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Pluto: Fire and ice

Pluto photographed by the LORRI and Ralph instruments aboard the New Horizons spacecraft July 13. Courtesy NASA

Pluto photographed by the LORRI and Ralph instruments aboard the New Horizons spacecraft July 13. Courtesy NASA

The Pluto flyby has shown us how well the little planet that could is served by its name. Pluto was the Roman god of the underworld (Hades in Greek), whose queen, Proserpina (Persephone) spent spring and summer with her mother, the earth goddess Demeter, in the upper world, and fall and winter with her gloomily handsome hubby, the lord of the dead. Indeed, this arrangement was the reason we have spring and summer, when the earth is recalled to life and warmth, and fall and winter, when the earth dies coldly to itself.

Pluto the planet has icy mountains and geological activity, suggesting heat somewhere at some point:

A relief of Persephone and Hades (Proserpina and Pluto) on the throne, found in what is now the Calabria region of Italy.

A relief of Persephone and Hades (Proserpina and Pluto) on the throne, found in what is now the Calabria region of Italy.

“That leaves rethinking how thermodynamics apply at the dwarf planet,” Mika McKinnon writes. “Pluto should be too cold to be active, but it isn’t. The best options for revising our theories are that its initial heat source lasted longer than anticipated through a yet-to-be-described process, that heat was stored, or that the heat is used more efficiently.”

Fire and ice – which describes Pluto’s relationship with his lady perfectly.

It’s interesting that we should be getting a Greco-Roman mythology lesson again precisely at the moment when today’s Greeks have been brought low by their debt crisis. They are, of course, no more related to the ancients who once peopled their land than we are to the Pre-Columbian people of this world. But we are all the ancients’ cultural heirs.

And we must not break faith with that.