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Honk if Pluto is still a planet

By Tim Thwaites - posted Tuesday, 12 September 2006

The outcry with which people greeted ex-planet Pluto’s change in status took Archimedes by surprise. Even the language used was astonishing. Pluto had been “demoted”, “banished” and “stripped of its status”. The Age newspaper wrote an editorial on the topic, and the Times of India reported people buying bumper stickers over the Internet asking fellow drivers to “Honk if Pluto is still a planet”.

Bizarre! Nothing had changed physically - only the words used to describe Pluto’s position in the Solar System. The fact is that it always was different from the eight other planets with which it was formerly lumped - tiny (smaller than the moon), surrounded by debris, and with an orbit which intersects with Neptune outside the planetary plane. So now we’re recognising the fact.

What has changed is a thought pattern in people’s minds. All that time devoted to learning about Pluto as a planet, and the mnemonic to remember the nine (now eight) planets in order. What right have scientists to change their minds, people have demanded. What right to admit that they didn’t have it quite right the first time? How dare they rob us of a childhood verity?


It’s an illustration of a wider problem for science itself, and a general misunderstanding of the way it works. The misunderstanding is partly the fault of scientists themselves, and partly fostered by those who find scientific evidence at odds with their beliefs.

You see, many scientists like to portray what they find as “reality” or “the truth” - and their craft certainly does provide a model of reality. But that’s just what it is, a model. Furthermore, this introduces another great strength of science - it is self-correcting. It can provide better and closer models to reality as it accumulates more evidence. In the process some of the old ideas of reality or the truth are swept away, which jolts people’s faith and upsets their sensibilities.

In fact, the ground always has the potential to shift, and that worries many people, who like certainty. When Archimedes was a student of zoology, the revolution of molecular biology was in its infancy. The sophisticated techniques which allow researchers to study the stuff of life, DNA, were being developed, and genes began to be studied as chemical entities.

The upshot was that the process and progress of evolution and the origin of species was opened to scrutiny at a level never possible before. Suddenly, we could see evolution happening before our very eyes, and species looked a lot less rigid than in the past. There were huge and exciting debates about how to redefine evolution and species, and the certainties of the past were overturned.

That’s why the language of science is rarely one of certainty. It is of probability and percentages, significant difference and estimation of error. To back its ideas or hypotheses, science demands evidence. Accumulating that data takes time. That’s why, for instance, it takes so long between the first suggestions of a medical advance and its application as a treatment or therapy. The evidence that a drug is safe and useful, for instance, can take years or even decades to compile.

And that makes science such an easy target for those who deal in certainties. Because it can never be 100 per cent sure, science leaves open a loophole for those who don’t agree. And, because the pace of progress is ever faster, the relative pace of science always seems slow.


Health Minister Tony Abbott, as an outside observer, suggests that stem cell research has been a failure because the progress to therapy is so slow. As an insider, Archimedes is boggled at its speed of progress and the enormous potential applications it possesses.

Perhaps the world should follow the lead of the shifting sands of science, and show a little more flexibility in its thinking. (Note that Archimedes said science, not scientists, who are just as prone to inflexible thinking as anyone else.) What led to the change in Pluto’s designation was an increase in knowledge - the discovery, using better technology, of many more Pluto-like objects further out, beyond our neighbourhood of the inner eight planets.

With any increase in knowledge you run the risk of upsetting your present understanding. That demands tolerance of new and different ideas. Is that such a bad thing in our world of climate change and the War on Terror?

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First published in Eureka Street on September 5, 2006.

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About the Author

Tim Thwaites has written the Archimedes column for Eureka Street for many years. He has been a science writer and broadcaster for more than 25 years. He is the voice of New Scientist in Australia, and teaches non-fiction writing at La Trobe University.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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