Wishing Doesn''t Make It So

Image by Mathias Pedersen.
Last week, the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics held a debate on Pluto's dwarf planet designation, which is a bit like having a debate about climate change: it wrongly suggests that there is an apposing side. In this instance, the bug in people's shorts is semantics: what constitutes a planet? Well, luckily for us, we have science and the International Astronomical Union to turn to to provide us that answer. Their criteria for planethood is: a planet is a celestial body which:

  1. is in orbit around the Sun,
  2. has sufficient mass to assume hydrostatic equilibrium (a nearly round shape), and
  3. has "cleared the neighbourhood" around its orbit.

This definition was clarified in 2006, in response to the Pluto debate. The term "dwarf planet" was created to refer to those objects which only fulfill the first two criteria, and frankly I feel that the term "dwarf planet" is being overly generous. The simple truth is that Pluto should never have been called a planet in the first place, that in comparison to the other larger bodies in the Solar System, and to the other smaller bodies known at the time, Pluto is at best an especially stable comet and at worst an overly eccentric rogue moon. But in 1930, there was such a mean on to discover the fabled Planet X, that as soon as Pluto was spotted, it was all media attention and rushed judgement (everyone knows science functions best when done both quickly and at the behest of an impatient populace). It certainly should have been downgraded long before 2006. The 1978 discover of Charon should have been more of a force for admission of error than it ultimately was.

At this debate last week, a non scientific poll was taken of the audience, who voted overwhelmingly that Pluto is still a planet. This conformed to debate participate Harvard science historian Owen Gingerich's position that as a term, "planet is more culturally defined than scientifically." I would agree in principle to this, but that does not mean that popular opinion gets to start dictating scientific direction. A reasonable comparison would be the Brontosaurs. Just because people keep using that word doesn't mean the creature ever existed, and doesn't make them any less wrong. The danger with popularism is that just that: it's based on what's popular. And I'm sorry, but the only decisions that should be made based on popular opinion should be who wins American Idol and who gets voted into political office. You know, insignificant stuff.

For everything else, we have method and reasonable deduction, and educated experience, AKA science. And even science can admit that it got things wrong, once it has the data to adequately refute a previously held claim. And every piece of information we've gathered form our long nights looking up into the dark sky since Pluto was discovered has told us that it isn't a planet, not on the same level as Earth, or Jupiter, or even Mercury. We're not giving those guys a pass just because they are grandfathered in. There is no heritage immunity in science. Those are heavy hitters, they earned their designation. From what we've learned about the sizes of planets in other Solar Systems, one day we might have to re-designate anything smaller than Jupiter a true dwarf planet. And where will that leave Pluto? Same as it is today: an ice cube with really good PR.

Via The Mary Sue.
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About MR. Clark

Adopting the descriptor of "successfully unpublished author", MR. Clark began writing things on the internet in 2012, which he believed to be an entirely reputable and civilized place to find and deliver information. He regrets much.

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