Just what is a planet anyway?

24 August 2006

Prague

International Astronomical Union conference

424 votes

A planet falls from the solar system.

I grew up with nine planets (refer to the above picture from a grade 3 project of mine), and while I’ll admit it still feels kind of odd to hear there are currently eight planets in our solar system, that’s just science, history and life.

Firstly, lets get the facts out of the way. Pluto was discovered in 1930 by a young American Clyde Tombaugh and classified the ninth planet in our solar system. Pluto’s planetary status has always been tenuous as it had characteristics unlike other planets in our solar system, such as a sharper orbital angel and, above all, its pretty freaking small. Jump ahead 76 years, the conflict over Pluto’s planethood had reached a frenzied climax, resulting in a vote by the International Astronomical Union to determine a proper definition of what is a “planet” (come on guys sort yourselves out, you’ve had over two thousand years since the ancient Greeks coined the term planet and only now you think it might be good idea to actually define it). Then, having voted on who should and shouldn’t be a planet, Pluto was told to beat it, square.

What I enjoy most from this incident were the way people, particularly academics, responded on Pluto’s behalf both before and after this decision (for a full account read The Pluto Files). There is perhaps nothing I enjoy more than seeing professional academics, professors, scientists, scholars, whoever, acting like petulant children (and I am sure I will not be able to resist the urge to write about more academic royal rumbles), and here were battlelines drawn by those who it would seem would much rather be seen as scientifically dumb than Pluto be anything other than a planet. Academics vehemently argued for years over this question to the point where it seemed to become not a question of science, rather sentimentality. I mean, Pluto is a planet because that’s what I’ve grown up with, right? For some, this debate did not make good science, nor politics as it turned out. Two separate US states attempted to pass bills, after Pluto’s demotion, that would see Pluto recognised as a planet within their proud borders (in their defence the championing of planetary rights is a noble one; shove-off human rights!). The majority of the general public’s flak was directed towards astrophysicist Dr Neil deGrasse Tyson who ignited events after he did not include Pluto in a exhibit at the Hyden Planetarium, and if you have ever worked or even interacted with the general public you know how calm and thoroughly reasonable they can be. One particularly humorous letter to Dr Tyson crowned Pluto’s planethood, why, you ask, “because I said so that’s why!” (written with a genuine authority we should all aspire to).

We humans really love to classify things; that’s a shoe, that’s a sock, is that a sandwich? While I get that this is a necessity, we categorise things so as to analyse and understand them, but for some reason people become completely block headed when faced with the smallest change to their orderings. Rather than writing about the death of planet Pluto, what I guess I am really writing about is how people get hung up over labels or definitions and when something comes along that could upset these, even if it’s backed by objective evidence, people take things personally and argue (which as I have said I do often find hilarious). I think that words, categories and classifications always have blurry edges that can bleed into other areas if you look hard enough, so I guess what this shows is that language is an imprecise tool, so why quibble over the small stuff?

Back to the point at hand, Pluto not being a planet doesn’t make it any less cool way out there at the edge of the solar system, and what does it matter? It will never be as cool as Mars anyway.

All hail Mars!


Tyson, ND 2010, The Pluto files: the rise and fall of America’s favourite planet, W.W. Norton Company.

An alternative title for this post: You’ve got one heavenly body, Pluto.

I thought this was too funny not to share. Why this is funny you ask? It’s a pun isn’t it? Some sort of wordplay, clever at least? Well, it is words, and that’s something!

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