The Cash Value of Astronomical Ideas

By Sean Carroll | August 16, 2006 4:13 pm

Can’t … stop … blogging … must … resist …

So you may have heard that Pluto is still a planet, and indeed we have a few new ones as well! Phil Plait, Rob Knop, Clifford, and Steinn have all weighed in. Hey, it’s on the front page of the New York Times, above the fold!

The problem is that Pluto is kind of small, and far away. Those aren’t problems by themselves, but there are lots of similar-sized objects that are also out beyond Neptune, in the Kuiper Belt. As we discover more and more, should they all count as planets? And if not, shouldn’t Pluto be demoted? Nobody wants to lose Pluto among the family of planets — rumors to that effect were previously enough to inspire classrooms around the globe to write pleading letters to the astronomical powers that be, begging them not to discard the plucky ninth planet. But it’s really hard to come up with some objective criteria of planet-ness that would include the canonical nine but not open the doors to all sorts of unwanted interlopers. Now the Planet Definition Committee of the International Astronomical Union has proposed a new definition:

1) A planet is a celestial body that (a) has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a hydrostatic equilibrium (nearly round) shape, and (b) is in orbit around a star, and is neither a star nor a satellite of a planet.

It turns out that, by this proposed definition, there are twelve planets — not just the usual nine, but also Ceres (the largest asteroid, between Mars and Jupiter), and also Charon (Pluto’s moon, but far enough away that apparently it doesn’t count as a “satellite,” but as a double-planet), and UB313, a faraway rock that is even bigger than Pluto. I’m not sure why anyone thinks this is an improvement.

The thing is, it doesn’t matter. Most everyone who writes about it admits that it doesn’t matter, before launching into a passionate defense of what they think the real definition should be. But, seriously: it really doesn’t matter. We are not doing science, or learning anything about the universe here. We’re just making up a definition, and we’re doing so solely for our own convenience. There is no pre-existing Platonic nature of “planet-ness” located out there in the world, which we are trying to discover so that we may bring our nomenclature in line with it. We are not discovering anything new about nature, nor even bringing any reality into existence by our choices.

The Pragmatists figured this out long ago: we get to choose the definition to be whatever we want, and the best criterion by which to make that choice is whatever is most useful and convenient for our purposes. But people have some deep-seated desire to believe that our words should be brought in line with objective criteria, even if it’s dramatically inconvenient. (These are the same people, presumably, who think that spelling reform would be really cool.) But as Rob says, there is no physically reasonable definition that would let us stick with nine planets. That’s okay! We have every right to define “planet” to mean “Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto, plus whatever other large rocky bodies we find orbiting other stars.” Or whatever else we want. It’s completely up to us.

So we really shouldn’t have to tear up a century’s worth of textbooks and illustrations, and start trying to figure out when the shape of some particular body is governed by hydrostatic equilibrium, just to pat ourselves on the back for obeying “physically reasonable” definitions. But it looks like that’s what the IAU Planet Definition Committee wants us to do. Of course that’s what you’d expect a Planet Definition Committee to suggest; otherwise why would we need a Planet Definition Committee?

Now if you’ll excuse me, I have change-of-address forms to fill out.

[And don’t even contemplate accusing me of hypocrisy for dragging myself away from a much-deserved blog-vacation to carry on about something that I claim doesn’t matter. The definition of “planet” doesn’t matter; but appreciating that the choice of definition is a matter of our own convenience, not a matter of necessarily conforming to some objective criteria about the physical world, matters a lot.]

Update: Chris Clarke for the opposition.


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Cosmic Variance

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About Sean Carroll

Sean Carroll is a Senior Research Associate in the Department of Physics at the California Institute of Technology. His research interests include theoretical aspects of cosmology, field theory, and gravitation. His most recent book is The Particle at the End of the Universe, about the Large Hadron Collider and the search for the Higgs boson. Here are some of his favorite blog posts, home page, and email: carroll [at] .


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