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Articles: Science
A triumph over science?
- Mr. Siva Sankar Donepudi
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ALL scientific discourse is supposed to start with clarity in nomenclature. Gentlemen were required to define their terms. Going by that definition, astronomers are an unscrupulous lot. For more than seven decades, they had us believe that there were nine planets, and that Pluto, discovered in 1930, was the farthest of them all. But as more “planets” were discovered, and various celestial objects vied for the distinction of being No 10, the International Astronomical Union decided that enough was enough, and convened a panel last year to resolve the debate as to exactly what was a planet. The 19-member panel has now come out with its recommendations. Always qualify the word “planet” with something else. Earth and Venus are “terrestrial planets.” Saturn and Jupiter are “gas giants”. And dodgy old Pluto? A “Trans-Neptunian Planet.” You see, the panel had to do something, for a few weeks earlier, a never-say-die team of NASA-funded scientists had claimed yet again that they had discovered the 10th planet beyond Pluto. The object was bigger than Pluto; so if Pluto was a planet , so was “Xena”. Mass is a key factor, which is why many don’t accept Pluto as a planet. Pluto is small, measuring 2,300 kilometres across, while the Earth is 12,756 kilometres, and the biggest, Jupiter, is 1,42,800 km. There are some 175,753 “minor” planets of which some 50,000 have been named or numbered. MIT’s Ceres Connection programme names minor planets after students who win international science contests. The most interesting take on the subject comes from scientist Mike Brown, who has been doing quite a bit of planet-discovering. Pending a scientific definition, Pluto is a planet, because it is “historically and culturally” so. Scientists, he advises, should just let go the term planet, and let “culture win”. Many others also believe that the effort to clarify the matter is doomed, as neither the AIU nor the public may accept ungainly qualifications. No wonder, astrology is so interesting.

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