Tell me what thy lordly name is on the night’s Plutonian shore

2006-08-25

in Politics, Science

For an interesting example of the connections between science and public policy, look at the recent efforts to re-categorize the planets, a word that derives from the Ancient Greek term for ‘wanderer.’ The International Astronomical Union met in Prague recently to try and do so. Since 1919, they have been the scientific body charged with astronomical naming. At least two competing options were advanced: one was basically to grant planet status to any object in the solar system that has sufficient gravity to have become spherical. This would expand the ranks of planets to twelve, adding Charon – the moon of Pluto – Ceres – a large asteroid – and a distant object called 2003 UB313. (Mythology appreciators may recall that Ceres is the mother of Persephone, who Pluto kidnapped to the underworld and made his queen.)

The alternative, based on different considerations, strips Pluto of its status as a planet. Along with the other objects listed above, barring Charon which is to remain a moon, it will join the ambiguous category of ‘dwarf planet.’ Unsurprisingly, the director of a NASA robotic mission of Pluto is irked by the change. Naturally, funding and attention find themselves tied to terms and definitions that are often arbitrary. Note the scramble to brand all manner of research ‘nanotechnology’ in hopes of capturing the interest, and cash, that is attaching itself to that branch of science. The connection between attention paid to scientific developments and arbitrary phenomenon seems especially important in terms of the way in which the general public is exposed to scientific developments. Remember all the media flurry about the race of ‘hobbit’ proto-humans (Homo floresiensis)? How much less attention would there have been if a certain series of films hadn’t been recently made? Consider also the increased attention paid to climate change in the United States after Hurricane Katrina: an event that it is essentially impossible to definitively attribute to changes in the composition of the atmosphere and attendant climatic shifts.

For all the kerfuffle, there is obviously nothing about the solar system itself that has changed. Why, then, do people care so much? Partly, I suspect it has to do with simple familiarity. Just as it famously discomfited Einstein to be presented with the possibility that the universe is governed by chance at small scales, the idea that the millions of wall-charts in science classrooms everywhere depicting the nine planet solar system are, in some sense, ‘wrong’ may upset others. The solar system, as portrayed in everything from Scientific American to the Magic School Bus series, was a familiar model. That is not, in and of itself, a reason for preserving it. At the same time, I fail to see why this change is being granted such attention.

One other explanation that comes to mind has to do with the way in which many people relate to science: as a set of particular facts in which they have been educated and which they are to remember. All the discussion of having to change mnemonic devices by which the names and sequence of planets are remembered relates to that. Such a stripped-down conception of science doesn’t leave people with much scope for critical inquiry – though such an activity may not be of interest. It is troublesome, I suppose, in an age when it is increasingly vital to have a grasp of scientific ideas and developments in order to be an effective participant in a democratic society. The category into which we file one particular lump of rock orbiting the sun every 250 years doesn’t have such importance.

The way people have been anthropomorphizing the issue strikes me as really odd. People stepping up to ‘defend’ Pluto from cruel astronomers who are ‘demoting’ it suggests that there is some emotional motivation behind the classification. Of course, there is no reason why it is ‘better’ or ‘worse’ for a lump of rock to be one thing or another, in and of itself. It may change of behaviour towards the object in question – think of discussions about whether humans are ‘animals’ or not – but it is quite nonsensical to think of the lump itself having a preference. Owen Gingerich, the head of the committee that came up with the new definition, had a much more comprehensible comment: “We are an expensive science, and if we don’t have public support, we are not going to be able to do our work.” Ah, the politics of science.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Anonymous August 25, 2006 at 1:40 pm

Fool! Don’t you realize that the movement of the planets governs the lives of mortal men? Kings rise and fall and fates are determined by these orbs and no others. Adding or subtracting from the number risks making the divine science of astrology less accurate.

Seriously, now.

Anonymous August 25, 2006 at 1:49 pm
B August 25, 2006 at 2:21 pm

Speaking of definitions, it seems that the US Transportation Safety Authority has re-classified ice as a liquid. (Via BoingBoing)

Scott Davy August 25, 2006 at 4:45 pm

Hello Milan
Completely off this Plutionian tangent but forgive me.
I was wondering how useful you found your research methods class to be for your thesis and further studies.
I ask because at RMC, such a class is not required even for thesis students and I am contemplating taking it out at Queen’s.
Long question short, is it the kind of thing that every boy and girl looking to earn their PhD in Polisci should do?
Thanks for your advice

SMD

Milan August 25, 2006 at 4:53 pm

Scott,

I found the statistics course I took at UBC extremely useful. The methods component of this program has been much less so, largely because it was haphazard, rushed, and disorganized.

The best bet is to speak with a few people who have taken the course in which you are interested. Standards definitely vary a great deal in methods instruction. I would be really happy if I could find a course that covered interviewing and archival methods in a useful way.

The general sense that methods training is better in North American than in the UK is part of why I am strongly considering the US for a PhD.

R.K. August 25, 2006 at 2:12 pm

Mythology appreciators may recall that Ceres is the mother of Persephone, who Pluto kidnapped to the underworld and made his queen.

Recall, also, that Charon is the ferryman of the River Styx: at the entrance to Pluto’s realm.

DBT August 25, 2006 at 10:41 pm

The Daily Show weighs in on the issue.

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