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Friday, August 25, 2006

I'm optimistic about the Kuiper Belt

The New York Times editorial board has taken the hard line on Pluto's reclassification. I've noted my scientifically unqualified, sentimental attachment to Pluto previously, but I'm psyched about this new classification for dwarf planets. If I were going to editorialize about the event, I'd say something like, "this is an example of how scientists can modify a classification system to account for new discoveries that contradict previous standards that had stopping being useful..." Caltech astronomer Mike Brown put it this way, "It takes guts to demote a planet that many people claim to love. But if the IAU had made this decision and stuck to it it would only take a generation for everyone to accept the idea. People would even learn that science is capable of correcting itself when it makes errors, which is a useful lesson to see in action."

I don't know what kind of an opinion a national newspaper is supposed to register at news like this, but this editorial suffers from some imprecise figurative language (can planets "catapult" or "swell" in our understanding; can Kuiper Belt objects be called "hordes"?) and a certain amount of 20/20 hindsight. The tone is more "We were fools for thinking it was a planet!" than "We're solving problems and looking forward to new discoveries!"
Pluto, with its small size and oddball orbit, should never have been deemed a planet in the first place. Henceforth there will be eight planets, at least three dwarf planets, and tens of thousands of “smaller solar system bodies,” like comets and asteroids. Our only regret is that the astronomers chose the name “dwarf planets” for Pluto’s new category instead of abandoning the word entirely when discussing these less-than-planetary bodies.

But there's a valid historical reason why Pluto was first classified as a planet: it was thought to be significantly larger than it's now known to be, and it's only after more research (done by people interested in finding more objects like it) that the definition stopped working. Pluto's former classification as a planet is a marker of how astronomers' understanding of the universe has changed. This is a great moment to consider how knowledge is classified and reclassified--not a time for "regrets."

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