OpEd: A Planet by Any Other Name


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OpEd: A Planet by Any Other Name


posted: 23 September 2008
05:43 pm ET

What’s in a name? What’s in a word? Good questions. They’ve been around at least since William Shakespeare wrote “Romeo and Juliet.” And they seem like simple questions, but these questions touch the very heart of what people believe. Names are the very core of our language. Change them and people get confused. “Bad” used to mean “not good.” Now it has an additional meaning in our culture that can mean “great” or “awesome.” Many names and words get changed in our culture and most of those changes, like the definition of “bad” go relatively unnoticed. But one change, that has not gone unnoticed is the redefinition of the word “planet.” Since the members of the International Astronomical Union (IAU) in their infinite wisdom – or should I say “finite” wisdom – changed their definition of a planet in August 2006, many people have noticed and the debate about the wisdom of that changes goes on.

Like countless others around the world, I’ve asked myself some seemingly simple questions. What defines a planet? Why should the word’s meaning be changed? Who really has the authority to change this? Good questions as I’ve learned, because scientists and educators were raising them at The Great Planet Debate meeting, held at the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory in Laurel, Md., Aug. 14-16.

While the event did not host thousands of scientists like the August 2006 IAU General Assembly in
, it was by all rights a conference of great importance – the beginning of what hopefully will be a continuing meeting of the minds on this topic. “The Great Planet Debate” was put together by Mark Sykes of the Planetary Science Institute, Keith Noll of the Space Telescope Science Institute and Hal Weaver of Johns Hopkins University Applied Physics Laboratory. I don’t think they left a stone unturned. Both sides of this controversial issue had their chance to argue their beliefs.

The highlight, however, was the actual debate that had Mark Sykes sparring against Neil deGrasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium at the
of Natural History in
New York
. Amusing, informative and educational are a few words to describe this event. As to who won the debate though, I think it depends on who you ask. In fact, a lot of the meeting went that way, because it is clear that planet definitions are in flux and no real consensus exists just yet.

I attended the meeting, traveling from
, with great expectations. As a spectator I watched great minds debating their particular views: sometimes I understood the explanations given, sometimes I didn’t. After all, I’m not a scientist, or an educator. But the thing that impressed me the most was that they wanted to know how I and a few other general members of the public who attended the meeting felt.

Why do I oppose the IAU ruling? What are my thoughts on what should be considered a planet? And how should this debate get settled? Just about everything you wanted to know about planets was covered. Participants, including scientists, educators and even the general public, were allowed to get involved. It was quite a change from the normal scientific meeting.

Imagine, letting educators and the general public actually have a say in what they think the definition of a planet should be?

One thing I found odd though, was that some scientists at the debate stated that the IAU change in the planet definition is not a scientific issue. If so, then why oppose changing it back? Are there too many planets to remember, now that we have Ceres, Eres and Makemake? Is the cultural definition too broad?

I for one don’t believe the issue of how many planets there are should dictate what the definition of a planet should be, any more than the issue of there being so many rivers on Earth should affect the definition of a river, or the issue of there being so many stars should affect the definition of a star.

I don’t think the definition of a planet that included Pluto and its kin was too broad. In fact, I think culture – or should I say, the universal definition – is one that should stand. It’s what we all know. It’s what we’ve learned. It’s simple and it makes sense. And I learned at the meeting that trying to get all the educators around the world to teach the IAU definition will be as difficult as creating yet another new definition, which many scientists agree is now needed because the IAU definition is scientifically flawed and therefore un-teachable.

Needless to say, I was impressed with this conference. My expectations were met, and even exceeded. I think the IAU should take heed. With their continuing series of terminology changes – planets, dwarf-planets, and plutoids – they are losing credibility. In fact, I’d like to see a new organization that looks at scientific issues scientifically, leaves politics out of science, considers culture as a basis for our basic language, and considers feedback from the general public.

The Great Planet Debate accomplished all of this, even though no vote was taken and no consensus reached. In my opinion, The Great Planet Debate was a good example of what science can be.

Siobhan Elias is a freelance photographer and writer based in Streator, Ill.