Heroes

The man who discovered Pluto is about to become the first person to visit it.

We have visited all the planets of solar system and found worlds orbiting distant stars. Now we're about to explore ... Pluto? If you find yourself asking, "So what?" you're not alone. But you might be surprised by the answer.

The man who discovered Pluto is about to become the first person to visit it.

The Search Begins

In 1929, a young researcher named Clyde Tombaugh was handed a thankless, seemingly impossible task.

His bosses at the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, Arizona, gave him a series of nearly identical pictures of the same part of the night sky taken a few days apart and asked him to search, with his naked eyes, for a speck of light that moved like a planet. These were not pretty photos, and they barely changed from day to day. So we can only imagine how daunting this assignment must have felt for the young Tombaugh. Yet he took it graciously and spent over a year comparing photographs, two by two, using only an antiquated mechanical device called a blink comparator, his bare eyes, and his knowledge of planetary movement.


Clyde Tombaugh with his telescope

This was long before human spaceflight — 30 years before the Russians sent Sputnik up to be mankind's first messenger to the heavens and 40 before America landed the first men on the moon in 1969.

At this time, merely orbiting the Earth — much less visiting other moons and planets in our solar system — was only a dream in the minds of science fiction authors. Tombaugh likely had no notion that we would ever set off to explore the specks of light in his photos — much less that he might go on the journey himself.

Odd Planet

Yet he continued to look. He must not have expected that his work would have any lasting impact. The search, which many had unsuccessfully tried before, was driven not by the desire to invent new technologies or to solve global problems or even to make a fantastic discovery, but to answer a simple, if obscure, question: Why is Uranus' orbit a bit strange?

Orbiting closest to the sun, Mercury and Venus are solitary souls. Their destinies are controlled by the massive gravitational pull of that wellspring of light and heat, and they dance to no other tune. But the other planets waltz around the Sun in pairs. The Earth influences our red-hued partner, Mars, and vice versa. Giant Jupiter and noble, ringed Saturn are engaged in a similar dance. And the same is true for distant Uranus and Neptune, save one exception: Something else seems to be flirting with Uranus' orbit. Something from beyond the rim of the near solar system. This is what Tombaugh was looking for.

So What?

At this point, some people will understandably bristle at the idea of spending so much energy, money, and time answering a single, seemingly innocuous question. A wobble in Uranus' orbit is so distant, so seemingly meaningless to our daily lives here, billions of miles away ... where the same light that reaches Uranus in over two hours warms us in a mere eight minutes. And yet, although distant and removed from everyday concerns, questions like these are far from pointless.

Many of our greatest inventions, discoveries, or solutions to life's problems have started not with an idea, but with a simple, innocent question.

The question, "What is out there?" led us to develop rockets that launched the first probes into space, igniting the space race that landed men on the moon. The technology we made to accomplish these feats, to answer this simple question, ultimately led to life-changing things like GPS, laptops, satellite television, and much more. But we didn't know what the result of landing on the moon would be when we started. We just wanted to know more about the moon.

This is why we must continue to ask — and try to answer — these simple questions. It's impossible to see the future and know what the fruits of our curiosity might be. All we know is that for hundreds of years, we have been methodically asking and answering simple questions about the world around us, and the results of those explorations have given us nearly everything we value about the modern world.

The Next Questions

Guided by this idea and his curiosity, Tombaugh searched for more than a year, staring at photo after photo of the same dots in the sky. In 1930, he announced that he had discovered something beyond Neptune: Pluto, a ninth planet.

It was a momentous discovery, and it made Tombaugh a household name overnight. But almost as soon as it had been discovered, Pluto's existence gave rise to new questions. Measurements of the planet's size made it clear that it was too small to cause the irregularities in Uranus' orbit, and it probably didn't form in the same way the other planets did. So where did it come from? And what was really causing Uranus' strangeness?

In the 1990s, measurements of Neptune by the Voyager 2 spacecraft answered the second question. Uranus' strange orbit wasn't strange after all. We had simply miscalculated the size of Neptune and thus its effects on its orbital twin. But despite closing the book on the question that led to the discovery of Pluto, the first question — Where did Pluto come from? —continued to tug at the curiosity of astronomers.

Over time, using new technologies and pursuing new ideas, we began to form a better picture. In the 1990s, we discovered two new objects floating beyond Pluto. Since then, a thousand more have been found, and scientists believe there may be as many as 100,000 large objects floating on the outskirts of our solar system in a vast disc called the Kuiper belt.

Known objects in the Kuiper belt

Among other things, the discovery of the Kuiper belt caused the International Astronomical Union to downgrade Pluto from a planet to a dwarf planet in 2006, a move Tombaugh spent his life fighting. But we can imagine that if he were still around, he would be thrilled to know that far beyond discovering a new planet, he'd found a new frontier of our own solar system: a gateway to thousands of new worlds, each with new questions waiting to be asked and answered.

A New Horizon

One of those questions is: "What is Pluto like?" Although we've known it exists for most of a century, we don't know much more about it. In fact, this image, a computer's best guess based on data from the Hubble Space Telescope, is the best view of it we've ever had:

We don't know what those smudges of color are. Are they mountains? Glaciers? Giant worms that produce a conscious-altering substance that enables faster-than-light travel? Probably not on that last one.

The truth is that we have no clue what Pluto is. We never have. But that's about to change.

In 1992, at the end of a long career, Tombaugh got a call from Robert Staehle of NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory. In a sign of respect for its discoverer, Staehle asked Tombaugh for permission to visit Pluto.

Here's another distant image of the planet, taken this year, that portends the things to come:

At first glance, those are just two blurry dots, no more interesting than the ones Tombaugh had to look at way back in 1929. But they're so much more. The large dot in the center is Pluto. The smaller one moving around it is its largest moon, Charon. The two are so close together and so similar in size, this is the first time we've been able to clearly distinguish between the two bodies.

The photos were taken by a probe called New Horizons, the result of that 1992 phone call. It's been in deep space for nine years, and this July it will do a fly-by of Pluto. In just a few months, we'll have high-resolution photos of Pluto and its moons. We'll know what those blurry smudges on the Hubble images are (in fact, you can start voting on names for them now). And we'll officially start our voyage to the worlds of the Kuiper belt lying beyond — the final frontier of our solar system. And you'll be around to see it. But you're not the only one.

The Visitor

When Staehle asked Tombaugh for permission to visit Pluto in 1992, Tombaugh had the same reaction you probably would: "He's got to go one long, cold trip." He probably didn't expect that he was the one who would be making the journey.

"He's got to go one long, cold trip."

Tombaugh passed away in 1997, nearly a decade before we would visit his planetoid. Fittingly, New Horizons carries with it an ounce of Tombaugh's ashes. So in a way, he will be the first person to visit Pluto, the same as he was the first to discover it.

What would he have felt if he were alive today to see the journey unfold here on Earth, rather than make it himself? Hear his children reflect on the journey to the frontier he unlocked:

When you're done, take a moment to reflect on how far we've come from that original, simple question about Uranus. And share this with folks who, innocently and justifiably, might hear that we're visiting Pluto and ask "so what?"

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan
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Growing up in Indonesia, Farwiza Farhan always loved the ocean. It's why she decided to study marine biology. But the more she learned, the more she realized that it wasn't enough to work in the ocean. She needed to protect it.

"I see the ocean ecosystem collapsing due to overfishing and climate change," she says. "I felt powerless and didn't know what to do [so] I decided to pursue my master's in environmental management."

This choice led her to work in environmental protection, and it was fate that brought her back home to the Leuser Ecosystem in Sumatra, Indonesia — one of the last places on earth where species such as tigers, orangutans, elephants and Sumatran rhinoceros still live in the wild today. It's also home to over 300 species of birds, eight of which are endemic to the region.

"When I first flew over the Leuser Ecosystem, I saw an intact landscape, a contiguous block of lush, diverse vegetation stretched through hills and valleys. The Leuser is truly a majestic landscape — one of a kind."

She fell in love. "I had my first orangutan encounter in the Leuser Ecosystem," she remembers. "As the baby orangutan swung from the branches, seemingly playing and having fun, the mother was observing us. I was moved by the experience."

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

"Over the years," she continues, "the encounters with wildlife, with people, and with the ecosystem itself compounded. My curiosity and interest towards nature have turned into a deep desire to protect this biodiversity."

So, she began working for a government agency tasked to protect it. After the agency dismantled for political reasons in the country, Farhan decided to create the HAkA Foundation.

"The goals [of HAkA] are to protect, conserve and restore the Leuser Ecosystem while at the same time catalyzing and enabling just economic prosperity for the region," she says.

"Wild areas and wild places are rare these days," she continues. "We think gold and diamonds are rare and therefore valuable assets, but wild places and forests, like the Leuser Ecosystems, are the kind of natural assets that essentially provide us with life-sustaining services."

"The rivers that flow through the forest of the Leuser Ecosystem are not too dissimilar to the blood that flows through our veins. It might sound extreme, but tell me — can anyone live without water?"

Courtesy of Farwiza Farhan

So far, HAkA has done a lot of work to protect the region. The organization played a key role in strengthening laws that bring the palm oil companies that burn forests to justice. In fact, their involvement led to an unprecedented, first-of-its-kind court decision that fined one company close to $26 million.

In addition, HAkA helped thwart destructive infrastructure plans that would have damaged critical habitat for the Sumatran elephants and rhinos. They're working to prevent mining destruction by helping communities develop alternative livelihoods that don't damage the forests. They've also trained hundreds of police and government rangers to monitor deforestation, helping to establish the first women ranger teams in the region.

"We have supported multiple villages to create local regulation on river and land protection, effectively empowering communities to regain ownership over their environment."

She is one of Tory Burch's Empowered Women this year. The donation she receives as a nominee is being awarded to the Ecosystem Impact Foundation. The small local foundation is working to protect some of the last remaining habitats of the critically endangered leatherback turtle that lives on the west coast of Sumatra.

"The funds will help the organization keep their ranger employed so they can continue protecting the islands, endangered birds and sea turtle habitats," she says.

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen. Do you know an inspiring woman like Farwiza? Nominate her today!

Jennifer Lawrence

After being a Hollywood staple, Jennifer Lawrence vanished from the public eye following the release of "X-Men Dark Phoenix" in 2019.

Sure, the pandemic had something to do with that … in addition to the usual way our society treats Hollywood "it" girls, once it grows accustomed to the flavor. But in a recent interview with Vanity Fair, Lawrence opens up about some other reasons she chose to step away for a time.

Lawrence went from being a highly sought-after Oscar-winning actress to starring in less-than-successful films like "Passengers," "Mother!" and "Red Sparrow." The films were not only poorly received among critics, but commercially as well.

"I was not pumping out the quality that I should have," she told VF. "I just think everybody had gotten sick of me. I'd gotten sick of me. It had just gotten to a point where I couldn't do anything right. If I walked a red carpet, it was, 'Why didn't she run?'"

So then, why do it? As any workaholic would know, it's about so much more than money.

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Courtesy of Ms. Lopez
True

Marcella Lopez didn't always want to be a teacher — but once she became one, she found her passion. That's why she's stayed in the profession for 23 years, spending the past 16 at her current school in Los Angeles, where she mostly teaches children of color.

"I wanted purpose, to give back, to live a life of public service, to light the spark in others to think critically and to be kind human beings," she says. "More importantly, I wanted my students to see themselves when they saw me, to believe they could do it too."

Ms. Lopez didn't encounter a teacher of color until college. "That moment was life-changing for me," she recalls. "It was the first time I felt comfortable in my own skin as a student. Always remembering how I felt in that college class many years ago has kept me grounded year after year."

It's also guided her teaching. Ms. Lopez says she always selects authors and characters that represent her students and celebrate other ethnicities so students can relate to what they read while also learning about other cultures.

"I want them to see themselves in the books they read, respect those that may not look like them and realize they may have lots in common with [other cultures] they read about," she says.

She also wants her students to have a different experience in school than she did.

When Ms. Lopez was in first grade, she "was speaking in Spanish to a new student, showing her where the restroom was when a staff member overheard our conversation and directed me to not speak in Spanish," she recalls. "In 'this school,' we only speak English," she remembers them saying. "From that day forward, I was made to feel less-than and embarrassed to speak the language of my family, my ancestors; the language I learned to speak first."

Part of her job, she says, is to find new ways to promote acceptance and inclusion in her classroom.

"The worldwide movement around social justice following the death of George Floyd amplified my duty as a teacher to learn how to discuss racial equity in a way that made sense to my little learners," she says. "It ignited me to help them see themselves in a positive light, to make our classroom family feel more inclusive, and make our classroom a safe place to have authentic conversations."

One way she did that was by raising money through DonorsChoose to purchase books and other materials for her classroom that feature diverse perspectives.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

The Allstate Foundation recently partnered with DonorsChoose to create a Racial Justice and Representation category to encourage teachers like Ms. Lopez to create projects that address racial equity in the classroom. To launch the category, The Allstate Foundation matched all donations to these projects for a total of $1.5 million. Together, they hope to drive awareness and funding to projects that bring diversity, inclusion, and identity-affirming learning materials into classrooms across the country. You can see current projects seeking funding here.

When Ms. Lopez wanted to incorporate inclusive coloring books into her lesson plans, The Allstate Foundation fully funded her project so she was able to purchase them.

"I'm a lifelong learner, striving to be my best version of myself and always working to inspire my little learners to do the same," she says. Each week, Ms. Lopez and the students would focus on a page in the book and discuss its message. And she plans to do the same again this school year.

"DonorsChoose has been a gamechanger for my students. Without the support of all the donors that come together on this platform, we wouldn't have a sliver of what I've been able to provide for my students, especially during the pandemic," she says.

"My passion is to continue striving to be excellent, and to continue to find ways to use literature as an anchor, depicting images that reflect my students," she says.

To help teachers like Ms. Lopez drive this important mission forward, donate on DonorsChoose.

Courtesy of Ms. Lopez

This story was originally published on The Mighty and originally appeared here on 07.21.17


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