Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience.
--C.S. Lewis--

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Purportedly Peaceful Pluto Planetary Politics

The debate continues. I wonder how much of the debate is motivated by a clear difficulty in defining "planet" and how much of it is motivated by Pluto partisanship. Astronomers used to get along fine without a clear-cut definition of what constituted a planet using an "I'll know it when I see it" attitude. I don't really see why that cannot continue. Definitions are meant to provide clarity and precision, not to intensify disputes. Therefore, if having a definition serves no clarifying purpose because the body of items you are trying to define is too diverse, why attempt to create one?

They cite the existence of "brown dwarfs" as an example of another hard to define case. (Brown dwarfs are essentially large objects that started the star formation process, but didn't have enough mass to jump-start fusion reactions in their core, so the formation stalled. They emit heat and light through other mechanisms, but significantly less of both than a star would.) But I don't see why this is a problem, except maybe for the writers of high school textbooks. Anyone dealing with astronomy at anything beyond a very basic level can understand "brown dwarf" as a self-defining category without recourse to whether it falls within the broader definition of a planet or not. And when dealing with wider data sets (for example if I'm doing an estimation of the number of planetary objects in a particular galaxy cluster), it doesn't seem like it would be all that difficult to simply define your terms for that particular endeavour. A sentence saying, "For the purposes of this study, planetary objects will mean all bodies greater than .005 earth masses and less than 60 Jupiter masses with a fixed orbit around a star" would provide clarity without any need to come up with labels that apply universally throughout...well...the universe.