## Sunday, September 10, 2006

### Pluto demotion and public sentiment

When the meeting of the International Astronomical Union in Prague decided that Pluto was no longer a planet, I was feeling certain that it was a huge victory for astronomy on many fronts.

First of all, the decision undoubtedly increases the status of astronomy as a coherent enterprise. Suddenly it is joining the family of fields of human activity in which rational arguments and quantifiable characteristics are more important than mythology. Astronomy is becoming another science in which a careful investigation of a question plays a more important role than superficial dogmas that we have memorized at school.

Second of all, astronomy appeared in thousands of articles. I thought it was a cute story that would lead most people to appreciate the progress in astronomy, although the progress didn't require as deep an analysis as the progress in fields that are arguably more intellectually or technologically demanding.

My first assumption was correct but my second assumption was not.

It is clear that the decision indeed moves astronomy further away from mythology and closer to science. There is simply no way to rationally justify why Pluto should be one of nine planets if there exist other celestial bodies in the Solar System that are larger and more important and "planet-like" than Pluto. If there had been a natural scientific definition of a planet that would keep the list unchanged, I am sure that they would have accepted such a definition. But because more complete information about the Solar System is now available, we know that such a definition simply doesn't exist.

If science matters, the list of planets had to be either expanded or Pluto must be removed from it. I don't really care which of the possibilities was ultimately chosen because the cutoff is a matter of convention. For pedagogical purposes, it is probably better to have a shorter list because children don't have to memorize too many words without an essential scientific value.

Unfortunately, I was wrong about the public sentiment. For example, 83 percent of the people who participated in a Discovery Channel poll wanted to save their Pluto. The list of unsatisfied people includes the students from New Mexico who prefer if the discoverer of Pluto - who was 24 years old when he discovered it - is more important than what he actually will be in 100 years. The list of critics of a new definition most likely includes a majority of the kids at basic schools, politically correct Madison City Council that used to support Ho Chi Minh, British composers with a clash of interests, hundreds of astronomers who write petitions, rock bands, Bruce Cameron and other Walt Disney's fans, uncountable freelance writers from the countryside, Elizabeth Davies the conspiracy theorist, much of Canada, New Mexico, Indiana, and Kenya, Asian astrologers, Mary Latham-Hampo who created a Pluto from black licorice, and even a blogging string theorist who supports these "conservatives" as much as he can.

I just can't believe how stupid most people are. Some of these reactions are just fun but most of them are not. It's the teachers' job to educate a new generation that will be less idiotic and that will know that in science, facts matter and sentiments don't. It is not an issue of national pride of a God-fearing nation, Cassie. But feel free to hijack an airplane and smash it into the Prague Castle. ;-) Many people are surprised by the outcry just like I am.

Many scientists often complain that only 50% of Americans or so understand that evolutionary biology is more correct than creationism. But in this case we get numbers like 83% in the context of a question that is arguably much simpler than the validity of evolution. I thought this was the 21st century. The list of planets that we have learned at school was a scientifically ill-defined random list of sufficiently independent objects orbiting the Sun that were large enough and lucky to be seen before the Second World War. However, such a definition is a piece of history or a fairy-tale, not science. When science obtains more accurate data, it must update its conclusions and definitions - shockingly enough for 83% of the humankind.

If the word "planet" is supposed to have a scientific meaning that is applicable outside the Solar System - and the astronomers are likely to need such a definition in the future - mythology is simply not enough. Everyone can still informally use the word "planet" for Pluto as long as he realizes that he uses a scientifically incorrect terminology. Everyone can believe that Pluto is equal to other planets and shouldn't be discriminated against and that size doesn't matter as long as he realizes that his belief is patently false.

Elements

Consider another word: "element". The ancient scholars used to believe that there were four major elements: fire, water, air, and earth. However, we have learned certain new things about the composition of matter. Our idea about the list of elements has changed quite dramatically. It happened that most people have accepted by now that the elements are things like the hydrogen and helium.

Needless to say that there are people who still believe otherwise. For example, the astrologers assign three zodiac signs to each ancient "element". But many people kind of understand that astrology is not a science.

In the case of planets, you may face 83% of opposition. Many of these people are hysterical imbeciles and people who confuse cartoon heroes with rocks. When someone obtains a scientific result such as the fact that one can't consistently define planets to have 9 of them including Pluto, he or she is guaranteed to face more serious threats today than Copernicus had to face when he figured out that the Earth was orbitting around the Sun, not the other way around. The astronomers are lucky that the demotion is a collective decision of thousands of people - 450 of them actually voted. If this were a discovery of one person, she would already have been assassinated.

What a surprise that these people will also buy nonsensical books of greedy crackpots about high-energy physics - crackpots who are so immoral and well-organized that they now need a few hours only to erase any inconvenient review from amazon.com.

Most people want to believe so many wonderful things that we must conclude, together with Feynman, that it's not a scientific world.

And that's the memo.