August 22, 2006

"I think that today can go down as the 'day we lost Pluto.'"

The scientists apparently noticed that we don't like their result-oriented decisionmaking.
The bottom line, said the Harvard astronomer Owen Gingerich, chairman of the Planet Definition Committee of the union, is that in the new definition, “Pluto is not a planet.”

“There’s not happiness all around, believe me,” he added.

Science isn't about making us happy.

44 comments:

Bissage said...

Ilsa: What about us?

Rick: We'll always have Pluto. We didn't have it, we'd lost it until you came to Neptune. We got it back last night.

downtownlad said...

This is absurd. Scientists have no right to define what is and isn't a planet. What does the Bible say? The Bible should have the final say in the matter.

P. Froward said...

Bah. What a waste that whole thing was. I went around telling everybody what exciting news this was, because the discovery that Pluto isn't a real planet will completely alter our understanding of the solar system.

Got one blank look after another. Could've stayed in bed.

Pastor_Jeff said...

downtownlad,

Actually, Pluto was excluded on biblical grounds because creation scientists found out there's a pro-gay marriage movement taking place there.

downtownlad said...

What does Pluto have to do with gay marriage??? Bestiality - yeah, but gay marriage? No.

Simon said...

Some people think that the astronomers will look stupid if we can’t agree on a definition or if we don’t even know what a planet is,” [said Dr. Pasachoff of Williams College]. Really? More stupid than arbitrarily deciding that a planet that has been considered a planet since its discovery more than seventy years ago -- and which, one suspects, will continue to be taught and regarded as such regardless of what comes out of this conference -- is henceforth to be "demoted"?

If they want to write anew definition for a planet that applies to all subsequent discoveries, then that is their prerogative, but this attempted revisionism is wanton and purposeless. I understand the desire for consistency; nobody values consistency more highly than do I. But sometimes consistency must yield to tradition, and particularly when there is no reason for it not to.

Pastor_Jeff said...

Just trying to riff on your comment. No harm, no foul.

Joan said...

I like the new definition a lot. The orbital dominance criteria is easily determined and does not lend itself to fuzziness in the least.

That said, everyone will still go on thinking about Pluto as a planet, if they ever think of it at all. Most people don't think of these things much, after all. I still remember an assignment I did in jr. high where we had to graph something, anything -- so I made graphs of the solar system: mass, speed, distance from the sun, that sort of thing. Pluto made those graphs very difficult. The first 8 planets fit within a reasonable range, and then there was the Plutonian outlier, screwing up everything.

kettle said...

Absolutely absurd. It makes no difference what we call it; and school children couldn't care less - their vested interest is simply a matter of the status quo as force-fed to them in the public schools. This story, which has been posted and told all over the media for the past several weeks, is no more relevant than a series of proclamations changing the order of the figures in the Greek pantheon would be. Actually, even less so, because that might actually reorder some moral priorities for people.

Zach said...

Note to self: when posing as a planet, be noticeably bigger than your own moon.

I could see an argument for grandfathering Pluto in as a planet -- it was discovered in the same way as Neptune, by looking at its gravitational effects on the other planets. But if you exclude the historical argument, there are two or three objects beyond Pluto that are bigger. Just be thankful that we don't have planet Xena (as in Warrior Princess) as one of the proposals would have given us.

Word verification: zgfyn: yet another name that would be better than Planet Xena.

Zach said...

“But someone pointed out that this definition will hold for all time and that it is more important to get it right.”

Want to take odds on that?

Terri said...

This gives me the same feeling I get when I see that they've changed many of the dinosaur names that I learned as a kid.

Gahrie said...

You mean he's not called Barney anymore?

XWL said...

Here's an excerpt from the tearful statement made by the 'plutonian' dwarf planet Pluto regarding its new status,

"Having just learned of my demotion, I do not feel any lesser as a solar system body, nor do I feel deserving of this treatment, but given that I don't support life, nor likely ever will, I lack the political power to influence the astronomers that gathered to decide my fate. I'll have to learn to live with the collective decision of a few terran based stargazers. I may no longer be referred to as a planet in current textbooks, but the past has a way of living on, so please don't judge me too harshly if I take a small amount of pleasure when school children working from mid 20th century textbooks still refer to me as the 'ninth planet'"


(other thoughts here, but I don't know why anyone would care too strongly one way or the other)

Also, anyone who didn't want Xena to become a planet (with its moon of Gabrielle) must be homophobic.

Pluto wasn't the target of the homophobic (lesbiaphobic?) astronomers, Xena was!

Pluto just got caught in the crossfire.

Personally, I would have welcomed the Warrior Princess Planet, but I also find the reclassification of Pluto to allow for the most consistent definition of what makes a planet.

Revenant said...

Really? More stupid than arbitrarily deciding that a planet that has been considered a planet since its discovery

Pluto was called a planet from its discovery up through the discovery of the Kuiper Belt because we didn't know that it was one of many similar objects in its orbit. Ceres was "arbitrarily demoted" from from planetary status, decades after its discovery, for the same reason.

There's something to be said for tradition, but it would be nice, when future students ask their teacher "so, why is Pluto a planet when Ceres and Xena aren't?", to have an answer for them other than "just because".

Fatmouse said...

Let me draw one line in the sand here.

If that new ball of rock actually does get the official name "Xena," my life's mission will be to blow the fucker up.

Wickedpinto said...

Pluto is a DOG! DUH!

Revenant said...

If that new ball of rock actually does get the official name "Xena," my life's mission will be to blow the fucker up.

You... xenaphobe!

37383938393839383938383 said...

This is just bigotry against gay planets. A heavenly body is a heavenly body. You can't define away heavenliness! You are on the wrong side of history. This is just cosmically wrong.

37383938393839383938383 said...

Listen...Xena is not a real Greco-Roman mythological character. That's just insulting to all the legitimate Greco-Roman mythological characters out there. And I am being absolutely serious. It's blasphemous.

37383938393839383938383 said...

The orbital dominance criteria is easily determined and does not lend itself to fuzziness in the least.

Sexist astronomers. It's always about dominance. Why can't everyone be a planet? Let's just shed off all these tired social scripts and let everyone be the best planet they can be. And if that doesn't work, why don't we tax the other planets to support an artificial adjustment in Pluto's status?

37383938393839383938383 said...

Science isn't about making us happy.

Then why do I like watching college girls experiment?

chuck b. said...

The pedagogical fuss about planets is only prelude to the day biologists finally getting around to partitioning* the Monera and Protista into several "new" kingdoms of life. They've been talking about it for decades; why don't they just get on with it?

(*I went with "partitioning" over "splitting" to work that p-aliteration. Not bad, eh?)

Scientific systems of nomenclature, taxonomy, classification (and whatever) may seem arcane to non-scientists, but they are immensely important to working scientists (although most of us manage to speak the old and new languages, so to speak. I remember having to learn a whole new notation for second and partial derivatives from my thermodynamics teacher in college than what I leaned in calculus. Now *that* was a headache.)

Christy said...

Oh, my! What will this do to my astrology chart?

chuck b. said...

And I agree with Joan. The new definition is intuitive, elegant, and a long time coming. Bravo, scientists!

Steven said...

I could see an argument for grandfathering Pluto in as a planet -- it was discovered in the same way as Neptune, by looking at its gravitational effects on the other planets

Except that isn't the whole story. Pluto was searched for in order to explain a problem in Neptune's orbit, yes. The thing is, Pluto is far, far too small to have the necessary effect on Neptune's orbit.

So what was causing the effect on Neptune's orbit?

It turns out, nothing. The scientists had misestimated Neptune's mass. Had they estimated it more closely to the actual figure, astronomers wouldn't have been bothering to search for a planet at the coordinates where Pluto was found.

Eli Blake said...

I'm proud to be listed as a friend of the Lowell Observatory in Flagstaff, where Pluto was discovered. I've seen the original blink microscope and the plate that show the first pictures of Pluto, visited Percival Lowell's mausoleum (yes, it is on the grounds of the observatory) and spent quite a few nights with my children there as we've looked at the sky, heard lectures about astronomy and learned together in the visitor center. Last year was the 75th anniversary of the discovery of Pluto, and they opened up the lecture hall where many of the old books and manuscripts were kept. It was an invigorating feeling, and gave me an appreciation for the hard work these early 20th century astronomers did.

So yes, Pluto has a piece of my heart.

I wonder-- is Mickey Mouse now going to get a new dog, named 2003 UB 313?

SWBarns said...

Ann,

I couldn't disagree more than with your statement "Science isn't about making us happy."

Science is all about us being happy. From the first understanding of thermodynamics providing meals cooked over a fire to the quantum physics that allows me to read your writings from the comfort of my office, science is about making us happy. And don’t even get me started on the chemists and biologist that keep us alive with new drugs that would have been considered magic a hundred years ago.

Scientists and the engineers that put science into our lives are all about making us happy. Life was “nasty, brutish and short” until the scientist really got to work during the Renaissance. In another 300 years people will be looking back at our times and thinking that we lived nasty brutish and short lives.

Dave said...

Re: "nasty, brutish and short."

That phrase comes from Hobbes' Leviathan, and he used it in the context of man living under despotic aristocrats.

I certainly think there is something to the idea that, as man became freer, scientific knowledge also increased. Not quite what Hobbes was arguing, as I recall, but that is nonetheless an interesting use of his phrase.

John(classic) said...

Some scientists make discoveries.


Others spend their time in bureaucratic politics under the illusion that this is the work of science.

SWBarns said...

I think that sometime freedom pushes science and sometime science pushes freedom.

During the Renaissance and Reformation in Europe, science pushed freedom. Leeuwenhoek’s microscope, Lippershey's telescope and Gutenberg’s press are responsible for our freedom today.

Now, in the west, freedom pushes science, both to create new products and cures but also by subsidizing science in universities, corporations and by the government. In the east (China specifically) science is opening up the door to freedom.

Tibore said...

You know, I really hate to say this because I too don't want to see Pluto get demoted... but: Science isn't about what we want. Science is about what is. If the agreed upon definition doesn't fit, then it doesn't fit. There's no two ways about it. That astronomer wasn't kidding when he said "this definition will hold for all time (and) it is more important to get it right" (although I quibble with the part of the statement "will hold for all time"; rather, it'll be the starting point for further obervations to build on and refine). But anyway... science is about observations and creating definitions that accurately describe reality and provide a basis for evaluating new discoveries. The definition of a planet is not something that should be arbitrary or convoluted, because definitions provide the framework with which researchers analyze future observations. Messing it up now just because we want to shoehorn Pluto in will simply lead to problems later. The definition must be logically consistent and clear, so that later astronomers can say "This object is definitely a planet" and move on to deeper observations, rather than quibble over fine points.

If everyone agrees that we all want Pluto to retain it's "Planet" designation - remember, I'm one of them - then let's do it in a way that doesn't mess up future discoveries. I think Simon's on to something here: Let's grandfather it in, and to get more mileage out of it, let's do so in a way that highlights the progress and continual evolution of science. We'll say "Pluto was originally designated a planet due to the way it was discovered (insert lesson on Pluto's discovery here). But nowadays, we know more about the composition of solar systems beyond our own, and if discovered today, we'd designate Pluto a (fill in the blank (Kuiper object, Plutonian, Oort cloud denizen, whatever..)). Let's keep Pluto, but stick an asterix next to it and make future students say "Why's Pluto a planet?", and then use it as an object lesson on how science progresses, redefines, and corrects itself.

In short, everyone should end the rhetorical yoga in trying to include such an outlying data point as Pluto. Instead, astronomers should grandfather it in as a planet, make a definition that logically fits everything else, then stand there and wait for people to go " ? ", and use that as an opportunity to dive into the lesson about continual progress and redefinition. Everyone wins at that point.

Icepick said...

From the article: But a large contingent of astronomers, led by Julio Fern├índez of the University of the Republic in Montevideo, Uruguay, has argued that a planet must also be massive enough to clear other objects out of its orbital zone. Dr. Gingerich admitted, “They are in control of things.”

This is completely unclear. Now they have to define "clear[ing] other objects out of its orbital zone." Consider that if Pluto can't be a planet because it crosses Neptune's orbit, then Neptune can't be a planet because it crosses Pluto's orbit. Neptune has not cleared its orbital zone!

Neither has Uranus, Jupitor, Mars, Earth, or (most spectacularly) Saturn. Therefore the Solar system would consist of the Sun, two planets (Mercury and Venus), and a bunch of junk. This concept does not improve the situation!

And John(classic), if you're so smart, why don't YOU come up with a definition for "planet" that is something more than "because that's what I read in my school book"?

Simon said...

XWL said...
"Here's an excerpt from the tearful statement made by the 'plutonian' dwarf planet Pluto regarding its new status..."

I believe she concluded by saying "This is perhaps Pluto's temporary farewell to the solar system"...

Revenant said...
"There's something to be said for tradition, but it would be nice, when future students ask their teacher "so, why is Pluto a planet when Ceres and Xena aren't?", to have an answer for them other than 'just because'.

"Just because" is usually underrated. For much the same reason that Sean Bean's name is pronounced neither "seen been" or "shorn born", but "shorn bean." If you're going to demand a better explanation than "just because", we may as well abandon the English language here and now. The astronomers seem to be having difficulty fathoming what numerous generations of schoolchildren grasp easily enough: there are exceptions to rules, and many of those exceptions are driven by tradition. The astronomers seem to believe that they must either have a definition of planets which excludes Pluto, or they must have a definition which expands the number of planets to 12. That this is a false dilemma seems to have escaped them.

It's often said that tradition gets a vote not a veto; I disagree with both; tradition erects a rebuttable presumption in favor of the status quo. Tradition can never resist a strong enough reason, but the astronomers have barely found a reason, let alone one sufficient to upend seventy plus years of tradition. If we discovered tommorow that Hans v. Louisiana was totally made up, should we upend a century of sovereign immunity jurisprudence?

Word verification: Vszoa. The heretofore undiscovered fourth satellite of the planet Pluto.

Jeremy said...

I was surprised that the term "dwarf planet" was bandied about so freely. Someone ought to have nated that not all diminuitive-statured planets are "dwarves." A dwarf planet should have a clear distinction from "midget planets" or "under-average-sized planets" and should be reserved for planets named Moria or something like that.

PatCA said...

Oh, Pluto, we hardly knew you. We lost you too soon, too soon.

Jason said...

Is their next task discussing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

reader_iam said...

Oh, "my very excellent mother"! Another perfectly good mnemonic bites the dust!

My son gets his first lesson in "unlearning," starting tonight.

(Plus, he's been obsessed with the idea of "The Tenth Planet," which he pronounces in tones of initial caps, since last year. Get used to it, kid: reality rarely lives up to the romance.)

Mike said...

Well, I guess we won't have Pluto to kick around anymore.

Anthony said...

The definition of a planet is not something that should be arbitrary or convoluted, because definitions provide the framework with which researchers analyze future observations.

Actually, it is arbitrary, just not capricious. Science defines things based on whatever theory is being used; there's nothing inherent in planet-ness, so it's "arbitrary" by. . um. . definition.

The original definition of a planet was based simply on whether or not it appeared to move in the sky like stars. There wasn't any real theory behind it (certainly not a logical scientific theory), it was an empirical generalization. The problem with empirical generalizations (or extensional definitions) is that the definition changes whenever new members are added. Thus, the Pluto problem; it seemed to change the definition of a "planet" too much for the comfort of many practioners.

This is an attempt to create a definition that contains theoretically-derived necessary and sufficient conditions for membership -- an intensional definition. Which, as you say, provides future researchers with the (theoretical) framework to work with future observations.

Mike said...

"the Pluto problem"

I love it!

John(classic) said...

And John(classic), if you're so smart, why don't YOU come up with a definition for "planet" that is something more than "because that's what I read in my school book"?

Certainly. Ha, hmm. Definition follows:

Aside from all that geeky stuff about orbits, to be a real planet it has to have been mentioned in a sci fi movie in which the smoke from the rockets curled up and there were ray guns, and it has to have been the specific subject of a limerick:


Pluto’s the farthest of all.
Compared to the rest it is small.
Of features and such,
We don’t know very much
Because Pluto is such a small ball!

Asteroids are right out because they only have generic limericks:


Asteroids are rocky debris.
If we look at them closely we see
rocks that are crumbled,
and jumbled and tumbled,
pulled 'round by the Sun's gravity.

John(classic) said...

Extra credit for a scatological limerick of course as Google found for me:

"Let's be astronauts! Earth can't restrain us!"
You answered, "Not me!", which was heinous.
So I flew to the stars,
Venus, Pluto and Mars!
You stayed home and just Saturn Uranus.

Anthony said...

I feel compelled to point out, after that last post, that the 1970s prog-rock band Klaatu (also Klaatu) had a song entitled "Anus of Uranus".