage, make you sick with a cigar at Pleasure Island, and turn you into a donkey.  Used as I was to walking to school every day with UJ in our tidy Akron neighborhood, that notion was astonishing.  And even though I was pretty sure that little boys who misbehaved couldn’t be turned into donkeys, the scene where Pinocchio’s big-talking miscreant pals are transformed into frightened braying jackasses still had a huge impact.  What if the seemingly nice people I encountered during the day were like the initially jolly Coachman who turned out to be evil incarnate?

I haven’t seen a Disney animated movie since Richard and Russell were little, so I don’t know if their films still have scary characters and scenes.  Pinocchio packed a punch because the bad guys were truly frightening and the terrified realization of the boys changed forever into donkeys seemed indisputably real.  I’m not saying Pinocchio cured me of bad behavior — Mom and my siblings would certainly dispute that notion — but the scary parts introduced new concepts about the potential costs of naivete and naughtiness and the presence of wickedness in the world that had a real impact.

I thought of Pinocchio and the awful Coachman the other day when I was reading about the latest bad person to take terrible advantage of trusting people.  The lesson endures.