I recently found a Word document with this essay typed into it. As I read it, it brought back memories from last year when I chose to undertake an OpenYale course on iTunes U titled ‘Astrophysics: Frontiers and Controversies’ (conducted by professor Charles Bailyn of Yale University) which I found highly enjoyable, especially as an amateur on the subject. This was actually one of the assignments in the course which I extensively researched and deliberated upon – I cut it down for the purposes of this post to keep the message concise and snappy. If you want more information, hit me up and I’ll direct you to some more information.
To what extent is the demotion of Pluto as a planet a scientific controversy?
In some ways, the demotion of Pluto is a scientific controversy because classification is important in science; in the case of the Pluto controversy, new data (the discovery of Eris which is larger than Pluto) threw the old classifications into question. The new data which was collected lead to the revision of our old classification systems which is a scientific process. However, at the time, there was no official definition of planet so the classification system wasn’t very strong or accurate.
On the other hand, the demotion of Pluto could be argued as a non-scientific controversy because a lot of scientists and non-scientists simply wanted Pluto to remain a planet for personal or cultural reasons as Pluto is part of the original nine planets. No one questioned whether Pluto or Eris were in the same category as Jupiter; it’s obvious that they’re not as they’re much smaller than Jupiter. This is indicative of the fact that it was rooted as a non-scientific desire for Pluto to remain as a planet.
An example of someone who openly objected to the downgrading of Pluto as a planet, based on scientific grounds, is Alan Stern. He is a planetary scientist who argued that one of the definitions of a ‘planet’ states that a planet must clear out its orbit – Pluto crosses the orbit of Neptune. Stern noticed that Neptune must therefore also cross the orbit of Pluto so the particular definition of a planet which was referenced by Stern suggested that both Neptune and Pluto should be removed as planets in our solar system. There could have also been another underlying reason why Stern was increasingly against removing Pluto as a planet; he was the director of the New Horizons mission which was on its way to Pluto. This mission was launched because Pluto was the only planet which the Voyager mission didn’t go to or observe. If Pluto’s position as a planet was degraded, Stern’s mission, which he spent about 15 years of his life directing and millions of dollars developing, would become meaningless and unimportant.
Another scientist, Mike Brown who discovered Eris, advocated the idea that Pluto should remain a planet due to cultural reasons. To keep this cultural decision scientifically accurate and up to date, he said that it would mean anything larger than Pluto should also be a planet in our solar system. So he suggested an arbitrary, culturally enforced cut-off at the mass of Pluto which was not very scientific. This conveniently makes Brown one of the four people in human history to have discovered a planet so the grounds of his decision may have been very biased and non-scientific like Stern.
The whole of the Pluto controversy highlights the fact that scientific matters and issues can have cultural and personal influences which are in no means related to science at all. In conclusion, the demotion of Pluto proves that science itself, which is supposed to be simple and straightforward, can be manipulated by human emotions and sentiments.
[This has been written with the help of a ‘Planetary Transits’ lecture by Professor Charles Bailyn]