Following a debate held Sept. 22, the audience voted that Pluto should be recognized as a planet. Who is the audience of a CfA debate to decide the status of a would-be planet? Well, no one, but they do give some support on getting it reclassified. The official say on planet classification is decided by the International Astronomical Union (IAU).
As humans (and often in science), we have this urge to categorize things. “This is a planet. This is not a planet,” or, “This is a plant. This is an animal.”(I won’t get into the silliness of this idea in science or how frustrating it is to see in fields of science, but these man-made categories can’t explain everything so we shouldn’t try to force them to). Everything needs to fit neatly into groupings and set in stone.
A conflict between what a word is “supposed” to mean and what is being observed is what sparked the IAU to establish what made a planet a planet and Pluto’s demotion to a dwarf planet back in 2006.
In the CfA debate, science historian Dr. Owen Gingerich, who chaired the IAU planet definition committee, argued that “planet is a culturally defined word that changes over time.”
This is a brilliant perspective on the Pluto debate. Words, labels and titles are all concepts that society constructs and defines. Definitions are malleable and changes are seen over time. From gay to cute to awful, the list of words that mean completely different things now than they originally did could go on and on. As a society, we hold the power to take ownership of words.
Some words, like theory or fact, have distinct scientific definitions and cultural, “every day” definitions. This is a possible solution for Pluto being a planet, but not a very good one. That would just further distance science from being something people experience everyday and build up separation of the two instead of integration. Really, the category of planet gets scientists nothing. Why are students randomly forced to learn all the planets in our solar system in elementary science in the first place? It is trivial. Having the label doesn’t further exploration and understanding in science. Rather, it does the exact opposite; it limits our minds to functioning within a confined box of defined concepts. Opening up the question of what is a planet is a good thing, but an even better question might be why does it matter to science?
Let’s throw out the official say on what makes a planet a planet and agree that it’s a stupid category in the first place. Eliminating words is much more difficult than defining them to meet whatever the desired redefining is. Some might standby the IAU’s verdict that Pluto should not be a planet and refuse to refer to it as such. I say Pluto is a planet, and, if society is on my side, then Pluto is a planet.