It looks as if Pluto will be ‘unclassified’ a planet and ‘reclassified’ a Kuiper Belt object. Now, I’m all for greater knowledge and understanding, but isn’t this a bit of a waste of time?
I kind of feel like this would be the same thing as some group of alphabetologists informing everyone that the alphabet isn’t really ordered as well as possible and that all the vowels should be at the beginning for greater understanding. Possibly it would be a better system and more technically correct, but it brings up a tough question, is it worthwhile to re-categorize something that won’t be recognized by most people?
Certainly this has been done to great benefit and harm. There are numerous examples of new cultural identifications that have done away with years of latent bigotry. At the same time organizations have changed readily-understood concepts like ‘bomb’ into ‘payload delivery devices’ or firing a bunch of people to ‘right-sizing’.
Orwell was always talking about language like ‘right-sizing’ — the obfuscating of reality through language. But I wonder if there is another form of Orwellian language, that is some form of overanalyzing?
Maybe I’m just rationalizing because I want to call a tomato a vegetable, a spider an insect and Pluto a planet. But is that so wrong?
5 Responses to Kuiper Belt objects
It does seem like, with mass-murdering wars and what-not raging across the globe, that maybe there could be a better use of people’s time.
Planets, common wisdom holds, don’t change. They are objective (and solidly exist, masses of rock and iron or tons of gas, albeit at a great distance from our easily observable reality). Pluto’s in trouble as a planet because of the discovery of “Xena” — a larger planetary body that also orbits the sun. (http://blogs.chron.com/sciguy/archives/2006/08/pluto_to_remain.html)
The idea now is, well, if Pluto is big enough to be a planet, than Xena certainly is, so they should both be — or neither.
In classifying the planets (and re-classifying them) astronomers, perhaps, increase our understanding of the solar system by uncovering new questions and answering those — i.e. why is this planetary body bigger than Pluto but orbits differently? Or is younger? (Or an actual question that only someone more informed than I could ask . . .)
Seems to me like we’re talking about multiple things here:
a) The “usefulness of knowledge.” I say the pursuit only of knowledge that seems immediately useful to a majority of people is both inhibitive and a little scary. Inhibitive because it discounts the possibility of happy accidents– such as penicilli, or, on a sillier note, nutrasweet, splenda etc. Scary because it predetermines a consensus on the question of “use” and markets itself only to a majority. For instance, the president of my alma mater (the presitgious University of Southern Mississippi) has in the recent years decided that science departments are really the only ones of use, and has all but phased out the liberal arts college. (In case anyone was wondering, the reason I think we should study Liberal Arts is because the subjects contained within it are the carriers of culture and thought and it seems dangerous not to analyze our trends of thinking.) Plus, who gets to decide what’s of use? Do we all really have such great insights into our world that we can determine without doubt what piece of information will never come in handy? Should we really be catering to an hierarchical idea of knowledge?
b) The point of language. I’ve always assumed it was to communicate, to reflect what we know. Dictionaries follow usage, and it seems right that they do. But of course, language very much creates thought too. E. M. Forster said “How do I know what I think until I see what I write?” and I think that quote points to the generative aspect of language. The example of language obfuscating the “truth” seems to me to point out exactly why we should pay attention to what we call things, and realize that there is great change being done to “bombing” when we alter its description to “payload delivery”.
c) Making everyone speak “correctly”. Obviously, to enforce rules of language and naming (even pronunciation) is an exercise in power. But I’m not sure that not following rules is always an exercise in some real opposition. If I were to strongly feel that pluto should continue to be called a planet because it was important to my worldview that there be only nine planets, I think that might be a form of intellectual (if conservative) resistance that is more interesting than if I wanted to call a spider an insect because it doesn’t seem important enough.
Personally, I’m all for wanting to amass knowledge, useful or otherwise, and using it to further not just what we know but also how we think about what we know.
First of all, the comparison between language and science is serophulous. The recategorization of Pluto has far-reaching implications. I can’t think of any right now, but we can safely assume the implications reach to the edge of the solar system. Since Pluto is the only planet discovered by an American (Clyde Tombaugh), then degradizing Pluto’s status will mean that NO planets have been discovered by Americans. I think this would enworsen the reputation of the U.S. in the eyes of the world community. However, even Tombaugh must have known that declaring Pluto to be a planet was a little disconfortunate, why else would he have named something as important as a planet after Mickey Mouse’s dog?
A waste of who’s time? Isn’t that what astronomers do? Look up at the heavens to find new stars and planets and comets and classify them and name them, etc. ad nauseum. Let them have their fun haggling about Pluto and Xena and whether or not they are planets. I have better things to do. Now, let me get back to my game of solataire.
Pluto, as of yesterday, has become a “dwarf planet,” and it is now officially
OK (by the new rules) to name such “dwarf planets” after minor cartoon characters, so we’re in the clear.
It is the astronomers job, isn’t it? All those whiny school children with their petitions to keep Pluto as a planet should shut it. Hey, you want to reclassify Pluto? Study hard and become an astronomer, buddy.