The solar system

Russell wrote a terrific, exhilarating post about the solar system and Pluto and changing knowledge today. (It looks as if he wrote it tomorrow, but that’s because Metamagician is on Oz time even when Russell isn’t.)

Until very recently, astronomy needed no formal definition of a planet, but this has changed as our knowledge of the Solar System has increased. During the 1990s we discovered a toroidal region of space known as the Kuiper Belt, which contains not only Pluto but many other objects of similar composition and with similarly unusual orbits when compared to those of the eight larger planets. With a better understanding of the Solar System, astronomers came to understand Pluto as the largest of these Kuiper Belt objects, all of which are very different from any of the other eight planets, and much smaller. Astronomers began to find large objects even beyond the Kuiper Belt, all contributing to what I call the Grand Opening Up of the Solar System.

See…that’s interesting. In our own lifetimes, just in the past couple of decades, astronomers have expanded what they (and thanks to them, we, if we learn) know about the Solar System. It’s interesting that they discover new things, and the news things they discover are interesting.

There is an exciting story to be told about the Grand Opening Up of the Solar System, how it led to efforts in 2006 to develop a definitions of such categories as “planet”, and how it still goes on. A well-informed science journalist with good publishing connections could get a wonderful book out of this story, in the process telling the public much about contemporary astronomy and why the study of our own Solar System is currently in such a wonderful ferment. I’d like to read that book…Unfortunately, I can’t imagine Chris Mooney and Sheril Kirshenbaum writing that book. Where I see excited astronomers responding rationally and reasonably to the Grand Opening Up of the Solar System – refining the categories and definitions that they use in their work – they see a bunch of mean scientists taking an opportunity to give the public a poke in the eye by taking away its beloved ninth planet. This is a pity. They could have done some positive communication here, in the opening chapter of Unscientific America. Instead, they produced a dull and inaccurate narrative that is meant to support their theory that out-of-touch (or even mean-natured and anti-populist) scientists are largely to blame for America’s alarming degree of scientific illiteracy. What a waste of a great opportunity to practice what they preach, and improve the public’s understanding of what is really going on in science.

Exactly. Isn’t it sad. That brief post of Russell’s is exactly the kind of thing that M&K want, if they only knew it.

8 Responses to “The solar system”