Aug. 19th, 2006

rfmcdonald: (Default)
I'd think that it plays somewhat to my credit that I recognize that the controversy over the newly-expanded definition of planet is silly, that I (mostly) agree with Bad Astronomy's arguments.

So this rule isn’t really arbitrary, it’s just not very satisfying. But imagine the rule we’d need instead: if you have two objects that orbit each other, and one or both are planets by Rules 1 and 2, then the more massive on is a planet, and the other is just a moon. That’s silly too. What if one is Jupiter-sized and the other is Earth-sized?

Which brings me, finally, to my big point. This is all incredibly silly. We’re not arguing science here.
We’re arguing semantics. For years people have tried to make a rigid definition of planet, but it simply won’t work. No matter what parameter you include in the list, I can come up with an example that screws the definition up. I’ve shown that already, and I’m just warming up.

I'm even willing to agree with Jay Manifold at A Voyage to Arcturus ("Nine Twelve Twenty-Four Fifty-Three Planets?!") that this controversy threatens to destabilize the popular mythos of the planets.

This controversy goes to the heart of the distinction between two great human endeavors: the narrative art and the scientific method (see A Possibly Related Problem for how this affects science journalism; and whatever you do, read Dr Cline's Media/Political Bias, especially the entry on "narrative bias").

The narrative art is ancient, intuitive, intensely stylized, and deeply emotionally satisfying; the scientific method is much newer, often drastically counterintuitive in its findings, stylized only in its narrative expression (and then in a way nonscientists usually find unapproachable), and frequently not at all emotionally satisfying except to its most dedicated practitioners. I need hardly remind my readership, but will anyway, of the ongoing collision between ancient narrative and modern science in American society.

I submit that scientists own the science, but laypeople own the narrative. And the narrative of the nine planets of the Solar System is rich in mythology (Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn), serendipity (the discovery of Uranus [pronunciation]), mathematical prediction (the discovery of Neptune), and Herculean effort (the discovery of Pluto). It has been enriched that much further by the stunning imagery of every planet except Pluto returned to us by the Mariner, Pioneer, Viking, Magellan, Galileo, and Cassini probes.

The new resolution does not enrich the narrative; it merely attempts to impose upon it a definition which makes scientific (and counterintuitive) sense, and largely dissolves it from a cast of readily identifiable characters (think of Adams, Leverrier, Tombaugh; and of course the planets themselves, in a sense) into a chaos of tens, someday hundreds, of celestial bodies, only five of which can ever be seen from Earth by unaided human eyes, and all but a dozen or so of which were, or will have been, discovered by entirely automated methods with minimal human intervention. To adopt the new definition is to replace a novel that has a substantial but manageable number of intriguing dramatis personae with a huge, unwieldy roster of invisible objects and soulless robots.

Why, then, change the definition? I agree with Centauri Dreams that this represents a much-needed rationalization of the definition of a planet. Ancient Greece was a foundational culture, but we must move beyond those foundations. This is particularly true for Ceres, defined when it was discovered as a planet. After all, Ceres was located exactly where both the old and (contemporary to us) revised versions of Titius-Bode law predicted a planet would be found.

If we want a story for Ceres, one that will attract the imagination of the public, how about a story of a planet discovered, rejected, and accepted again once astronomical studies proved its true nature? Besides being spherical and orbiting the Sun independent of another, larger body, recent studies have confirmed that Ceres is internally differentiated just like any other terrestrial planet? Call it an Asimovian mesoplanet if you must, but that's still a sort of a planet. Everyone likes the story of Cinderella; the popular imagination will adjust.
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