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26 August, 2006

Scratching the planetary surface

It's a little startling to discover that people one knows and likes in one context can be nutters in another.

In an off-topic area of a music-related web forum, the topic of Pluto came up in conversation, specifically its demotion from full 'planet' status on Thursday. Most expressed understandable regret – some have an emotional attachment to a component of childhood rhymes – but few accepted the IAU's reclassification. Okay, the voting procedure was seriously flawed, and the chosen definition seems less than definitive, but the issues being questioned were more fundamental(ist).

  • That whatever the agreed definition of 'planet', a special case should be made for Pluto, totally irrespective of whether it fits the criteria.
    I say if they already named it a planet, then it's already considered a planet. Too late to change it now. Anything else yet to be named out there would fall under the new 'guidelines' but I don't see what they have against the little guy that they'd strip it of it's planetary title.
    For hundreds of years, it was thought that the Sun travelled around the Earth. People died for that definition of the solar system (which can't be said for the Pluto issue). Should we still work to that definition?

    Science moves on. As our understanding of disparate factors increase and intermesh, and as additional data fill important gaps, theories and definitions change. Seventy-six years ago, when Pluto was discovered, very little was known about the Kuiper Belt and an an error of categorisation was made. It's entirely reasonable to reassess it now.

    Personally, I think the conference compromised too far anyway, to suit personal preferences and invent an artificial niche for Pluto rather than dump it outright. Deciding the result in advance then selecting the parameters to fit it isn't scientific. It's a little like deciding sea water is blue (because everyone knows the sea is blue) then producing a definition to 'prove' blueness is a defining characteristic.

    It was necessary to agree on a rational, generic definition of 'a planet', based on scientific principles, then determine which bodies qualified, applying the definition without prejudice, sentiment or reference to existing public habit (and ignoring nursery rhymes about nine planets). Instead, they seem to have taken the reverse approach, of deciding which bodies qualify then contriving a definition around the selected dataset.

  • That this isn't an issue for scientists to decide anyway.
    Scientists are not Gods or all knowing, that is a fact.
    If the qualifications and experience of professional astronomers count for nothing, what's the alternative? Popular acclaim? Is this something the general public can decide, perhaps by a radio phone-in? Perhaps a TV evangelist might like to get involved. Keep those donations definitions coming in, folks.

    To say 'Pluto is a planet because I think of it as a planet' really means 'Pluto is a planet because I want it to be a planet', which is childish, even petulant. It's totally irrational in a subject where rationality is all that matters. This is simply not a matter of gut feeling or moral conviction. It's not even an especially interpretive issue; it's classifying measured data rather than theorising about processes. Faith doesn't come into it.
    I'm afraid I see no way around this: it's an issue for scientists.

I could respect disagreement with the definition, but refusal to accept the idea of having a rational, generally-applicable definition is... well, I simply can't comprehend that. My mind recoils.

Frankly, the issue of whether Pluto is or is not a planet doesn't especially concern me. What I find rather distressing – and that's not really an overstatement – is that seemingly sensible people whose opinions I valued are suddenly revealed to have the mindset of mediaeval adolescents.

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