Who cares whether Pluto is a planet or not? Seriously?
Hey folks! Work is still devouring my soul, but I took a whole day off yesterday and wrote the following rant about Pluto.
So, first of all: Who the heck cares whether Pluto is a planet or not? Seriously? Apparently these people do:
Also, the American Museum of Natural History in New York City has been getting "things that verged on hate mail from second-graders".
What the heck, guys? Why the emotional investment in the classification of an inanimate object? It's not like Pluto is going to lose its tax-exempt status if it's not called a planet. Pluto is still there. It's still exactly the same. It is not affected in any way by this decision. You can still put it in your solar system model. The Astronomy Police aren't going to come and arrest you if you do. Hey, wait a minute, Astronomy Police... maybe we should have Astronomy Police. They could go to Hollywood and arrest all those sci-fi filmmakers who make flagrant violations of the laws of physics. "Great idea Data, let's destroy the Crystalline Entity by beaming high energy sound waves at it... across empty space."
We've still got a space probe (the New Horizon) on its way out to Pluto. We're still going to learn stuff about Pluto. It's gonna be cool. But the probe won't tell us whether Pluto is a planet or not, because hey guess what it's not a scientific question it's just a question of language.
Ever read Usenet? Or web discussion forums? No? Good, don't start, they suck. Someday I'm going to write "Jono's Rules for Civilized Discussion" mainly inspired by all the counterexamples on the Internet. And one of those rules is going to be
"When you find yourself arguing over the definition of a word, it's time to move on."
However, I think the reclassification of Pluto to "double dwarf planet" (along with Charon) does reflect the truth about Pluto's weird status. It's a tiny and not all that interesting chunk of ice, with a moon almost its own size. There are, I think, seven moons in the solar system larger than Pluto. And Pluto's wacky orbit and icy composition are more similar to a large comet than to any of the other planets. And there are a lot more Pluto-like objects out there in the Kuiper Belt: probably hundreds of icy Trans-Neptunian Objects. We know of at least six sizable ones, one larger than Pluto itself (this is 2003 UB313, for which the name "Xena" has been proposed). The only special thing about Pluto is that we happened to find it first.
Either all of these pluto-like objects are planets, or none of them are! Until a couple weeks ago, an earlier proposed redefinition had Xena, Charon, and Ceres (the largest asteroid) all as planets, which would make twelve, plus an ever-increasing number of uninteresting plutons.
But about that solar system model... go ahead and include Pluto. And Charon. A double dwarf planet is a cool thing. And while you're at it, include the asteroid belt, and some of the larger moons! Ganymede, Callisto, Europa, Io, Titan... they're bigger than Pluto, so put 'em in, and your model will be way cool!
I am reminded of this one boss I used to work for, long long ago. He was into astrology. In fact he made up his own system of astrology from scratch. I think he got kicked out of the Astrologer's Union for heresy or something. He was my boss so I didn't want to say what I was thinking which was "THAT IS THE STUPIDEST IDEA I'VE HEARD SINCE THE FLAG PROTECTION AMENDMENT", so instead I would just politely change the subject. But anyway, sometimes he would call me up on the phone to complain about the fact that some astronomers wanted to stop calling Pluto a planet. (This was in 1997). He was taking it really personally because his made-up astrological system would lose its symmetry without Pluto.
If you think you can resist having your head explode from the mass of concentrated stupidity, read this article describing the controversy among professional astrologers over what "influence" Pluto and the other dwarf planets supposedly have on human destiny, and whether the reclassification of Pluto as not-a-planet can affect this.
(Wait a minute. If Uranus, Neptune, and Pluto have astrological "influence", did they have this influence before they were discovered? If so, doesn't that mean all astrology prior to these discoveries was inaccurate? Would any astrologer be willing to say that ancient astrology was all wrong because of this? Can any astrologer point at an increase in accuracy after these planets were discovered? Oh wait, they don't measure accuracy. And wait another minute, if astrological "influence" is not reduced to nothing by the tinyness or the distance of these objects... then why doesn't every object in the universe, including stars in other galaxies, also have "influence"? And another thing, given how slowly Pluto moves, I think everybody now alive has the same Pluto sign. So, um, how would Pluto make a difference anyway? Oh whoops, am I asking for logic from astrology?)
You might say it's pointless to even attack astrology -- it's like shooting fish in a barrel. Maybe you say astrology is just a bit of harmless fun so why even bring it up?
My answer is, there are people who make decisions based on astrology. This is very dangerous. If astrology doesn't work, it will lead to bad decisions. It's especially dangerous if they're in positions of power -- like Ronald Reagan!
And then there's India. Astrology is HUGE in India. They have a slightly different system, of course -- Vedic astrology (which ignores Uranus, Neptune and Pluto) -- but a lot of people over there takeit very seriously. India is on a course to become one of the major world powers of this century. And I hope they do! The birthplace of chess, the number zero, and Gulab Jamun, and the home of almost 1/6 the world's population, ought to be a major player. But there are certain parts of their culture that are better left behind as they modernize: the caste system, the concept of untouchables, sex-selective abortions, and astrology.
Silly beliefs can be divided into two categories: testable and untestable. An example of an untestable silly belief is reincarnation -- if you lose all your memories of a previous life, then there's no experiment we could ever do to check whether it was really happening or not. So it can never be disproven. But the other thing about untestable beliefs is that pretty much by definition, they don't matter. For them to be in any way relevant to anyone's life, they would have to have measurable effects, which would make them testable. So hey guys: you are welcome to your untestable beliefs, but since they don't matter and there's no evidence for them, I'm just going to ignore them.
But there are plenty of silly beliefs which are testable. If they are tested and pass, they are no longer silly beliefs.
"Q: What do you call alternative medicine that works?" "A: Medicine."
If they are tested and fail, repeatedly, they ought to be abandoned. But there are some people who will make excuses for the failure and cling to the belief because it makes them feel good. This is the silliest kind of silly belief.
Astrology is testable. Astrology makes predictions and those predictions can be compared to reality. Of course astrology makes its predictions as vague as possible, in order to weasel out of the reality test. This is a favorite tactic of oracles throughout history. (Oracle at Delphi: "If Croeseus attacks the Persians, he will destroy a great army." Oh gee, great prediction, it's true no matter who wins.) Nevertheless, astrology asserts that your personal horoscope is an accurate description of your life in some way. Accurate compared to what? They don't give standard deviations but the idea is that your horoscope fits you better than some random horoscope would fit you. If any horoscope could fit any person equally well, then that proves people are wasting their time making up horoscopes.
So we can do a test by generating horoscopes for a group of random people, using on their birthdays. Then we collect accurate descriptions of the people's personalities and lives, with the names and birthdays removed. Now we ask the astrologers who made the horoscopes to attempt to match the horoscopes with the people. Or we can hide the birthdays on the horoscopes and ask the people themselves to try to match themselves up with the horoscopes.
If we get matches more often than chance would predict we could say that there may be something to astrology, even if we have no idea what the mechanism might be. But if only get matches at the rate of blind luck, then we can say with some confidence that any accuracy people perceive in horoscopes is just a matter of creative interpretation and confirmation bias.
I used to propose this test to my aunt, who was an astrology hobbyist, when I couldn't convince her that it was nonsense. Anyway, it turns out that this test has been done. Many times. In many variations. All have come up negative. The studies, and their results, are summarized on this post on Skeptico. Skeptico ("Critical Thinking for an Irrational World") is a great site that I read regularly; you should check it out.
Anyway, why not forget about astrology and forget about the bogus Pluto controversy and read about a REAL scientific discovery? Check this out, this is way cool:
Scientists Confirm Dark Matter's Existence, so the article says, by looking at the gravitational lensing effect on the halos of two colliding galaxy clusters; the observed mass distribution shows two maxima: one is the gas cloud we can see, and the other is invisible but exactly where we predict the dark matter would be, slightly ahead of the gas cloud because it was not slowed down by friction during the collision.
THAT'S WICKED COOL!!
Also wicked cool: There is a type of planet called a "Hot Jupiter". We have found several of these in other solar systems. They are so named because they are very big and very close to their stars. This is no accident -- a Hot Jupiter is the easiest type of planet to discover, because its mass and closeness maximize the planet's gravitational influence on its star, and this influence is one of the methods we've been using to find these planets.
So, until recently we've been thinking that a solar system with a Hot Jupiter is unlikely to contain any Earth-like planets, because the Hot Jupiter's gravity would destabalize any orbit in the Hospitable Zone.
But a new computer simulation has challenged this assumption and seems to show that the Hot Jupiter's gravity could actually lead to the formation of large terrestrial planets with up to 100 times more water than Earth -- totally submerged waterworlds. THAT IS ALSO WICKED COOL!!