Plutophants in Disarray

I’ll say one thing: Not having a coherent scientific theory can lead to factionalization.

Strains appeared today among the Plutophants, as many among their number were dismayed by the latest IAU attempt to keep Pluto a planet. The new transparently plutophantic scheme involved no less than four categories of planets:

1. Terrestrial
2. Gas Giant
3. Dwarf Non-Pluton (a special class for Ceres, formerly an asteroid)
4. Dwarf Pluton (for literally dozens of ice dwarfs)

Or something like that. No one’s really sure if you have to say “dwarf pluton,” or whether all plutons are automatically dwarfs, or whatever.

Appropriately, those of us following the Pluto issue have also spilt into four categories, the Pluto-haytas (who will win) and three groups of fractured plutophants.

For those of you following at home, here’s a quick rundown:

1. The No Iceball Left Behind Group

The NILBies are the bunch who officially won today. They produced the bizarre scheme above, following the philosophy that planet-ness is primarily all about roundness. Asteroids, ice balls, whatever—if it’s big enough for its own gravity to squish it into a sphere, but not so big it undergoes fusion (becoming a sun), and it’s not a moon, it’s a planet.

Many Plutophants were happy at first, because this means that Pluto and UB313 are definitely planets. But soon the scales fell from their eyes, and they realized that the NILBie victory spells doom to Pluto in the long run.

Why? Because it means scores of trans-Neptunian planets will appear almost instantly. Like a sweaty Joe McCarthy, the IAU brandished a lit of 43 known plutons, and admitted they have a secret list of dozens more.

This is your solar system:

This is your solar system on NILBie:


Of course, not all Plutophants want the nonsensical scribbles above, which brings me to:

2. The Culture Vultures

The Vultures are a hardy band of simple folk who believe that the mnemonics of their childhood are in fact the laws of the universe. Oh, sure, they make claims about “planets” being a “cultural” term, because, you know, science changes, but culture has always been the same.

The Vultures are sort of like those people who think that popular music was perfected while they were in high school, and wonder why all these new bands even exist.

So Pluto will never change in their lifetime, anymore than Supertramp can ever be replaced.

They’re happy with the current mess, thinking that as the clearly insane NILBies inflate the term “planet” to meaninglessness, the rest of culture will fearfully retreat to the warm glowing warmth of the “nine historical planets.”

That’s their new buzzword, “Nine historical planets.”

Because, like, history stops in 2006?

The Vultures seem to forget that our culture:
Once called the sun and moon “planets”;
Once called whales “fish” (see the King James and Moby Dick);
Once used the word “animal” to refer solely to non-human animals.

In all of these cases, the scientific usage ultimately won. Maybe people sometimes say, “Delta doesn’t allow animals onboard.” But asked to define animal, they’ll admit to the scientific definition after a moment’s thought. And anyone who says that whales are fish, or the sun a planet, is pretty quickly shouted down.

If scientists start saying “eight planets” a lot, so will the rest of us. We listen to scientists, at least when it comes to stuff like planets. That’s part of our, you know, culture.

More on that later. Because here’s our final Plutophantic faction:

3. The UB313 Guy

This is a faction of one: Mike Brown.

He’s one of the guys who discovered UB313, which will be made a planet under the new NILBie scheme. But he realizes all too well that his discovery will be made much less interesting, given that 50-something other planets will appear with the same stroke of the pen. (He coined the “No Iceball Left Behind” slur.)

In the NY Times today, he freely admits that eight planets is the logical scientific number. But then he rhapsodizes a bit about the Culture Vulture argument, with one slight change . . .

He thinks UB313 should be a planet, too.

I’m biased, but I like to imagine this question through the eyes of the child I was in the 1970’s . . . If I had heard back then about the discovery of something at the edge of the solar system, I wouldn’t have waited for a body of astronomers to tell me what it was. I would have immediately cut out a little disk of white paper and taped it to the poster of planets on my bedroom wall. That night, I would have looked up, straining to see the latest addition to our solar system, hoping that I, too, might someday find a new planet.

I hope the union . . . simply declares 2003 UB313 our 10th, full-fledged planet. Doing so might convince schoolchildren to put new paper disks on their walls, to look up to the sky and realize that exploration does continue, and that they can be part of it, too.

Well, except they can’t, Mike, because it’s pretty much all iceballs from here on out.*

But at least your iceball wouldn’t be left behind.

Which brings us to . . .

4. The Pluto-Haytas

So while the Plutophants are crumbling into disarray, what does head Pluto-hayta Neil deGrasse Tyson have to say?

“A Plutophile is well served by this definition,” he said. “It is one of the few that allow you to utter Pluto and Jupiter in the same breath.”


Dissing aside, though, here’s my new plan: Let’s get rid of Pluto by whatever means necessary. It’s a friggin’ iceball, okay? Let’s keep saying “eight classic planets” until everyone drops the “classic.”

But before we define the word “planet” for all times and all places, why not wait until we have observed ten or so other solar systems in their entirety? Out there in the rest of the galaxy, there may be all kinds of crazy stuff:

Multiple accretion disks!
Ice-worlds big enough to impress even me!
Objects that aren’t round, but are still totally planets!
Captured rogue gas giants with wacky orbits!

We just don’t know yet. And we don’t want to wind up like the ancients who thought the sun was a planet, until they figured out that we went around it. And we don’t want to wind up with a bunch of lame iceballs lumped in with the cool stuff, just because of the pathetic Plutophants.

This ain’t about your bedroom walls, kiddies, it’s about the universe. So let’s get some more of the universe under our belts before making final judgements.

So Pluto’s not a planet. It’s an iceball. Deal.

37 thoughts on “Plutophants in Disarray

  1. I still like Pluto, and I think you are working yourself up a bit too much over this. You could have a heart attack, really.

  2. scott: aren’t you supposed to be writing a book?

    okay, just kidding. i actually find all this interesting, although i do tend to laugh a bit while reading your blog entries. and i was in hysterics watching the video of “you” being eaten. mostly, though, i’m interested not because i am on one side or the other in the arguement over pluto’s future, but because i’m curious about what my future children will be taught in school regarding the planets of our solar system. and if they’ll come home telling me they learned a very cool saying to remember the names of the planets: my very eager mother just served us nachoes. 😉

  3. Ok this has absolutely nothing to do w/ Pluto being a planet… but I just finished reading New Moon by Stephenie Meyer, and I was on her wesbite ( under the news section and just happened to read about this

    “Despite all my virtuous intentions, I did almost no work, which was probably good for my mental health. I also got a chance to really read for the first time in a very long time. Since people often ask me for book recommendations, I will share with you my favorites from the summer:

    “Uglies, Pretties, and Specials by Scott Westerfeld—I can’t recommend this series highly enough. I only brought Uglies and Pretties with me, so I had to have Amazon ship Specials to my rental house overnight. I plan to read his Midnighters series on my next plane ride.”


  4. You are awesome.

    Pluto should have been allowed to speak English like everyone else. After all, Goofy was a dog and he spoke it! Besides which, a DOG owned by a MOUSE?

    Specials rocked my world. I want to do the audio book. At least of the last two pages.

  5. Scientific consensus doesn’t always carry the day. Brontosaurus is still Brontosaurus, despite a brave (and, SFAIK, taxonomically correct) struggle to change the name to Apatosaurus.

    In other astronomical controversies: This is probably a good place to ask whether Jupiter and Saturn, with their oodles of moons, are still considered stillborn star systems, or has that very intriguing idea been debunked?

  6. Get rid of it by any means nessesary, huh? Giant laser cannon lol!

    On to a more serious topic, I was under the impression that there are no other solar systems. Sol is the name of this system’s sun, I think, therefor making this the only solar system.

  7. Is our sun really named Sol? I totally never knew that.

    But yeah. Pluto seems a little shady to me. Because it’s so small, mostly. Erm. I’m not educated enough to have any say with this topic. But I was in Barnes and Noble today and your books were just like ALL OVER THE PLACE. I turn around and bam. Scott Westahfelldd.

  8. I am not in favor of having forty-gajillion new “planets.” If that means Pluto has to go, I’ll live with it. But, jeez, people! That’s insane. AT LEAST do the “minor planets” thing and don’t force us to memorize all those little iceballs.

  9. There’s a very simple test: if we’re not sure about a particular “planet” we should drop it into the Sun. If it grows a tail, it’s a comet; if not, it was a planet.

    Ta-dah! Problem solved.

  10. I Pluto. I know, I know. It’s got an eccentric orbit out of the solar plane. It’s an iceball. But, well, it has historic importance. It’s been a planet. It needs to be grandfathered, even if we redefine planet in some otherwise Pluto-exclusive fashion. Call me romantic. Love is cold. And icy.

  11. Dude!
    >So let’s get some more of the universe under our belts before making final judgements.

    Eminently reasonable.

    > So Pluto’s not a planet. It’s an iceball. Deal.

    Sounds like a “final judgement” to me.

    I propose (and found) a new group, the Heisenbergies, who assert that you can’t simultaneously know where an astronomical object is, it’s vector, and whether it’s a plaent or not.

    More seriously, the word “planet” is only useful to the extent that there’s some of level of consensus as to what it means, so if I say “planet” you don’t think I meant “pineapple.”

    As you point out with “animal,” there are many instances in which the official scientific definition of a term varies from the general use definition (or even the definition in other scientific disciplines. So maybe in general use, “planet” means the big thing you can see with the naked eye (w/ Uranus, Neptune and Pluto maybe grandfathered in for historical/cultural reasons) and there are 7-9 of them, and in scientific use there are several dozen… well, that’s obviously a big deal to the people whose careers rest on their ability to nudge that sort of thing one way or the other, but is it really worth a big knicker-twist for the rest of us?

  12. From above:So maybe in general use, “planet” means the big thing you can see with the naked eye (w/ Uranus, Neptune and Pluto maybe grandfathered in for historical/cultural reasons) and there are 7-9 of them, and in scientific use there are several dozen…

    See from where? The Earth? The surface of the local sun? I bet it’s easy to see Pluto with the naked eye if you’re standing on it. Also, see with what, the human eye? What if the visual acuity (or local variant) of a native Plutonian is such that they can’t “see” even Jupiter without mechanical aid, does that mean that it’s not a planet?

    Definitions are such tricky things…

  13. people dont consider midgets non-human just becuase they are very small, we should do the same with pluto.

  14. Ah, the ancient dilemma between the lumpers and the splitters. In Biological Anthropology World, they’re arguing about the number of past human species. In the world of astronomy, they seem to be arguing about ice balls and orbits.

    There was a time when everybody was a lumper, and we had about five different hominid species. Then that went out of style and the splitters took over and we had about a hundred. It’s all about what’s ‘in’. So us lumpers, Scott. We can sit back and wait for culture to swing our way again.

    Down with Pluto!

  15. I for one think that Pluto should still be considered a planet, for one simple reason only: My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas. Pluto will prevail!

  16. LooLoo, you’ll be glad to know that 64% of people agree with you that KittenWar is cuter than CatsInSinks.

    Back to the Pluto issue: Little Willow brings up a good point: Pluto doesn’t have the same general specs as Goofy, Mickey, et. al., but still has a place as a continuing, if minor and eccentric, character, a “minor planet” if you will. Obviously this is pro-Pluto propaganda from the Disney corporation.

  17. I think that the NILBies are just secret mythology buffs. They are bothered that only 8 of the Greek/Roman gods are represented, and thus will not stop until there is a heavenly body for every god, titan, nymph, Monster (any non-human immortal entity; i.e. Gorgon, Harpie, Centaur), satyr, and Hero.

  18. Uh…..yeah. You know what? I just found something more important than bickering about planetary vaguities. Feeding the hungry people. Why worry about Pluto’s status, anyway? Do the plutonians want voting rights, or something? Just a thought.

    Wait…is vaguities a word? Let’s hold a great conference concerning that!

  19. why was mickey in space?
    he was looking for pluto

    *Laugh track*

    how come pluto has to sleep in a dog house, but goofy gets to sleep in a bed (and wheres pants). They are both dogs! Oh the injustice!!!

    yay pluto!!!( whether its a dog, planet, or iceball)

  20. Hey, Scott, what about the people who believe we should only have 4 official planets? (even if I think the idea is pretty off-the-wall)

    Also, seems everywhere I look for something on this topic that isn’t a news site, the person writing it mentions you and Scalzi.

    Personally I think we’ll never decide what a planet is. They’ll pass a definition, but for eternity people will challenge it and it’ll get revised until it’s a paper 3000 pages long and anything, everything, and nothing will all simultaneously be named “planets.”

  21. and now for a very very off topic note:

    awhile back i asked for recommendations because i wanted to venture from american grapic novels to manga. someone recommended death note…and i absolutely love them. i have the first five so far. so…to whoever recommended them…many thanks!!! 😛

  22. Has anyone considered the far ranging implications of all this on one of the oldest “sciences” around, astrology? Astrologers never really budged on their position on Ceres etc. as Astrologically Relevant Asteroids (term just coined) but they did eventually budge and give Pluto full-fledged planet creds. Now what? Will they eat their words, or ignore science? (Some would likely say that astrologers are already ignoring science.) My bet is they give up on Pluto entirely.

  23. Very interesting stuff about Pluto. After reading what you wrote, it doesn’t sound like a planet. But then again, you were writing to convince us of this. But still, very interesting.

  24. The more I read of your scientific debate regarding planetness (or lack there of), the more I want to make a few requests of you:

    1) Please finish the Risen Empire story!
    2) Please come to the West Coast so I can meet you.

  25. love your speech ^_^
    but didn’t pluto have a moon? charon?
    that sort of puts it in the same league as earth and the rest.
    so it’s not related; but maybe pluto’s family, like a stepbrother.
    or the pet dog…
    pluto should be in whole new different grouping; between planet and asteroid. planeroid, plasteroid… asternet? ;p

  26. you no…this is very sad that pluto got “demoted” but think about how pluto would feel.exactly,pluto really doesnt care and neither should we but we do because its been this way all along and no body but the space dudes wanted change.i guess thats why we are worrying ourselves about issues on another world when we cant even deal with the ones here such as world hunger but we can spend millions on blingage and other junk that doesnt matter!but thats ok tho,bush has got everything under control,isnt that right buddy?you have to admit picking fights w/ places that could blow us to smitherines was such a good idea i mean man brilliant!i guess thats y were trying to figure out space so when his perfect plan backfires we’ll just run up there or maybe just ignore it kinda like katrina.keep up the good work man and i sincerely wanna thank u 4 helping my peeps down in new orleans.
    thank u for reading this and hopefully it will bring some good

  27. Huh. You should be one of those people who go on talk shows and give seminar-type things on everything. You would definitely be good at it. That was convincing.

  28. “There’s a very simple test: if we’re not sure about a particular “planet” we should drop it into the Sun. If it grows a tail, it’s a comet; if not, it was a planet.
    Ta-dah! Problem solved.”

    love that. pluto’s demoted now. although plutos throught history have had crappy luck. 1)pluto (god of the underworld) was unlucky so he got stuck with the underworld while Jupiter got the sky and neptune got the sea.
    2)pluto (dog of mickey mouse) got stuck barking and walking around on all fours while goofy (correct me if im wrong but isnt goofy a dog?) got to speak english, where clothes, and walk on two feet. thats messed up
    i thought i had more but i cant remember them. oh well.

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