The problem with the little whatsit with the eccentric orbit on the edge of the solar system

>> Friday, June 20, 2008

As I'm sure some of you are already aware, the International Astronomical Union (IAU) has recently decreed that everyone will wear their underwear outside their pants--no, wait: I think that was the insane dictator in Bananas. No, what the IAU declared last week was that Pluto was now something called a plutoid, a label lots of astronomers already hate. It's also a label that seems to be a little confusing to at least some of the journalists covering the science beat: one writer summarized the new definition of "plutoid" as "small round things beyond Neptune that orbit the sun and have lots of rocky neighbors," a definition that kind of excludes Pluto from the category of plutoids (Pluto spends much of its time inside the track of Neptune's orbit). (The official definition as quoted within the same article does include the language "in orbit around the sun at a distance greater than that of Neptune," which is technically true of Pluto; the official definition's statement that a plutoid is also an object which has not cleared the neighborhood of its own orbit is a little bit of a head-scratcher, however--if you count objects in resonance, e.g. Lagrange partners, then isn't every planet a plutoid?)

There's a lot of silliness about all this, and the debate's gotten a little boring. There's some good sense to be found in Venetia Phair's attitude that Pluto is what it is. You could start calling it a hawk or a handsaw and it would still be this cold rock from the Kuiper Belt that Clyde Tombaugh found in photographs in 1930. Personally, I'm likely to say "planet" just out of habit and because my very educated mother just served us nine pizzas. (I suppose in the future she could serve noodles, but wouldn't you rather have the pizzas? Maybe she could slay urban ninjas--I suppose that would be kind of cool.)

At least that's where my head was until I read this other thing this morning, this article about how educators are dealing with Pluto's name change. Textbooks are being revised, lesson plans are being changed, and then Gerry Wheeler, the executive director of the National Science Teachers Association said:

"Basically, it's a teachable moment for science teachers, because it shows the dynamic nature of science," Wheeler told SPACE.com. He added the NSTA will spread news of the plutoid category to science teachers in the fall.

...and I nearly banged my head into my desk. Repeatedly. No it's not. I mean, yes, it is a teachable moment. It's a great teachable moment in fact--but not because it shows "the dynamic nature of science." What it's a great moment for is that you can get your kids to talk about the reification fallacy, you dolt.

See, dynamic moments in science are the ones where we figure something out that turns everything we thought we knew sideways. The demonstration that light is a wave and a particle was a dynamic moment in science. Figuring out that everything that defines the basic physical structure of a living creature can be traced to four chemicals twisted into a laddering double-spiral was a dynamic moment in science. An in-house fight over what to call Pluto and things like Pluto isn't a dynamic moment in anything except branding--in the grand scheme of things, the only difference in how you label Pluto comes down to the common vocabulary scientists (and others) use to communicate with each other. You can call Pluto a twizzle or a gromfookle or a rambuladabar just as long as everybody else knows and pretty much agrees the label can be used, so that you can write, "The team discovered eighteen new gromfookles using the predictive power of the new model" and everyone who reads the journal article can say, "Oh, they found eighteen new things that are like Pluto because the hypothesis they're using to search tells them where to look."

If the result of the IAU's grand debate is that people are going to think the universe has changed because the words we use to describe it have changed, they need to just stop it. Right now.

The story, the real story of the new label is that astronomers are expecting to find a lot of things that are more like Pluto than they are like Earth or Jupiter, and they're pre-emptively trying to make a box they can put them in--they're trying to come up with a label that will help humans manage the concept. Teach kids about that, and you can help them think about thinking, about how our brains work and how we frame what we think we know, and the limitations of that framework. You can compare the Pluto controversy to the ways in which the definition of "species" has shifted or to the argument over viruses and the definition of "life" within the field of biology, for instance. You could get your kids to discuss whether changing what Pluto is called changes what Pluto is and whether the label is important or merely confusing. You could use the matter as a crossover-point with English/Language Arts class or History class or Math/Logic class, perhaps creating a lesson plan with other teachers.

But calling it a "dynamic moment in science"?

If that's how we're teaching kids, no wonder it sometimes seems we're getting stupider.

9 comments:

The God of Tapeworms,  Friday, June 20, 2008 at 11:15:00 AM EDT  

Pluto not a planet? Ridiculous!

All those many millenia ago when the Big Guy and I (there were others around, but they are unimportant and I am sure do not deserve notice) were sitting around decorating the place, We most certainly believed that Pluto was a planet.

Of course we weren't calling it Pluto back then. In fact there were some heated battles over the planet names all around. I personally preferred Schistosomiasis, but everyone seemed rather adamantly opposed to that. In the end, and I'm not quite sure how, we ended up calling it Loki, which in retrospect seems pretty perfect now, doesn't it. But that was before Balder died.

But anyway, My Point is that Pluto (or Schistosomiasis as I still like to call it), is most certainly a planet, and to consider it otherwise is to incur My Divine Wrath.

Nathan Friday, June 20, 2008 at 11:23:00 AM EDT  

"Plutoid" is, indeed a stupid name for the catagory. 1. It sounds like the attachement of the "oid" part indicates that the word means "Pluto-like". Well that would be fine except that Pluto isn't "Pluto-like"...it is Pluto.

2. If they're trying to come up with a "catchall" name do define similar objects, this description won't work. When we venture to other solar systems, you'll still be able to talk about the star that defines the system and the planets that orbit it. Unless you name one planet "Neptune" in each solar system you go to, where's the dividing line in that system between planets and plutoids.

Stikes me as slightly amusing that folks who's area of interest is looking at things that are astronomically distant would be so short sighted when it comes to defining them.

Eric Friday, June 20, 2008 at 12:27:00 PM EDT  

Y'know, that's a good call, Nathan, that I hadn't even thought about. "Planet" is (basically) a label that can be applied within any stellar system, but "plutoid" is an extremely specific label that defines itself exclusively in terms of our system. It will be useless in describing bodies found around other stars whose structures or general orbital mechanics are otherwise "Pluto-like."

I have that "basically" in parens because one of the interesting things about this discussion is that if you were starting a labeling system from scratch, you wouldn't necessarily classify Mercury, Earth and Jupiter together the way we do now out of history and tradition. "Planet" is a useful label not-so-much because it specifically describes something, but because we all have an intuitive grasp of the general kinds of things the word describes: we all grew up with the idea that you could put small rocky things covered with liquid water and vast spheres of cool gas together in the same mental toybox.

I suppose we can all be grateful that nobody is asking us to type "schistosomiasisoids" more than just this one time. Sorry, Thou Whost Scolex Attacheth To Nebulae, but I'd rather just risk Thy Divine Wrath.

Nathan Friday, June 20, 2008 at 12:41:00 PM EDT  

I know if I hopped around a couple of threads going back a day or two I could figure out who is using the God of Tapeworms moniker, but I'm too lazy.

Who the hell is that?

The God of Tapeworms,  Friday, June 20, 2008 at 1:29:00 PM EDT  

I Am Who I Am.

Eric Friday, June 20, 2008 at 2:39:00 PM EDT  

It's Popeye!

Oh wait... that was "I yam what I yam."

Jim Wright Monday, June 23, 2008 at 10:51:00 AM EDT  

As I've mentioned elsewhere, the God of Tapeworms seems to have a distinct West Virginian drawl. Also, it seems to me that the GOTW seems to sound petite, dark haired and cute (in a parasitic sort of way). Just saying ;)

Eric Monday, June 23, 2008 at 12:21:00 PM EDT  

Hey--isn't Michelle from West Virginia? Maybe she could do some checking around for us and see if she can help us find out who the God Of Tapeworms really is!

;-)

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