Intolerance & Science: What To Do With 'Pluto'?

The discovery of a new planet in our Solar System could have an unintended consequence -- the elimination of 'Pluto' in the list of planets everyone has in their heads. Is it time to wave this distant, dark piece of rock farewell? To the casual observer, the announcement that scientists have identified a tenth planet orbiting the Sun is primarily of importance to few people other than science teachers and schoolchildren. But, on closer examination, the revelation may have more far-reaching consequences for the way in which we think about space. At around 3_000_km across, '2003 UB313' -- as it has been named -- is the largest object found in our Solar System since the discovery of 'Neptune' in 1846. And it is thought to be larger than 'Pluto', whose status as 'The Furthest Planet From The Sun' has been enshrined in accepted thought since it was identified in 1930. But this could all change. Technological advances have enabled astronomers to find more minor planets, stars, asteroids and comets. And in the late 1960s scientists found that 'Pluto's' size had been over-estimated. It was first thought to be around as large as 'Earth', whereas accepted thought now suggests that the planet's mass is only around a fifth of 'The Moon's'.
'Today, the world knows that "Pluto" is not unique.
'There are other "Plutos" -- just farther out in the Solar System where they are a little harder to find,' says Mr.David Rabinowitz of Yale University, who was among the astronomers who discovered '2003 UB313' two years ago.
His point is echoed by Professor Mr.Mark Bailey, director of 'Armagh Observatory' in Northern Ireland.
'Increasingly, objects are far away and there are objects which are of comparable size to "Pluto", so if you think of "Pluto" as a planet then you should refer to those objects as planets,' he says.
He estimates that there could be tens of thousands of objects beyond 'Neptune' in the Solar System region known as 'The Kuiper Belt', many of which may be larger than 'Pluto'. The discovery of '2003 UB313' comes soon after it was announced that '2003 EL61' had been found. And a number of distant objects around the same size of 'Pluto' have been found in recent years, including 'Quaoar' (found in 2002) and 'Sedna' (detected in 2004). It is widely accepted that the struggle to provide an adequate definition of a planet is the crux of the problem.
'Originally "a planet" was a wandering star.
'Then it was something that moved across the sky.
'Then it was something that revolved around the Sun.
'The criterion about when it should be called "a planet" is something that is changing over time,' says Mr.Bailey. 'I'm sure we will continue to discover more and more objects of comparable size which will continue to challenge established thought about planets.'
planet size comparison 'Size does matter' Mr.Brian Marsden, director of 'The International Astronomy Union's' 'Minor Planet Centre', believes the simplest way to resolve the confusion is to reject 'Pluto's' claim to being a planet on the grounds that 'size does matter'. Instead, he says, people should accept that
'we have eight planets -- and only an object bigger than 'Mars' could be considered to be a planet in the future'.
He argues that the disruption that would be caused to accepted thought would, ultimately, provide a more accurate understanding of space.
'School text books concentrate too much on the idea that 'Pluto' is the ninth planet.
'Teaching should stress that there are hundreds of thousands of much smaller objects. Knowing a mnemonic and naming the planets is not science.'
But not everyone believes science has the right, or influence to turn accepted thought on its head.
'Our culture has fully embraced the idea that "Pluto" is a planet -- and scientists have for the most part not yet realised that the term "planet" no longer belongs to them,' says Mr.Michael Brown, one of the astronomers who discovered '2003 UB313'.
His conclusion is simple:
'From now on, everyone should ignore the distracting debates of the scientists.
'Planets in our solar system should be defined not by some attempt at forcing a scientific definition on a thousands-of-years-old cultural term, but by simply embracing culture.
'"Pluto" is a planet because culture says it is. 'It is understandably hard for scientists to let go of a word that they think they use scientifically, but they need to.'
He considers '2003 UB313' to be a planet in a 'cultural' and 'historical' sense, adding:
'I will not argue that it is a scientific planet because there is no good scientific definition which fits our solar system and our culture, and I have decided to let culture win this one. 'We scientists can continue our debates, but I hope we are generally ignored!'
'Farewell Pluto?', Alexis Akwagyiram,BBC News, 2005/08/02 12:13:43 GMT


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Science is getting out of hand and this is the last straw AFAIAC!!! It's all about as conclusive and certain as reading tea leaves. Nothing is for sure and that's for sure!

8/09/2005 12:09:00 am  

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