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Frontiers and Controversies in Astrophysics: Lecture 5 Transcript January 30, 2007 << back Professor Charles Bailyn: I have spent a very enjoyable weekend reading your Pluto comments. No, that was fun. It is a surprisingly--it's a surprisingly deep topic. There are technical issues about how orbits of planets work. There are these interesting cultural and political currents that underlie the whole thing. And also some sort of deep philosophy, or what the literary professors like to call "theory," about what it means--what it means to name something, and what the consequences of particular names are. And so I thought I would make a couple comments on the Pluto thing first, before we get back to the Hot Jupiters. Let's see. The first thing I would say--let me encourage you all, when you get this kind of a question--answer the question that's asked. The biggest problem in the answers that I saw was that sometimes you just didn't address the specific question that was asked. What I asked was, "To what extent is the Pluto controversy a scientific controversy?" You don't answer that by a narrative describing what happens. If you say, "Well, they discovered Eris, and then that threw the scientific world into confusion, and then they had this big meeting and there was all this fuss, and then people started to get involved who weren't scientists," and so forth--that doesn't answer the question. Because the question was, "To what extent is this a scientific controversy?" There are two possible categories of answer to that question. One is, "Yes, it is primarily a scientific controversy." And the other category is, "No. It was primarily not a scientific controversy." And if you didn't say one of those things, or something somewhere in between, then that's not kind of responsive to the question. I would say that you could answer that particular question in this case, in both directions, perfectly well. If you want to make a case that it's a scientific issue, you say, "Look, classification is very important to science." I made that point in class on--a week ago, and that, you know--you've got to have your classifications right in order to understand what's going on. And what has happened? Here is--new data has come in, which has thrown the old classifications into question. Although, it should be noted that there wasn't officially a definition of "planet" that goes back to antiquity. And one of the things they were trying to do was to create one. But that--as new data came in from the outer parts of the Solar System, we had to revise our classifications. And this is a key point of science, and therefore the whole thing is, at root, a scientific issue. But you could also argue the opposite, in that, you know, the scientific issue was not really in doubt. Nobody was questioning whether Pluto and Eris and all those things ought to be in the same category as Jupiter.
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This note was uploaded on 02/06/2012 for the course ASTR 160 taught by Professor Charlesbailyn during the Spring '06 term at Yale.

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