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:
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.