Astronomy: Tiny Pluto Victim of Drive-By Shooting?

Reading my latest Astronomy magazine (Feb 2011), I see the “Pluto debate” rages on. As everyone knows, unless vacationing on Mars at the time, in 2006 the International Astronomers’ Union (IAU) redefined Pluto as a dwarf planet.

I’ve already written several articles on this in our Astronomy department. So why on Earth would this controversy sprawl over to our Writing department? This is one of those little tempests in the scientific teapot that might better have just been turned over to the guardians of language: lexicographers, semanticists and similar, more literary colleagues.

Scientists are rightly concerned, I’ll agree, that folks don’t get to simply just take back common English words (say, like “Creation”) for redefinition, so they can accommodate some new theory or agenda. The Kansas Board of Education doesn’t get to redefine Evolution out of legal existence. But isn’t that what the IAU did?

Adam Savage of the popular TV show MythBusters is celebrated for his trademark resuscitation of the discredited ’60’s school of subjective reality, i.e., his tongue-in-cheek quip “I reject your reality, and substitute my own.” Many feel that’s what the IAU did with language.

You’ll recall the whole debate blew as high as the heavens with the discovery of new planetary bodies with exotic names like Quaoar and Xena. Some of these bodies are larger than Pluto. Do we jump from nine to thirteen planets, or tighten the rules?

Well, it turns out that much of the jargon of astronomy goes back to the Renaissance, and that terminology grew up with the history of scientific discovery, which is fair enough, but a lot of that jargon no longer makes a lot of sense.

One of the glories of the Church of England is its worship. The word ‘liturgy’ describes the patterns, forms and words through which public worship is conducted. — Worship in the Church of England

Like a church liturgy, it helps to have grown up steeped in the lore of scientific terminology. For example, a carbon-rich star is called a “carbon star” and is classified as a Type C star, but an oxygen-rich star, like a Red Giant, is called a type M star “for historical reasons.” Well, it gets worse, for carbon stars don’t exactly fit into the same historical scheme, but, moving on:

A Brown Dwarf fits into the dwindling tail-end taxonomy of the life cycle of dying stars, but we still call them “stars”. Of exploding stars, we have “nova” and “supernova”, and types Ia and II (that’s where most of the carbon and oxygen comes from). The IAU ignored the more adaptive modern scientific approach to nomenclature for the rigidity of the medievalist.

Of “planets”, some of astronomy’s learned lexicographers are still stuck on the notion that every non-luminous orbiting body has to fit into  the 17th century taxonomy; “it’s either a ‘planet’, or it’s not”.

If the IAU had just classified planets as subtypes A, B or C, they might have solved the new-discovery thing without trying to redefine the world’s languages at every chance new discovery. IAU 2006 was the semantic equivalent of a drive-by shooting.

As new objects are found orbiting our own sun,  and exoplanets are spotted dimming the light curves of distant stars, I’m predicting: a chastened future IAU will have to go back and redefine their ‘reality’ in a way that fits the facts, as well as making historical and common sense.

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