Monday, December 13, 2010

Annoying words: Planet, and company, pt.1

Part of a continuing (I hope?) series called
The consequences of equivocation in scientific rhetoric.
(or, Words that both freaking Annoy Me and allow other Jerks to Annoy Me, and why I think Someone should do Something about it before I get more Annoyed)

Please read the premise for all these "annoying word" posts at this link right here.
Special note: 
This Annoying Word problem is a bit different than for most of the Annoying Words.  Most of the words I'm thinking of for this series are those which truly mean one thing to the scientific community and another subtly, but crucially different thing to the public at large.

This one's different.

This one's about a word that kept losing its meaning over time.  And, in my opinion, has become laden with so much weight and confusion that it just looks like a problem to me.

I don't know if anyone else agrees, but I have my reasons for thinking this way.

And also, too, it's my freaking blog so I can share my own opinions, even if they are dumb. 

Remember Pluto!

Do you? Yeah, I do.

Short version of that whole bizarre episode:
  • Some astronomers decided that Pluto is not planety enough to be a planet.
  • Ultimately, they proclaim that not only is not a planet, but is, in fact, a "Dwarf".
  • The general public, at least in the United States, freaked the frak out.

On the side of the public reaction to the Putocolypse, it seemed as if people started getting mad at "those scientists" either for
  1. forcing the public to swallow whatever these "elites" from on high proclaim as the new truth, 
  2. yet again changing what they say is true.  "Just like when they said oat bran helped with good cholesterol and then turned around and said it didn't.  Same thing!", or
  3. being mean to a rock.

Astronomer Neil deGrasse Tyson - who is the most engaging communicator of astronomy, physics, and science in general - recounts the public reaction to his role in the whole thing with his book, The Pluto Files: The Rise and Fall of America's Favorite Planet.  He also had a show on Nova about the situation which was informative, humorous, and a even little bit touching.

While he was the first to catch grief about Plutoid abuse,  Dr. Tyson was not responsible for the word "Dwarf".  However, astronomer Mike Brown, self-described "Pluto-killer", is... at least to some extent.

Dr. Brown also just released a new book, How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, which sounds to be a gleeful account of a man with Plutonian blood on his hands.  Not surprisingly, Dr. Tyson thanks Dr. Brown for being the new target of hate-mail from 3rd graders.

What is it that Pluto isn't?

Now, looking back on it all, I really am starting to feel that this was a big stink about nothing but words:

Astronomers got hung up on definitions.
People got hung up on scientists changing the meaning of a word without even (in their minds) an explanation.

Of course, there were explanations.  A lot of them.

But the reasoning about what the problem was with Pluto was - to my mind - all over the place: Pluto's too small to be a Planet, it has too weird an orbit, its moon is too close its own size,  it's too far away, or it's got too many other space objects near it to be a Planet.

It started to remind me of when I was a kid and a teacher decided to really dislike a student in the class.  Once the decision had been made that the kid was a bad egg, then any and every transgression, no matter how minor, was continuing proof of the student's badness, by definition:

"You were one minute late! Typical.  You stay for detention!"
"But Jack was five minutes late and you didn't say anything to him!"
"Yes, but he isn't a bad student like you!"

But really, the source of this Pluto angst was nothing more than disagreement about what a being "Planet" actually meant.  In 2006, a large group of astronomers decided to try its hand at a clearly defining the word "Planet" and decide whether Pluto fit into this definition.

But the more I read about it, I find the solution they devised to be a lot less than satisfying.

And it doesn't have anything to do with Pluto.

So what's my beef?

Words wander, too

To start with, let's understand where the problem started.

Back before telescopes, all anyone knew about the sky was that there were lots and lots of stars which never shifted in relation to one another.  It was like there was a giant rotating sphere, surrounding our world, with the stars painted on it.  This star was always just so far from that star - always.  The constellations never altered.  The Big Dipper never turned into the Big Diaper.

But... there were a small number of other star-like things which were different.  They did move without any care for the position of some constellation or star.  They looked as if they wandered around over the years, each following their own independent paths.  And so, in Ancient Greece, they were given the name of planítis, which means "wanderer".  So there's the meaning of "Planet".

What people were actually seeing were objects that orbit the Sun.  The only reason they could see those planets is that they were big enough, when lit up by the Sun, to just be seen as shining points in the night sky.

Well, that was all fine then.

But, now we know that, if it were possible to see all the objects that orbit the sun while we looked up at the night sky, we would see - at least - thousands of "Planets".

Yet we don't call them Planets, because they weren't part of the original crew.*

They still are indeed "wanderers" to us, since they do all orbit the Sun. But they don't really have that big planety feel to them. So, as these things were discovered, we made up other names for these other types of wanderers.

Asteroids, Comets, Centaurs, Trojans, trans-Neptunian bits and pieces...

The first two we all probably have heard about. The others were new to me until I bothered to look up the Solar System in Wikipedia.

But while these names are pretty, they don't tell the uninitiated much about what they really are.

Also confusing matters, some of these objects are defined mainly by what they are made of, others by where they happen to hang out in the Solar System,  and others still by a combination of location and weird behavior.

And then there were these almost-Planety things that a lot of people really didn't want to call planets.
Did you know know that it isn't just Pluto?  There are five rocks already in the class:  CeresHaumea, Makemake, Eris, join Pluto as not-quite-good-enoughs, and there appear to be a few more that might fit into this fuzzy category depending on what further study shows.

If Pluto was going to be called a planet, then why not the others?  Instead of the nine planets we had, why shouldn't we just go ahead and say there are 13 planets... and counting? 

I wonder if that's what was getting some astronomers' goats about Pluto.  I mean, on its own, Pluto was harmless.  But maybe the idea, that any large hunk of junk that happened to float by might have to be admitted into the gated community of Planethood, might have been a bit too much to swallow.

Well, for whatever reasons, in response to both the "what is Pluto" debate and the growing zoo of names for space things, the International Astronomical Union made decided to make a new set of classifications for the Things in the Solar System.

The Great Planetary Purge 

Well, the IAU (why on earth aren't they calling themselves the Astro-Union? That has 50s sci-fi cool written all over it!) grouped the entire Solar System into 3 large classes of Sun-orbiting objects (Moons, since they orbit some other rock or gas-ball and not the Sun, aren't included in this.  They are simply property of their local rock or gas-ball):

1) The eight "Planets": Men Very Early Make Jars Stand Up Neatly**
2) The five (and counting) Pluto-like bodies that no one knew what to do with.
3) Everything else.

Really it would totally work!

For the all-important status of "Planet", the Astro-Union - oh, ok, fine! - the IAU made this definition.  A Planet is:
  • something that orbits the local star 
  • is big enough to have been push-pulled into a spherical shape 
    • it's a gravity-ish thing: basically, when something is big enough it's going to start becoming somewhat round.  I only really understand half of it, myself.
  • doesn't have any other celestial body (other than its own moons) orbiting anywhere nearby.
That last point is where the not-good-enough rocks fall short, it seems: They all have other big chunks of crap floating around nearby.

Apparently, these are the bachelors, the boys-not-yet-men, the Oscar Madisons of the Solar System***. They just live in their tiny low-rent apartments with all sorts of trash laying around and they sure as heck can't be bothered to pick any of it up, what do they look like, their mother?  I'm sure over the holiday break they bring their laundry in a big celestial bag for the Sun to do for them.

Evidently astronomers have something against slobs, so, just like mom saying "this is why we can't have nice things!", sloppy living is why these five can't be planets.

But they need to be called something.

Now, since the IAU knew that some people felt a bit put out by all the talk of banning Pluto from the League of Planets, I imagine that was taken into account when coming up with a name for Pluto and its brethren.

So they called them "Dwarf Planets"... ...


Really? Really.

Was "munchkin" too heavily copyrighted or were you just trying to stick with a Disney theme?

OK, forget the purely emotional slap of that word choice. Clearly, someone was getting a kick out of seeing the Pro-Pluto-Planet faction with steam coming out of their ears, so we can just accept this as par for the course.

But even just for the logically inclined there's something annoying about this naming system:

There are such things as Dwarf Stars.  They are part of the larger great family called, er... Stars.****
But Dwarf Planets are not allowed to be referred to as planets - unless you remember to yell "Dwarf!!!" first.

(Think about if we did that to people.  "I'm a person!" "Yeah a DWARF person!"  That's what's extra annoying about this one.  It's a weird combination of a bit of illogic and innuendo.)

So then, what the heck IS a Planet?  What is it that Pluto, Ceres, and the like, are Dwarfs OF?

Really, you might as well just call the Feeble Five "Spams" for as much sense as the naming system makes.  (again, only my humble opinion)

My Cunning Plan

Which got me to thinking...

Neil Tyson once mentioned he was quite fond how astronomers often name things simply: Many words in Astronomy are pretty easy to get, because they use basic words to describe how something looks or acts.  Black holes are light-less spots, Red Dwarf Stars are small (for stars) and red, and so on.

We know so much about the Solar System: the shapes, sizes, physical makeup, and so on, of thousands (or even millions?) of bodies orbiting the Sun.  Because of this, I think we know enough to both simplify the naming of these things and solve the question of "what is a Planet?" once and for all!

And we all know that whenever someone says he is about to take care of something "once and for all!", he's about to propose something evil...

"So what is your plan?"
"Well, shouldn't it be obvious?  I want nothing less than to change the names of everything in the Solar System."  (strokes kitty)
"You're mad!  The Astro-Union will never let you get away with this!"
"Really? Your Astro-Union couldn't even define a word without being logically inconsistent (in my evilly humble opinion, of course) Do you really think they can stop an Evil Plan?"
"Well, what is your plan?"
"Hmmm... Of course, you won't escape my overly-involved method of me killing you, so I might as well tell you every detail.  My plan is many fold, but it begins with the word Planet."
"You bastard!  You're proposing to redefine that word again?"

"No, you misunderstand.  I don't wish to redefine the word "Planet".
I wish to annihilate the very word of  "Planet".  Once.  And for all!"

DAH! DAH! DAH! (drumdrumdrum) DAH! DAH! DAH! (drumdrumdrum) 

(er... this means I'll explain what I mean in part 2.  Of course, part twos are always less satisfying than part ones.  They can never live up to the heightened expectations.)

And here's the thrilling conclusion right here!!  Part Two!


* Actually, a couple of late-comers got in:  Uranus and Neptune couldn't be seen until the last few few centuries but were allowed into the old-boys club.

** Well, that's why *I* was told their names were when I was a kid.  Apparently the names are actually Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.   I know of no other person who used this particular mnemonic for the planets.  I still think it's the best.  By the way, "Period" was used for Pluto.  See!  This one still works even if we nuked Saturn through Neptune!

*** Oh god!  I'm scared to know how many people out there don't know who Oscar Madison is.  Sigh... I'm old.

**** I thought I'd seen Dr. Brown use this analogy, but my Google skilz are sorely lacking: can't find it.


  1. Glad you wrote about Pluto - it definitely deserves to be on your list, and it'll always be a planet in my book.

    That said, one really, really great thing came out of the Plutocalypse: the Jonathan Coulton song "I'm Your Moon." There - I've given away the song's secret, but I had to.


  2. "it'll always be a planet in my book."

    Ah, as my ending makes clear(ish), after I get done with things, there won't BE any planets...

    ((Strokes kitty again)) ((Maniacal laugh))