August 16, 2006

Cuts from Team Planet

Posted by Arcane Gazebo at August 16, 2006 3:02 PM

It seems that some astronomers, perhaps lacking cryogens to play with, have been wasting their time on one of the dumbest controversies of the modern era: whether Pluto is technically a planet. Personally, I don't care very much. Tiny Pluto with its elongated and tilted orbit always seemed awkwardly tacked on to the list of planets anyway, and if it doesn't make whatever arbitrary cutoff the astronomers pick, I won't miss it.

However, the passion with which Pluto's status is defended in some quarters is astounding. Do people really attach such emotional weight to the issue? Maybe that glorified snowball has kind of an underdog appeal, or perhaps it's a laudable impulse not to throw the weird one out of the clubhouse. As scientists, however, we must be objective (ha!) and this post lays out the very convincing anti-Pluto case.

(Via Making Light, which quotes a sensible comment from one of Berkeley's own astronomers: “I am not attending the I.A.U. meeting, nor do I care about the outcome of any vote about whether Pluto and Xena are ‘planets.’”)

Tags: Science, Space

The reason it matters, as I discuss here is that it influences science education. What planets are kids taught about, what are they not taught about? What becomes common knowledge?

Also, the most genuinely controversial issue, which is whether the "dwarf planet" v. "classical planet" category cutoff should be Mercury or Pluto isn't really an issue with a definitive scientific resolution. So, the broader cultural and educational implications are what really matter in that decision.

There are probably 100 planets in the solar system under a broad definition. The big eight are undisputed the big ones. The real issue is how many planets beyond those eight should be canonical bits of astronomy knowledge that everyone should have. Expecting people to know all 100 is a waste of time, although people probably should know that there are 100 or so. But, if a definition could make a dozen or fifteen planets common knowledge by labeling them more important somehow, instead of just nine now, that could be a plus.

Posted by: ohwilleke | August 16, 2006 3:34 PM

The cynical side of me sometimes wonders if textbook publishers are secretly funding the war on Pluto.

Beyond that, the only reason I can see to defend Pluto as a planet is that PIZZA IS AWESOME.

Posted by: Lemming | August 16, 2006 4:22 PM

In all fairness, Pluto needs a neighbor called "Brutus."

Posted by: Mason | August 17, 2006 12:47 AM

That would be better if Charon was named Pluto and Pluto was named Goofy, but yeah.

Posted by: Lemming | August 17, 2006 1:18 AM

Hey, stop dissing the boatman of the lower planes. Were you missing your eight-sided coin when you tried to cross?

Posted by: Mason | August 18, 2006 12:27 AM

Yeah, all I had was my three-sided playing card, and he wouldn't take that, so he sent me back to Florida for eternity.

Posted by: Lemming | August 18, 2006 11:06 AM

You know, it's funny how they use the term 'eight-sided' when they really mean 'eight-edged.' That never actually occurred to me until now.

They would have made horrible graph theorists.

Posted by: Mason | August 18, 2006 4:37 PM

What's worse to all geophysicists is that these frikkin' astronomer types want to call pluto a 'pluton'. Don't they know that 'pluton' already has a meaning that has nothing to do with planets? idiots...

Posted by: mohi | August 21, 2006 8:54 AM
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