Reeking With Plutessence

Because I know you care, the latest on Pluto: First, Scott Westerfeld’s latest Pluto-hatin’ rant, in which it’s revealed, more or less, that one of his biggest problems with a solar system with tiny ice planets is that then everything gets so darn messy. Which reminds me that the pre-Copernicans had a lovely and ordered view of the solar system — a sphere for everything, and everything in its sphere — whose only problem was that it just happened to be, you know, wrong. Fact is, it’s a messy universe; not even the universal constants may be as constant as we once assumed. If we end up with dozens — nay, hundreds! — of tiny ice planets orbiting the sun slowly in wacky, eccentric orbits, it’s just the way these things go.

Scott’s also against the “nine historical planets” idea, hoping against all sense and reason that astronomers and other scientists will fall back on saying “eight classic planets,” thus giving Pluto the (ironically) cold shoulder, and eventually we’ll all forget about those crazy little ice planets with their crazy eccentric orbits and all. Well, the reason this won’t happen is because Pluto is useful; it’s not only a planet, but it’s also a signifier for all the other dinky ice planets out there. By retaining and invoking Pluto as the example par excellence of tiny ice planets, we get away with not having to name them all, thus allowing future generations of children to know tiny ice planets exist — as they certainly do, so ignoring them entirely would be a lie — without torturing them by requiring them to memorize the name of every bit of ice and rock massive enough to collapse into a sphere. And that, ladies and gentlemen, is how Pluto saved Christmas.

Meanwhile, Charlie Stross thinks both Scott and I are mad as dogs, and plumps for the “four planet” solar system. I’d sic Cthulhu on him, but clearly, it’s far too late for that.

One more twist in Scott’s Pluto-hatin’ gut: Textbook and toy makers are preparing to implement the 12-planet solar system. Apparently it’ll take up to seven years before all the science textbooks in the US have all the 12 proposed planets in them, thanks to the nature of textbook sales in this country. But the toys could be ready much sooner than that: “Discovery Channel Store spokeswoman Pamela Rucker predicted new 12-planet toys could be in stores in time for the Christmas season.”

Heh. I know what I’m getting Scott for the holidays.

41 thoughts on “Reeking With Plutessence

  1. Pluto was always the oddball of the family, content with being lord of the underworld. Pluto can be king of his plutonic hordes, and we can have eight planets and surety in the toy industry. What happens if we suddenly have 13 planets a month after Christmas?

  2. What happens if we suddenly have 13 planets a month after Christmas?

    You simply market the Solar System Expansion Pack.

  3. You know what Scott’s trouble is? It’s mythological. Justine only ate 6 pomegranate seeds and they have to fly between NY and Sydney to keep Justine’s mother happy. And it’s always winter in NY – Justine’s books say so. Which means Scott’s problem is that he *is* Pluto and he dislikes being called a planet.

  4. ditto Stross:
    introduce “failed planetary nuclei”, to define the rocky Earthlike bodies of the inner solar system.
    I grew up in northeast Ohio (rust belt, Browns & pre-90s Cavs and Indians, etc.). I think I could live with that.

  5. You know, I think the more we look at it, the Solary System and by extension the Universe, is not particularly easily quantifiable.

    Like Scalzicce the Barefoot wrote in his books, the Universe is a messy, complicated and hostile place. We just have to live in it.

    But if it makes sirs Stross and Westerfeld feel better, then they can just sit quietly in their studies and fume about how everyone else is wrong.

    I will celebrate by going to get breakfast.

  6. Now, now. Between the humorous debate between me and Scott (and now with extra added Strossiness), we’ve put Pluto on the blogosphere agenda and gotten people talking about science who might not normally. That’s what’s going on here.

  7. Hey – didn’t I just say yesterday that twelve was the ideal number of planets?

    Why yes, yes I did, and now I’ve got textbooks and toys to back me up.

    Okay, they’ll back me up in seven years but wait – do y’all think that number seven is an accident?

    So far we’ve got seven and twelve. Sixty cannot be far behind. Sure, y’all probably know more about astronomy then I do, although not necessarily so, but I know human nature and how it affects these things. For years we have had the notion of ‘seven heavenly wonderers’ taught to us as soon as we learned the days of the week. The idea of nine or ten is just a temporary glitch on the way to twelve.

  8. Gillian Pollack said:
    You know what Scott’s trouble is? It’s mythological. Justine only ate 6 pomegranate seeds and they have to fly between NY and Sydney to keep Justine’s mother happy. And it’s always winter in NY – Justine’s books say so. Which means Scott’s problem is that he *is* Pluto and he dislikes being called a planet.

    Wha? Who the hell told you!? That’s our closest guarded—er, ah, I mean, are you mad? Utter, utter lies. I deny everything.

  9. Scalzicce, him say: Now, now. Between the humorous debate between me and Scott (and now with extra added Strossiness), we’ve put Pluto on the blogosphere agenda and gotten people talking about science who might not normally. That’s what’s going on here.

    T’weren’t no diss, I was just saying the grumblers are probably going to have to… suck it for a few hundred years until they discover the thing beyond Xena. And I, like, talk about PLuto on my blog all the time and stuff. AHem… gotta go fake seom entries now…

    Marianne, she says: Right. Book deadlines have nothing to do with it. At all. Really.

    Hehe. She do have a point there.

  10. I don’t buy Charlie’s definition of a planet at all… if we wanna get radical, I say One Planet! If it can’t retain a life sustaining atmosphere it doesn’t count.

    Though actually, I prefer the current thinking, Pluto and all…

  11. Ya know, I don’t think Scott has issues with Pluto, per se. I think Scott has issues with ice. I think he just really hates ice.

    Betcha he prefers room-temperature beer and soda. Ice-haytas usually do.

  12. one of his biggest problems with a solar system with tiny ice planets is that then everything gets so darn messy . . . Fact is, it’s a messy universe.

    To say that the roundness definition of planet is designed to represent the universe in its actual messy glory is just plain disingenuous. Everyone involved–Mike Brown, the IAU, you–have admitted that their main reason for defining planets this way is to keep Pluto in the fold, for historical and other cultural reasons.

    Actually, our solar system is quite neat: four unambiguously terrestrial planets; four unambiguous gas giants; an asteroid belt full of asteroids; a bunch of iceballs. No scientist disputes these categories.

    The mess comes from putting three iceballs and one asteroid on the classroom walls along with the terrestrials and gas giants.

    And any textbooks that say that there are 12 planets will just be wrong. Over the next few years, by this definition, there will be at any given moment from 12 to 50-something planets, and many as yet undiscovered.

    So the toys, the textbooks, and the placemats will all be as cluttered, confused, and constantly in need of an update as the Plutophants’ thinking.

    This 12-planet scheme is your solar system on Betamax.

  13. Scott Westerfeld:

    “This 12-planet scheme is your solar system on Betamax.”

    If memory serves, Betamax was the technically superior format.

  14. Cthulu has a real thing for eating the brains of SF writers at conventions – only this year he sucked the grey matter from the skull of the mighty Iain M. Banks, before my very eyes…

    …I still wake up sweating, to this day. So fluffy, yet so evil.

    Does anyone else think that the possible schism of astrologers and other interested parties over the Pluto question has the potential to become some sort of secular apostacy movement? There’s a story in there that I have neither the time or the talent to write…if anyone else fancies it, I hereby cede ownership of the idea to them, gratis – just mention me in the dedication or something.

    Oh, you already thought of it? Shucks.

  15. If memory serves, Betamax was the technically superior format.

    Good point. And a better point is, any metaphor comparing the Plutophants to an actual format is wrong. Plutophancy is composed of a rag-tag band of 10-planet types, 12-planeters, 9-planeters like Scalzi, zillion-planeters, and a big mob of folks who think that things should just be messy just because coherent categories are, like, so last century.

    A better metaphor for the current IAU proposal would be an astronomical Bush v Gore: even the people who like the result don’t particularly understand the logic.

  16. Ok, they’re not scientists but in an article posted to the CSM the authors use “the classic nine” which seems awful close to your “nine historical planets” idea. Maybe if enough of the media/press start using the terminology; the idea will get stuck in the heads of the astronomers voting. If it does get stuck in their heads, perhaps that means we’ll get to override the Pluto-haters and get to keep things as Mrs. Dewhearst intended.

    Oh, for those of you who didn’t go to the same schools as I did; Mrs. Dewhearst was one of my earliest teachers. :)

  17. Scott,

    There will be twelve ‘primary’ planets and a total of sixty planets in all, and what is the problem with that?

    Heck, there are still people who think there are five senses and four primary tastes and the world still turns.

    Reality doesn’t depend on how we define our words.

  18. scott:

    Actually, our solar system is quite neat: four unambiguously terrestrial planets; four unambiguous gas giants; an asteroid belt full of asteroids; a bunch of iceballs. No scientist disputes these categories.

    Well… I’d argue that the gas giants are quite so uniform… asteroids are asteroids because of existing arbitrary definitions (other than size can you differentiate terrestrial planets and asteroids?) and “iceballs”, is not exactly a scientifically accepted or “undisputed” category.

    Why can you have terrestrial planets and gas planets but not ice planets? If Pluto were significantly large, you still would dispute its planetness? If it were significantly closer? How bout if Mars had an orbit somewhat outside the ecliptic?

  19. Reality doesn’t depend on how we define our words.

    No, but words are best defined in ways that communicate and illuminate. And I don’t see a scheme that creates several overlapping and interpenetrating definitions–“primary planets,” “dwarf planets,” “historical planets,” “plutons,” and “non-pluton dwarfs”–as very good for explaining the universe to schoolkids, lay people, or anyone else.

    The useful catergories are: gas giants, terrestrial planets, asteroids, and KBOs (call them “plutons” if you must). That’s what we should be teaching, and the save-Pluto cause has only served to undermine those categories.

  20. Scott Westerfeld:

    “And I don’t see a scheme that creates several overlapping and interpenetrating definitions–‘primary planets,’ ‘dwarf planets,’ ‘historical planets,’ ‘plutons,’ and ‘non-pluton dwarfs’–as very good for explaining the universe to schoolkids, lay people, or anyone else.”

    My understanding is that there is to be one general definition of a planet (Massive enough to collapse into a sphere under its own gravity, orbits a star), and then the rest are futher refinements. I don’t know that it’s any more difficult to conceptualize than the several overlapping and interpenetrating definitions of various animals (how an one may equally be, say, an animal and an invertebrate and an insect, or an animal and a land dweller and a human).

  21. or an animal and a land dweller and a human

    Yes, John, I remember that fateful day when the International Union of Biologists got together to create the five-page definition of “land dweller.” It has proved so useful for me in writing about and understanding biology that I keep a framed copy just over my desk. (And I’m so glad they made sure to get the walking fish in there, because of its historical importance as a dweller upon land.)

  22. Or to put it another way: I get why biological taxonomy is complcated. There are a billions (trillions?) of species.

    But to introduce these complexities into astronomical terminology for the sole purpose of getting Pluto and Jupiter into the same club strikes me (and many astronomers) as perverse. (And yes, I also get why Mercury and Jupiter are in the same club: they have almost identical orbital mechanics and both “dominate their region of space,” simply at different scales.)

  23. Wait. Not all 53 would get names? I’m all for naming each and every one of them. And after we settle this whole business with Xena/Cthulu/whatever, I move the next one out be called, “Bob.” Because every solar system should have a Planet Bob.

  24. Heck, there are still people who think there are five senses and four primary tastes and the world still turns.

    Wait, the world doesn’t turn? Pshaw! I suppose next you’ll be telling me that the days of our lives aren’t at all like sands in the hourglass!

  25. My biggest objection to this whole thing is that now they’re going to need to rewrite “Interplanet Janet”

  26. I’ve been covering the Pluto debate for a while now, but I’m glad to see that it has spread out into the “blogosphere” (will the IAU define that next?). And I have really enjoyed the volleys among certain SF writers who really ought to be working on their next novels!

    (Just kidding.)

    Hey, positive spin for you all. I had picked up a couple of Westerfeld and Stross volumes and was checking out the Scalzi blog thanks to posts at SF Signal. So now that I see that John Scalzi stands by Clyde Tombaugh, I’m going to have to order his books as well (although I suspect that the forthcoming “coffee shop book” will need to be revised with a chapter about Blogging Time Sinks and Debating Tactics Amongst SF Writers!). So you all win in the end.

  27. Very entertaining coverage on this tonight on Countdown with Keith Olbermann — MSNBC. The show is repeated at midnight (Eastern time, anyway). Look for story #2 (counted backward for those unfamiliar with KO’s format) about 40 minutes in. Story featured stock footage of scientists with test tubes, the destruction of Alderaan, and Charo! Yes, the ’70s coochie-coochie singer…, why?
    Then you can stay tuned for Snakes on a Plane coverage if you like.

  28. I actaully have a really good reason for not calling pluto a planet…(aside from pissing john off which is reward onto itself)

    If you name it a planet that means 100 years from now whan someone has the means and drive to do something with it you are going to get all these assholes wanting to preserve it becosue it is a “planet”…even though you can’t even see it with the naked eye.

  29. Nah, Joshua, those folks won’t stop at planets. Shake the tree hard enough and there will be people who will want to preserve moons, asteroids (or whatever we’re going to call them), etc.

    Heck, there are are folks out there who think if we’re going to go extinct, we should Just Let It Happen. Go figure.

  30. How about this definition:

    If you can stand on it and jump without attaining escape velocity, it’s a planet.

    I’m haven’t done the math to see what the least mass to qualify would be, but it seems like a nice definition to me. If you can walk around on it, it’s a planet.

  31. scott,

    No, but words are best defined in ways that communicate and illuminate.

    Oh sheesh. Yes, yes, for scientific purposes I will concede that you are correct. Go ahead and choose an n-dimensional word for every planet that encapsulates all of its known physical characteristics for all I care.

    But you can not deny the human side of things. We’ve already named these things, and as Fred and joshua jokingly point out once we’ve given them a name we’ve personified them.

    We are attached to them, for better or worse. Few people know that an acre is a chain times a furlong but in the US we like the term acre and we are used to it so take your French opinions and your metric system and . . . oops, sorry, got a little off track there.

  32. Meanwhile, Charlie Stross thinks both Scott and I are mad as dogs, and plumps for the “four planet” solar system. I’d sic Cthulhu on him, but clearly, it’s far too late for that.

    Well, the man writes Cthulhu stories. Or pastiches. (Or maybe they’re fanfic!). All I know is “A Colder War” is dang good, and it’s probably good enough that Cthulhu will eat him first.

  33. the pre-Copernicans had a lovely and ordered view of the solar system — a sphere for everything, and everything in its sphere — whose only problem was that it just happened to be, you know, wrong.

    That’s not actually quite correct. By the time of Copernicus, the Ptolemaic system had grown ridiculously complicated, with spheres and epicycles and deferents and epicycles on epicycles, each trying to bring the system into alignment with increasing-accurate measurements. (*) Funny thing was, initially the Copernican system was *less* accurate — not able to reproduce the predictions of the Ptolemaic system — but it was so much simpler that people switched anyway.

    (*) I believe the sphere/deferent/epicycle/etc system is mathematically equivalent to the first N terms of a harmonic expansion on the actual orbit of the planet. Which is why it basically worked.

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