Fortold in the planets?

Amongst all the hoohah of the last week, and today's decision to reclassify Pluto as a dwarf planet, there have been some interesting examples of people jumping to rather pre-emptive conclusions. Incidentally, the removal of the full planet status for Pluto is something that has been suggested for many years ever since it was found to be much smaller than originally expected. But now back to those pre-emptive comments...

First there were the journalists who took the release of the proposal for the definition of planets as solid fact that had already been agreed upon. Hence all the articles telling us that there were now 12 planets. This was jumping the gun on a huge scale and not giving the IAU membership a chance to vote on the matter. An example I noticed only this morning was in the Guardian Science podcast where Alok Jah incorrectly predicted that the original proposal would be carried saying "I'm a journalist, it's my job to know this sort of thing".

If the journalists (not counting Planetary Radio who properly prefaced their discussion with reference to the vote) had known anything about a large bunch of academics it is that it can be difficult to get them to agree with each other. This is doubly difficult when it comes to picking between fairly arbitrary ways to split up bodies in the Solar System (which come in a whole continuum of sizes) into planets and other bodies.

Astronomers don't actually need to worry if something is or isn't a planet. They are the sizes that they are and have the composition that they do and that is what matters, not convenient lingual boxes to put them in. I'll also add that the debate over this nomenclature has led to criticisms by many astronomers of stamp collecting - a terrible putdown - which refers back to the famous (amongst physicists) quote by New Zealander Ernest Rutherford who postulated the atomic nucleus.

The other pre-emptive folks this week have been the astrologers, especially Jonathan Cainer who was quoted in the Telegraph as saying:

"We astrologers have long known and been predicting the announcement of new planets... These changes do not mean that the predictions we have been making have been wrong. But they do mean that in future we will be able to make predictions that we would not previously have been able to make. Every time a new celestial body is found, it signals major technological changes, so Pluto coincided with the splitting of the atom and Neptune with the invention of photography. Pluto is traditionally the planet of all things nuclear and disastrous. I predict we will see a discovery that will almost certainly see nuclear fusion becoming viable within the next 18 months."

So there you go folks, the world's energy problems may become much easier by the end of 2008. Of course, now that Pluto is a dwarf planet and the other objects he alludes to (2003 UB313, 2005 FY9 and 2003 EL61) are potential dwarf planets, his predictive skills may be a bit rusty. You may reasonably expect Mr Cainer to now tell us that the decisions of astronomers don't matter as these bodies are still planets to him (words to that effect are now on his website) but only last week he was saying:

"Imagine you are a doctor. You have several techniques with which to measure the body rhythms of your patients including pulse, blood pressure, heartbeat etc. One day, you get a letter from the world’s most eminent medical experts advising you of another three more important signs to monitor. That’s roughly what’s going on in my world now. Astronomers may not respect astrologers, but astrologers hold astronomers in very high regard. If they say Ceres, Charon and Xena matter, they matter. Those of us who aren’t already working with these celestial bodies will immediately start learning how to interpret their alignments!"

The emphasis is mine but I think it is clear that he only holds astronomers in high regard when they seem to be doing what he wants. Now that they are doing the opposite he doesn't seem so keen to remove objects from his predictions. Sigh.

Will there be any retractions? Probably not. Does it matter that the reporting isn't accurate if it makes a good headline? I suspect that most people don't care and have probably forgotten the stories from last week anyway. Now, if only they could all admit that they were wrong to jump to conclusions just as the IAU have done this week by taking the planet status away from Pluto.

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Posted in astro blog by Stuart on Friday 25th Aug 2006 (01:34 BST) | Permalink
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