March 8, 2007

Scientific Federalism

CV reports on New Mexico's assertion of astronomical nomenclatural superiority.

NOW, THEREFORE, BE IT RESOLVED BY THE LEGISLATURE OF THE STATE OF NEW MEXICO that, as Pluto passes overhead through New Mexico's excellent night skies, it be declared a planet and that March 13, 2007 be declared "Pluto Planet Day" at the legislature.
As to the issue of Pluto's planethood I have few strong feelings. Unlike (what seems like) most of the population, within astronomy its status is not seen as meaningful or contentious, from what I have seen. Everyone has an opinion, just not a very strong one. You can call it whatever you want, the naming of an object is not a scientific question, merely a semantic one. There is no platonic ideal that sets up a definition of planetness. This is also why it seems unnecessary to incite all that furor--a concise scientific definition for "planet" is not needed for anything. I don't see the point of creating a category that artificially groups Mercury and Saturn together while excluding Pluto and the riff raff in the Kuiper belt.

[Sorry about that, bloviating about Pluto's fate seems to be a blog-transmitted disease (BTD?). I staved off infection for 6 months but it couldn't last forever. A half year of Pluto-muzzling is sort of impressive considering that I actually roomed with an IAU member who voted to demote the beleaguered Dwarf Planet last summer. (If I were him I would not announce this in mixed company.) Not to mention that my finest moment at the CfA last August was probably cracking up a table of astronomers with some kind of remark comparing Pluto's demotion to the pre-Iraq War boycott of France. I don't remember what the joke was exactly (boycotting Plutonian wine? changing the name of the Disney character to "Freedom Dog"?), but clearly it shows that I had insightful and witty things to say on the topic which I withheld in the interest of moderation.]

Anyway, New Mexico's unilateral action (or impending action, it hasn't been voted on yet) raises some questions. I am not that bothered about this state making declarations about "science" because Pluto's labeling is entirely a semantic issue. It is so awesome to hear that the New Mexico Legislature can move on to meaningless resolutions addressing astronomical nomenclature now that they are done making the state an utopian paradise with no remaining Early problems. But what is far more interesting to me is when is the next time that Pluto will be in New Mexican air space? If I don't see it written up anywhere in a day or so, I will attempt to figure it out. The state's 315,194 km² area translates to ~500,000,000 km² of New Mexico-shaped surface area out at the orbit of Pluto. So it might be possible, but considering NM's location above the Tropic of Cancer and Pluto's high vertical eccentricity, it could be a while.