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Years of basic science textbooks down the drain...
August 24, 2006 6:47 AM   Subscribe

My very elegant mother just sat upon ninjas... the textbooks, mnemonic devices and more will have to be changed today. Pluto has been demoted from its status as planet to a dwarf planet. We now have 8 in our solar system. The debate is not at all new, and its apparent resolution may not matter to our everyday lives, but it's just a little weird to think of all of the things that will have to be retroactively edited or amended as a result.
posted by twiggy (96 comments total) 1 user marked this as a favorite

 
W00t!

About time, Pluto, you damn poseur.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 6:50 AM on August 24, 2006


but it's just a little weird to think of all of the things that will have to be retroactively edited or amended as a result...

...or we can just blissfully ignore this asinine decision and not change anything.
posted by NotMyselfRightNow at 6:58 AM on August 24, 2006


They demoted Ceres a number of years back, and we got over it.

I'm gonna go out on a limb and say we'll manage.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 7:00 AM on August 24, 2006


If there's anything in the solar system that should lose status, it's that embarrassment Uranus.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 7:02 AM on August 24, 2006


<img src="http://www.laughingplace.com/files/columns/TOON20041217/pic1.jpg"
posted by jonmc at 7:05 AM on August 24, 2006


Since I have nothing against dwarves, my life will go on unchanged.

On a minor point...I know astronomers like the word dwarf - who doesn't? - I wonder why they never went for the word midget, which would seem more appropriate, since it just means relatively small, whereas the word dwarf indicates misshapeness.
posted by kozad at 7:05 AM on August 24, 2006



posted by jonmc at 7:05 AM on August 24, 2006


You forgot Pluto.
posted by sdrawkcab at 7:06 AM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


From 9 to 12 and then back to 8?

They really need to do less drinking at these astronomer conferences.
posted by briank at 7:06 AM on August 24, 2006


.
posted by Faint of Butt at 7:06 AM on August 24, 2006


So does this supercede what was discussed in this post?

I'm confused. It'll be a cold day in hell before I recognize Missouri Ceres!
posted by Pastabagel at 7:08 AM on August 24, 2006


Haha Pluto, in your face you loser!
posted by ob at 7:17 AM on August 24, 2006


You're not a planet anymore,
You're not a planet,
You're not a planet,
You're not a planet anymore,
You're not a planet anymore.

[English football reference...]
posted by ob at 7:20 AM on August 24, 2006


I guess Xena's a dwarf too?
posted by Mister_A at 7:21 AM on August 24, 2006


I love physics, and astronomy, and science, and all that.

But really, why has this been newsworthy at all? I've seen this on google news for what seems like weeks now. Tweaking definitions is critical information, but you can't hardly find shit on the solution of the Poincare conjecture? Balls!
posted by Alex404 at 7:23 AM on August 24, 2006


mmm, dwarf Xena...
posted by jonmc at 7:23 AM on August 24, 2006


"...or we can just blissfully ignore this asinine decision and not change anything."

Let's roll back the clock to 1930 and ignore anything we've learned since then. C'mon, it'll be fun!

Seriously, "planet" is just a word we use to categorize things, it means what we want it to. Sort of like "continent" and how Europe and Asia are two of them, Austrailia is one and Greenland is just a big island.
posted by acetonic at 7:26 AM on August 24, 2006


I just can't seem to care any more since they changed the names of all the dinosaurs. I mean you think learning a new language is hard when you're older? Try learning new dinosaur names! It's just bullshit. Where's my torch?
posted by Wood at 7:31 AM on August 24, 2006


This is bullshit. Why should a bunch of European astronomy "experts" have the right to say what's a planet and what's not? Who made them king? I'm sick of these activist astronomers personally. Pluto's planetary nature should be decided by (American) democracy.
posted by nixerman at 7:33 AM on August 24, 2006


I just can't seem to care any more since they changed the names of all the dinosaurs. I mean you think learning a new language is hard when you're older? Try learning new dinosaur names! It's just bullshit. Where's my torch?
posted by Wood at 10:31 AM EST on August 24 [+] [!]


Wait, what? Are you making a creationism joke, or are you being serious? No more tyrannosaurus rex, brontosaurus, stegasauraus, etc? What did they change their names to, Evelyn, Puddin' Pop, and Chubby D?
posted by Pastabagel at 7:37 AM on August 24, 2006


Well, no more brontosaurus. It's now "Apatosaurus". See Stephen Gould's Bully for Brontosaurus.
posted by djfiander at 7:41 AM on August 24, 2006


Well now it just has to run as an independent planet.

Goddamn fringe liberal bloggers.
posted by XQUZYPHYR at 7:43 AM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


This is awful; Clyde Tombaugh must be spinning in his grave! And now the Lowell Observatory will be known for nothing but the discovery of the cosmic red shift!

LET THE HUE AND CRY BEGIN!
posted by TedW at 7:46 AM on August 24, 2006


So the Lectroids are from Planet 9 now?
posted by Jart at 7:46 AM on August 24, 2006




Pluto will always be a planet to me.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:49 AM on August 24, 2006


We at Demote Pluto are beside ourselves with joy, much like Charon is beside the planet Kuiper Belt Object Pluto as an icy binary partner.
posted by brownpau at 7:49 AM on August 24, 2006


I nominate the term "planette" for all of these little planets.
posted by TedW at 7:50 AM on August 24, 2006


Lectroids and Cybermen, yeah.
posted by John Kenneth Fisher at 7:52 AM on August 24, 2006


After a tumultuous week of clashing over the essence of the cosmos

Oh, please. The tumult was over our *classification system* of the cosmos. As if nature gives a shit about our verbal categories.
posted by mediareport at 7:53 AM on August 24, 2006


Um, Isn't the preferred and PC phrase 'Little Planets'?
posted by Gungho at 7:54 AM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


Speaking of dwarf/midget, it appears some little people find the term "midget" offensive based on its etymology and prefer any number of alternatives.
posted by TedW at 8:01 AM on August 24, 2006


But really, why has this been newsworthy at all? I've seen this on google news for what seems like weeks now. Tweaking definitions is critical information, but you can't hardly find shit on the solution of the Poincare conjecture? Balls!

Because you didn't make a model of the Poincare Conjecture for the fourth grade science fair. And you didn't learn a neat mnemonic to recall the Fundamental Groups in the 2nd grade? And people don't write poetry about the heavens and 3-sphere.

The idea that utterly basic information that is taught as absolute 'fact' to school children all over the world is actually rather subject to interpretation and democratic votes is pretty interesting to people. That there are really hard math equations about stuff they neither understand nor care about is not.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:02 AM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


So does this supercede what was discussed in this post?

That post was about a proposal. The proposal was changed in one critical way before it was voted on, and that is to make dwarf planets a distinct set, not a subset of all planets.
posted by Plutor at 8:09 AM on August 24, 2006


I thought they just agreed last week to keep pluto and promote 3 other objects for a total of 12?

Is it common for there to be such a quick, and public, reversal in these sort of professional societies?

jacquilynne: I feel like I've made this comment before but can't find it. The spelling of your name is sexy... which I realize is an incredibly odd thing to think, and odder still to say. But there you have it.

Maybe languagehat has an explanation as to how exotic spellings imply exotic nature. Or maybe that's all there is to it.
posted by Ynoxas at 8:10 AM on August 24, 2006


Ha ha! Eat it, Pluto!
posted by jefbla at 8:15 AM on August 24, 2006


Ynoxas: I thought they just agreed last week to keep pluto and promote 3 other objects for a total of 12?

That was the proposal that was discussed and voted down.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:15 AM on August 24, 2006


jacqui, you're confusing facts with labeling. Pluto exists, whatever we happen to call it. Ultimately, this whole thing has about as much actual meaning as changing the distinction between 'grade A' and 'grade AAA' eggs. It doesn't change the nature of Pluto, it just changes the (wholly made-up) category we chose for it.

Not complaining about the post, I was glad to hear about this. Just trying to point out that classifications and facts are quite different.
posted by Malor at 8:15 AM on August 24, 2006 [2 favorites]


TedW - Thanks for that link. I had never heard of that issue either.
posted by Eyebeams at 8:15 AM on August 24, 2006


kjs: gotcha

I guess then I would question the value of publicizing a proposal before it was accepted.
posted by Ynoxas at 8:21 AM on August 24, 2006


I love physics, and astronomy, and science, and all that.

But really, why has this been newsworthy at all? I've seen this on google news for what seems like weeks now. Tweaking definitions is critical information, but you can't hardly find shit on the solution of the Poincare conjecture? Balls!


News, for better or for worse (mostly worse) has to appeal to the masses (read: Lowest Common Denominator)...

I read about the Poincare Conjecture over on that slashy site, but most people have no clue what that is. I just happened to major in computer science and mathematics back during my college days.

This is more "massively" newsworthy because every kid who's gone to school in the last several decades had to memorize pluto as one of the planets in the list.
posted by twiggy at 8:30 AM on August 24, 2006


.
posted by thirteenkiller at 8:31 AM on August 24, 2006




Ynoxas: I guess then I would question the value of publicizing a proposal before it was accepted.

So that participants know what is going to be discussed before the meeting? One of the ways that science works is by having these debates in coneferences, newsletters and journals rather than in smoky backrooms.

Malor: Ultimately, this whole thing has about as much actual meaning as changing the distinction between 'grade A' and 'grade AAA' eggs. It doesn't change the nature of Pluto, it just changes the (wholly made-up) category we chose for it.

One of the things that concerns me is that there is an assumption, with a complete lack of evidence to support it, that Kuiper belt objects are homogenous and uninteresting. In my opinion, this is a bit premature given that we have no idea how dynamic or interesting Pluto might be.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:32 AM on August 24, 2006


I'm very disappointed that we won't have 12 planets. I was looking forward to the new-new-age astrology in which planets are associated with our birth months.

As a May-baby, mine would have been the 5th planet, Jupiter: arguably the dopest of the Roman gods.

Comment ported from the double
posted by TimeTravelSpeed at 8:35 AM on August 24, 2006


jacquilynne: I feel like I've made this comment before but can't find it. The spelling of your name is sexy... which I realize is an incredibly odd thing to think, and odder still to say. But there you have it.

jacqui, you're confusing facts with labeling.

The sexy comment, combine with the almost immediately following use of that much hated nickname is making me very confused about whether this is one of those days when I love or hate my name.

But to address that actual point:

I'm not confusing facts with labelling, really. But think about what you were taught in grade school. The teacher probably didn't say 'Well, scientists classify large objects within solar systems in a number of distinct groups based on a variety of not entirely specific criteria, and the 9 they happened to decide to describe as planets are these.'

We get taught this stuff as "fact". That it's just labelling - somewhat arbitrary grouping that allows us to think commonly about things that are not, in fact, the same - is not something that you get into until you're far farther into a science based education. In fact, it's something a lot of people probably never touch on.

I did a student exchange in Brazil, and one of the things we were taught in geography is that there are 5 continents. It was a serious WTF?!?!11?!? moment for me, because I'd always learned there 7, and there names are... It was somewhere in there that I learned the most valuable lesson of that exchange which is that there there can be multiple perspectives on an issue and all of them can be correct. (And also that we fuck ourselves over immensely with the imprecision of language.)

If anything, I think it's more *userful* for people to hear about the Pluto re-classification on the news than the Poincare Conjecture. The vast majority will never understand Poincare, nor why it matters to them. But a story about how science evaluates and re-evaluates available information and theorizes? That extends the meta-knowledge of scientific principles and helps people learn to think in scientific ways. News they can use.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:38 AM on August 24, 2006


.
posted by grateful at 8:38 AM on August 24, 2006


They should have called it a "hobbit planet," and renamed Pluto and Charon to Frodo and Sam.
posted by moonbiter at 8:39 AM on August 24, 2006


Blow me! Your mom's a KBO!
posted by yhbc at 8:47 AM on August 24, 2006


acetonic has a good idea. Let's repeal Australia's continent status while we're at it.

Oh, and I still consider the Pterodactyl a dinosaur.
ka-KAW! ka-KAW! *flaps wildly around office*
posted by yeti at 8:48 AM on August 24, 2006


kozad: "whereas the word dwarf indicates misshapeness" -- And misshapen is one of the characteristics of Pluto. No?
"They agreed that to qualify as a planet, a celestial body must be in orbit around a star while not itself being a star. It also must be large enough in mass "for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a... nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.""
posted by ?! at 8:52 AM on August 24, 2006


This is more "massively" newsworthy because every kid who's gone to school in the last several decades had to memorize pluto as one of the planets in the list.

It's not that I'm trying to say that what we really need to do is 'Cram some real science into the plebs', it's just that this whole recategorization thing is really next to meaningless.

If say, we'd found water or life or whatever on Pluto, that would be completely different. And whether or not, in the grand scheme of things, it would have a larger effect then the solution to the Poincare conjecture is besides the point, because it's way more accessible.

However, if the layman is confronted with this (Pluto as non-planet) as some sort of important milestone in science, it will only further distort the poor picture of science that he probably already has.

(P.S.: I don't understand the Poincare conjecture either. I took a few hard math courses in university, but that's it. And even if I hadn't, I think I would still find articles like this to be both accessible and far more compelling.)
posted by Alex404 at 9:00 AM on August 24, 2006


Also, jacquilynne: I seem to think that this has nothing to offer anyone, whereas you think the exact opposite.

Of course, you're completely wrong, but it's nice that you stick to your guns.
posted by Alex404 at 9:05 AM on August 24, 2006


So that participants know what is going to be discussed before the meeting? One of the ways that science works is by having these debates in coneferences, newsletters and journals rather than in smoky backrooms.

kjs: surely they have another mechanism for communicating with conference participants and other scientists in this particular field than CNN news reports?

Dr. Killzplanetz: Oh my god! Those tyrants in Prague are considering allowing Pluto to remain a planet! The world of science will be afire by the morn! Thank you Ted Turner! Astronomy owes you a debt of gratitude. (BTW, yes I realize CNN is owned by AOL/Time Warner now.)
posted by Ynoxas at 9:05 AM on August 24, 2006


Well, I think the actual reclassificatioin of Pluto is of little scientific value or interest, so on that, I imagine we agree. I'm just trying to explain why it's newsworthy in a human interest sort of way, and what value can be derived from it being newsworthy.

I'm not sure I've noticed anyone calling this a significant milestone in the advancement of scientific thought. I'm certainly not. It's largely irrelevent scientifically speaking, but that doesn't make it not interesting to people who are not scientists.
posted by jacquilynne at 9:11 AM on August 24, 2006


I don't recall this much outcry when they added the Southern Ocean back in 2000.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 9:12 AM on August 24, 2006


Ynoxas: surely they have another mechanism for communicating with conference participants and other scientists in this particular field than CNN news reports?

Certainly, however:
1: Science journalists are paid to read trade journals and newsletters and report those results in mainstream news outlets.
2: Its generally in the best interest of scientific groups to publicize what they do in the form of press releases.

Really, what are you complaining about here? All of the pre-coverage of this issue stated in plain English that the IAU was about to vote on a contraversial reclassification.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:20 AM on August 24, 2006


This is awful; Clyde Tombaugh must be spinning in his grave!

Not spinning. Revolving. Eccentrically.
posted by pracowity at 9:34 AM on August 24, 2006


Um, Isn't the preferred and PC phrase 'Little Planets'?

Maybe, but I still want to refer to Ceres, Pluto and It's-Xena-Dammit as "midgetoids."
posted by Foosnark at 9:39 AM on August 24, 2006


kjs: I hate to say I'm even complaining. I just think that, surely, they knew something like this would be a "news story". And given that the proposal not only was rejected and no other objects promoted, but additionally Pluto was demoted, it just strikes me as odd.

I mean, surely at these conferences, like any professional gathering, there have to be proposals that are just lunacy. Those don't get discussed and picked up by the press.

To me it just seemed unusual that it was discussed so openly last week or week before last and then the true action turned out to be the polar opposite of what was promoted. That's all.

Put another way, it would be like a headline screaming "ASTRONOMERS TO VOTE ON PROPOSAL CONFIRMING ADVANCED SOCIETY ON VENUS" with several scientists quoted as to why it was this way, and that this is why the proposal would likely succeed, and then a week later adopting a position completely opposed to the first.

It was just a little surreal to go from "Solar System gains additional planets!" to "Pluto is undone".
posted by Ynoxas at 9:51 AM on August 24, 2006


Paw. Just one less I must destroy.
posted by Astro Zombie at 9:53 AM on August 24, 2006


Alex404: What jacquilynne is saying and I am agreeing with (hence I posted this) is that what's interesting is really not necessarily the reclassification itself. Rather, it's the fact that when we were all kids, we didn't know what the heck a classification was - a Planet was a Planet, and there were 9.

It's culturally interesting to see that something we were all taught as kids will no longer be taught quite the same way because something was "demoted" and no longer counts toward the list we all had to memorize. The mnemonic we all learned, "My Very Elegant Mother Just Sat Upon Nine Porcupines", is no longer valid.

It's kind of like finding out after your childhood is over that it turns out Sam does, in fact, like Green Eggs and Ham. Or maybe that the eggs were made with Egg Beaters, or something. It's not scientifically relevant, it's just interesting and kind of weird to think that something so ingrained in our school system is going to be taught differently starting today.
posted by twiggy at 9:57 AM on August 24, 2006


The mnemonic I learned for the planets was: "Mary's violet1 eyes make John2 stay up nights. [period]" Which was stupid because you had to pronounce the damned punctuation to make it work out. And forget it if they say "full stop" where you live. But now it's better for the exclusion of puny Pluto.

1 Or "velvet" -- I've heard both. Or you could use "violent" and give John a whole new reason for sleeplessness.
2 Or "Jane" for a different fantasy in science class.

posted by pracowity at 9:57 AM on August 24, 2006


I don't get mnemonics. It always seemed easier to me to just remember the damn thing, rather than remember some other things in just the right order, and ALSO remember how the other things correlate with the things you ACTUALLY want to remember.

-Roy G. Biv
posted by Mister_A at 10:00 AM on August 24, 2006


Alas, poor Pluto! I knew him, Horatio: a planet
of infinite jest, of most excellent fancy: he hath
borne me on his back a thousand times; and now, how
abhorred in my imagination it is! my gorge rims at
it. Here hung those atmospheres that I have kissed I know
not how oft. Where be your moons now? your eccentric
orbits? your solar winds? your flashes of merriment,
that were wont to set the table on a roar? Not one
now, to mock your own grinning? quite chap-fallen?
Now get you to Charon's chamber, and tell her, let
her paint an inch thick, to this favour she must
come; make her laugh at that.
posted by witchstone at 10:19 AM on August 24, 2006 [3 favorites]


Calling Pluto a 'dwarf planet', where 'dwarf planets' are not planets, is pretty odd, seeing as dwarf is being used as an adjective. I can't think of many other examples. Perhaps the astronomer wouldn't be able to sleep at night without being able to tell themselves "It's a dwarf planet, that's all, we didn't hurt it really..."
As to the definition, I think it's a little shortsighted, for the following reason: Pluto is in a resonant orbit with Neptune, so didn't clear its orbital neighbourhood, but some undiscovered extrasolar planet may be large enough to have an Earth sized or bigger object in orbital resonance. This would be a dwarf planet according to the new definition. Is the IAU banking on no one being able to discover such a thing for another 75 years?
posted by topynate at 11:13 AM on August 24, 2006


Jack Horkheimer's head looks planetoid now. Last time I saw him, I'm sure he had hair. "And keep... looking up! No, not at my head. Up there." Anyway, the caption saying that there will be 12 planets is definitely out of date now? They've voted?
posted by pracowity at 11:16 AM on August 24, 2006


The logical course of action is for Pluto, Ceres and Xena to bugger off with their Kuiper posse to the nearest white dwarf star and form their own Solar System.

Oh, it won't be a big as ours.

Or as splashy, or colourful.

But it'll be gritty, it'll be real.

and it'll rock.
posted by CynicalKnight at 11:21 AM on August 24, 2006


To me it just seemed unusual that it was discussed so openly last week or week before last and then the true action turned out to be the polar opposite of what was promoted. That's all.

[...]

It was just a little surreal to go from "Solar System gains additional planets!" to "Pluto is undone".


As far as I know, that is not what happened at all. For the sake of a brief headline, CNN and whatnot had to leave out some information, and they probably made the right choice. Both of your statements are correct. There are now eleven (maybe 12?) planets in the solar system. But they are in two separate mutually exclusive groups: the classical planets (of which we have 8: Mercury, Neptune, et al) and the dwarf planets (at least three. I'm not clear on the membership of Charon). The original proposal was for dwarf planets to be a subset of planets. Besides that, it's pretty much the same.
posted by Plutor at 11:35 AM on August 24, 2006


I don't recall this much outcry when they added the Southern Ocean back in 2000.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 12:12 PM EST on August 24 [+] [!]


Oh, come on! A Southern ocean now? 5 oceans, 8 planets, no brontosaurus?! You're killing me!

Let me guess. There are, what, 344 elements on the periodic chart now?
posted by Pastabagel at 11:40 AM on August 24, 2006


it's just interesting and kind of weird to think that something so ingrained in our school system is going to be taught differently starting today.

I can see your point, but I think we'll have to agree to disagree.

After moving from junior high, to high school, to university level science courses, it's simply no surprise to me that something I learned in school has been nonchalantly invalidated. Because first they told me atoms were atoms, then atoms were like planets with orbitals and such, and then atoms were poorly defined wave packets (or something). But maybe I'm just desensetized at this point, and am probably picking nits. Google news seems to think it's interesting enough, anyway.

I suppose there are probably analogous trivial discoveries in other fields which I don't understand, but which would blow me away, and cause the experts to sigh and sneer.
posted by Alex404 at 11:50 AM on August 24, 2006


I'm just a trans- / Neptunian / object...

</rocky-horror>
posted by SteelyDuran at 11:55 AM on August 24, 2006


I'm worried, frankly. Let's not forget what happened the last time we pissed off Pluto.

But really, I agree with Alex404 that this is whole thing has been ridiculously over-covered relative to its actual importance.
posted by whir at 12:21 PM on August 24, 2006


The worst part about this is that it will be years before the poor little guy hears anything about it...
posted by sdrawkcab at 12:23 PM on August 24, 2006


I agree with Alex404 that this is whole thing has been ridiculously over-covered relative to its actual importance.

You might want to sit down before I say this, because it's going to rock your world: there is no such thing as "actual importance." Importance, like value, sexiness, and other such concepts, is in the eye of the beholder. To a Christian, the birth of a guy named Yeshua a couple of thousand years ago is the most important event in history; to us atheists, it's meaningless except as the starting point for a whole new form of religious nonsense. To me, Starbucks espresso is supremely delicious; to a bunch of people who always show up in coffee threads, it's overroasted and nasty. If you happen to find this a big yawn because either 1) you don't give a damn about planets or 2) you moved from junior high, to high school, to university level science courses, then this is a pointless post with no information of importance. To many of us, it's a good post with interesting information. There's really no reason for either group to tell the other they're wrong (still less to go suck eggs, not that anyone's done that).

As for the mnemonic, Language Log will keep you informed. (Followups here and here, though no further mnemonics yet).
posted by languagehat at 12:45 PM on August 24, 2006


Remember, when it was first discovered, Pluto was thought to be bigger than it is because no one realized it was a binary at the time. Sorry, knowledge is not a fixed quality, and is only as good as the observations and data used to form it. New information leads to new knowledge; this change was overdue since Charon was resolved.

I'm still not clear on the whole "dwarf" planet thing; a dwarf star is a star, so a dwarf planet really is a planet? And is Ceres both an asteroid and a dwarf planet, or are the two mutually exclusive? Also, there seems to be some sort of flap about the whole "clearing your orbit of asteroids" thing, since most planets have rocks at their LaGrange points; but this strikes me as bickering and not real hardcore science.
posted by Eideteker at 1:12 PM on August 24, 2006


The fucked up part is that Pluto is still out there, doing it's thing.
posted by jon_kill at 1:15 PM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


But what did they decide about planets that sit in exact same orbit on opposite sides of the sun?

I understand the wistful nostalgia for what we learned in school, but every generation goes through these events. Imagine how your grandparents reacted when told there were nine planets!
posted by ?! at 1:45 PM on August 24, 2006


.
posted by sperose at 1:54 PM on August 24, 2006


This decision affects me very deeply.

When I was a little kid, and all the planets were peopled by the fruits of my imagination, Pluto was the one where the ceaseless clashing of toy soldier drums drove the oaring of legion Barbies around and around the seas. They did it for the cruelty of the thing, working the dolls until their fair plastic bodies could take no more. On and on they went, circling that distant ball until the day of reckoning when the slate was wiped clean and the universe started afresh. Nothing this group of tweed-jacketed academes can ever say will change that.

My parents were concerned.
posted by kfx at 3:05 PM on August 24, 2006 [1 favorite]


You might want to sit down before I say this, because it's going to rock your world: there is no such thing as "actual importance."

When relativism becomes gospel, I'll buy into what you're saying, but it's not that convincing right now. Yes, there are different perspectives on matters, but presumably, a lay person's understanding of science is quite objectively less then that of a scientist. Insofar as this level of coverage is vastly out of proportion with the event in question in the sense that this event means jack to any scientist, something seems slightly amiss.

A lot of people thought that wall to wall coverage of MJs trial was critical, but there's something pretty fucked up about that too. On some level, what's reported to the general public should be a little more relavent, and should be chosen on better criteria then what makes good cocktail party conversation.

And fuck Starbucks coffee.
posted by Alex404 at 3:09 PM on August 24, 2006


Also, I wasn't saying this wasn't a good post, as I've liked many a youtube post. I just don't like the way the media is presenting the content of the post's importance.
posted by Alex404 at 3:10 PM on August 24, 2006


Who cares about this, I'm still pissed about when they sent the probe to Uranus 20-25 years ago all the TV news people changed the pronunciation from 'your anus' to 'ur aaan us' thus destroying interest in astronomy for generations going forward because junior high kids across America could relish the joy of a young Dan Rather going on about the PROBE TO URANUS
posted by mss at 3:52 PM on August 24, 2006


jacquilynne: Sorry you don't like that short form, I was just lazy about typing. The way it's spelled makes it scan like two distinct names, so I was just using the first. I'll try to be better in future.

This whole thing is interesting as far as categorization goes, but I'm sure that some people are saying, "See? science is ALL WRONG, they can't even get PLANETS right!" I realize you didn't say that, but I heard that message lurking behind your words.

Teaching children is basically giving them a series of approximations, which we redefine and improve over the years as they go further and further. Only elementary-schoolers are just given the '9 planets' thing without any additional qualifications. My high school was very clear that Pluto was a little different, with no atmosphere and in a very strange orbit. I'm pretty sure my instructor even got into the debate a bit about whether Pluto should even be considered a planet, although it's been long enough that I'm not completely sure. I KNOW my college instructor talked about that at length.

So yes, this is a good illustration that our categorization of things is often rather sloppy and can usually be improved. It's not a condemnation of science, but a demonstration of the scientific method.

Nor is it a particular condemnation of teaching children that there are nine planets. The closer you look, the more detail you get. Should it be 'four inner planets and four outer planets'? Should it be 'four rocky planets and four gas giants'? '9 planets' was a pretty good overview.

Today's decision was, more than anything else, politics, not science. The only reasonable definition that included Pluto would end up with at least 12 planets, and they didn't want that. Demoting Pluto was the least unpleasant choice. I'm not honestly sure it's good science... the adopted wording doesn't read well. It's pretty much an arbitrary definition to avoid adding any more planets. It even explicitly says that it's a definition for our solar system only... the weird rules they chose don't apply to any other solar systems.

Sure sounds like politics to me.
posted by Malor at 3:53 PM on August 24, 2006


This was discussed on NPR's All Things Considered today. One listener who wrote in pointed out that this makes Holst's The Planets accurate again.
posted by DevilsAdvocate at 4:11 PM on August 24, 2006


I realize you didn't say that, but I heard that message lurking behind your words.

Then get your hearing checked.

That science constantly rethinks things rationally and retheorizes and check and rechecks itself as new information becomes available is what I love and respect about it. Yes, it certainly can be interpreted in the monumentally stupid way you've noted, and no doubt will be by some people. But allow me to 100% guarantee that I'm not one of them.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:13 PM on August 24, 2006


I usually frown on people putting images in threads, but...

posted by nightchrome at 4:19 PM on August 24, 2006


My world... shaking! It must be being rocked, but by whom?

Seriously, though, while I agree with you about importance being relative, languagehat, I'm with Alex404 on this. It just seems completely irrelevant to any actual work that actual astronomers would do, including those who study Pluto or the planets.

This is reinforced for me by the fact that the final definition of "planet" is limited to objects circling our sun--extrasolar objects need not apply--and that it would have disqualified Neptune except for a footnote which lists everything that is a planet (raising the question of what purpose the rest of the "definition" has). Science marches on!

(Also: I didn't mean to imply that this post itself was uninteresting. I just think the media coverage around this involves a lot of mountains being made from molehills.)
posted by whir at 6:19 PM on August 24, 2006


It just seems completely irrelevant to any actual work that actual astronomers would do

Well, yeah, and I wouldn't expect actual astronomers to pay any attention to this "news." But so what? Most of us here aren't astronomers, or even scientists, and we find it quite interesting; for us, it's "important" in some sense. I'm glad you guys liked the post, though, even if what's important to us puny laymen isn't "really" important.
posted by languagehat at 6:22 PM on August 24, 2006


Puny laymen! WHIR SMASH!
posted by whir at 6:49 PM on August 24, 2006



posted by cenoxo at 7:05 PM on August 24, 2006


whir: and that it would have disqualified Neptune except for a footnote which lists everything that is a planet

Just for clarification - how would the definition have disqualified Neptune? From your Wikipedia link:
(1) A "planet" [1] is a celestial body that: (a) is in orbit around the Sun, (b) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (c) has cleared the neighbourhood around its orbit.
(and of course, footnote [1] lists the planets.)

Okay, so Neptune's got the orbit thing down, and its shape is pretty durn round (its equatorial and polar diameters are within 2% of each other, a better ratio than for Jupiter and Saturn, and about the same as Uranus). Are they saying it hadn't 'cleared its neighbourhood' by not having eaten Pluto/Charon already? That'd be awfully unfair, given we seem to hear about asteroids coming perilously close to Earth every other week (okay, so it's every other year, I exaggerate).
posted by hangashore at 8:02 PM on August 24, 2006


(Disclaimer: I am certainly no astronomer, and I got this information from an interview on the radio earlier today, maybe on the NPR show that was mentioned earlier.)

As I understand it, the quibble is indeed with the fact that Pluto/Charon's continued existence means that Neptune has not, in fact, cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.

Again, IANAA, but I would guess that clearing the neighborhood would refer to other big rocks in roughly the same orbit, which would cover Pluto but not a random asteroid hurtling towards Earth from the inky darkness of space.
posted by whir at 8:53 PM on August 24, 2006


Malor: Bingo. I've never understood why 8 is the magic number for planets, or why the possibility of dozens of planets becomes "too complex." It's like early cartographers looking at the horizon and declaring that it would be just too complex if there was more to the world than Egypt, Europe and the Holy Land. Or astronomers saying that it's too complex to talk about galaxies and globular clusters.

I suppose the planet/dwarf planet is a compromise between the folks who see clearing the neighborhood around its orbit as important, and the people who see hydrostatic equilbrium as important.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:56 PM on August 24, 2006


Bumper stickers: HONK IF PLUTO IS STILL A PLANET [via Boing-Boing].
posted by cenoxo at 10:16 PM on August 24, 2006


The following is an accurate chronology of eritain's reaction to the news on Pluto. Names have been changed to protect the innocent.

upon hearing the news: About time.

after twenty minutes or so: Ha ha! The usurper is fallen! Take that, miserable little wannabe planet! Long live the revolution!

upon further reflection: Four terrestrial and four gaseous planets PROVE the Four Corners of Nature's Harmonic Time Cube! Singularity Plutonists are Educated Stupid. The four terrestrial/gaseous Plantery Pairs CONDEMN the Plutists as Monpkey Brain purveyors of Solar Systematic LIES. The solar system they preach is Hell.
posted by eritain at 11:53 PM on August 24, 2006


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