Your Mom Said I Was Big Enough

By Josh Bickham

Since Pluto’s discovery in the 1930’s there was never really a reason to consider Pluto anything other than a member of our solar system. But in the 1990’s scientists began seeing that there were many other large icy bodies similar to Pluto also in the same neighborhood just beyond Neptune known as the Kuiper Belt.  

In 2005 Caltech astronomer Mike Brown discovered Eris, an icy planet even larger than Pluto.  Scientist soon began to rethink their understanding of how we classify planets, ringing the question that if there are so many of these round icy bodies, should they be classified as planets too?

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It was this re-examination that prompted a rather large debate among astronomers whether or not Pluto should remain a part of our Solar System.  In 2006 the International Astronomical Union (IAU) came up with the “official” definition of a “planet”:

  1. A body that circles the sun without being some other objects satellite
  2. Is large enough to be rounded by its own gravity without becoming a star
  3. Has “cleared its neighborhood” of most other orbiting bodies.

Because Pluto shared its “neighborhood” with other objects in the Kuiper Belt, it was summarily demoted in August of 2006 to a new classification of Trans-Neptunian objects called Dwarf Planets.

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There are many astronomers and scientist today that are still unhappy with the IAU’s definition calling it flawed and unscientific.  Most say that the IAU vote wasn’t fair seeing that less than 5% of astronomers (434 to be exact) voted on the change.  Was the reclassification necessary, or was this the result of a small elite minority setting precedence for the rest of the world because they can?

As an educator I can’t say that I thoroughly agree or disagree with the decision, but I can give a few key points on why I think it is an important subject or topic of discussion.

I think this topic is an excellent representation for people to see that science is always evolving.  There is a common misconception that rules or laws in science never change.  One of the greatest aspects of science is that it continuously questions itself, corrects itself, sometimes proving and disproving itself.  This doesn’t mean  that our previous understandings were wrong or that we offered up false information, rather it is a sign that we have advanced our knowledge to a higher understanding of that particular area.  Changing our ideas and reclassifying things into areas because we have better knowledge is advancement.   Mike Brown said, “It’s classification that matters. Classification is the first step toward understanding”  Which is a key point in science, asking questions doesn’t always lead to answers, what’s better than answers are more questions.  Science progresses as we continuously learn more and gain new knowledge.  If we stop, we’re essentially heading backwards.


One comment on “Your Mom Said I Was Big Enough

  1. Pingback: The Man Who Killed Pluto | David Reneke | Space and Astronomy News

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