Friday, June 13, 2008

Here we go again

I almost don't want to waste blog space writing about a subject that I think has already received far too much attention as it is, but this latest development seems too ridiculous to ignore:

The International Astronomical Union has decided on the term "plutoid" as a name for dwarf planets like Pluto.

Sidestepping concerns of many astronomers worldwide, the IAU's decision, at a meeting of its Executive Committee in Oslo, comes almost two years after it stripped Pluto of its planethood and introduced the term "dwarf planets" for Pluto and other small round objects that often travel highly elliptical paths around the sun in the far reaches of the solar system.

(Full article here) So now Pluto is not a planet or a dwarf planet, but a plutoid. Pluto is a plutoid. How tautological is that?

I doubt we'll see the end of this. My impression is that the original controversy arose because people were emotionally connected to the idea of nine planets. I can understand this; I picked up the children's book 11 Planets recently and it just felt...wrong. Blasphemous. Weird. So I don't think those people who desperately want Pluto to be a planet again will settle for anything less than Pluto, and only Pluto, restored to full-planet status. They think Pluto was unfairly demoted (which I disagree with) and they want justice.

As a scientist, I'm quite familiar with the phenomenon of words having different scientific and colloquial meanings, and I think it's okay. We know koala bears aren't bears and peanuts aren't nuts in the botanical sense. And while I still think it's more consistent to have either eight or eleven planets rather than nine, there are many precedents in our language for "wrong" words and concepts being retained for historical reasons.

That said, I'm still a proud member of the Facebook group "I'm Glad Pluto's No Longer a Planet; It Makes Gustav Holst's Suite Complete".

3 comments: said...

Well, pluto is still a planet. Not a terrestrial one. Not a gas giant. But a dwarf planet ... or plutoid.

Plutoid? Let's break that down: Pluto "has the form of Pluto." Maybe something like "cometoid" for frozen bodies with odd paths would make a little more sense.

Discoverer Clyde Tombaugh, who was a personal friend of a friend of mine, died not too long before the category change was made. I've wondered if the IAU delayed its decision out of respect to him. It certainly was a contentious one. At any rate, I support their decision, although reasonable people can make solid arguments for other terms.

S said...

I have no comment on the scientific validity of deciding that Pluto should no longer be considered a planet. Nor do I have any comment on the linguistic validity of a term like "Plutoid." I just feel bad for Pluto. Pluto didn't get demoted. Pluto got fired. And it sucks to get fired.

Language Lover said...

Mupu, what do you mean "Pluto is still a planet"? My understanding is that all the controversy stems from it having been a planet and then declassified.

And S, I disagree with the characterization of Pluto's reclassification as a demotion (or firing). All the astronomers have been trying to do is come up with a consistent definition for a planet, one that happens not to include Pluto (or Eris or Ceres). No one is picking on Pluto directly! Or am I missing a pun of some sort?