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On placemats and other mostly cultural stuff August 24, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Definition of planet.
Tags: , , ,

Today, Mike Brown (I keep talking about this guy, for some reason) decided to post about placemats. I agree, they’re evil, and promote a very erroneous picture of the planetary fauna that exists out there and of the distances between the large and small chunks of rock, ice, gas and a few liquids that circle the sun. They are far from being unique in that, though. More often than not, even scientific illustrations fall prey to the same kind of reality-bending depictions most solar system skematics show. That’s actually part of the reason why I posted those two size comparisons below, and why I may follow with some more. Thanks to all those non-accurate renditions of planets’ sizes and distances, people are very often left with distorted notions about space. They think they know stuff, but they really don’t.

So he’s right. Mostly. Where he really gets it wrong is in thinking his version of placemat could really make a difference in the public perception of the solar system. People want simplicity: that’s why so many of the people complaining about the notion that evertything in hydrostatic equilibrium should be called a planet did it while brandishing the probable number of planets that would ensue. 200 planets? What an absurd, they said. Eight is much better: kids can learn their names by heart, they said. And, of course, have placemats with eight very incorrectly rendered planets instead of nine, much less 200.

That’s one of the cultural consequences of reducing the number of planets to 8. Instead of learning about the real solar system out there, about the various classes of planets that circle the sun, about how they interact with eachother, people will satisfy themselves with parroting some kind of mnemonic and end up knowing less about the solar system than they did when they thought the planets were 9, and much, much less than they could know with the term planet defined as a vast umbrella where every gravitational ball has its place.

And there’s another, recurrent, error 8-planet advocates fall into: to speak of these things as if the Solar System was the only planetary system of the universe. It most definitely is not.



1. Jonathan Metz - August 24, 2009

Wow. I like your blog. I have been trying to say since the beginning of the whole Pluto-demotion thing that once we learn more about planets orbiting other stars we can expect ideas about our own planets to be redefined. The entire 9 planets or 8 planets debate is simply a waste of time. There is one caution I would say however: people may gravitate toward simplicity, but that doesn’t mean the effort isn’t worth trying. I have read Mike Brown’s post and I think it’s a great idea. You can achieve almost anything if you try hard enough, and use creativity 🙂

2. Jorge Candeias - August 24, 2009

Thank you. 🙂

Regarding Brown’s placemat, it’s a hell of a lot better than his daughter’s, that’s for sure. But I have no illusions about it. It may even find someone who’ll produce it and sell it, but the other kind will go on being vastly predominant.

In fact, if you browse the internet now looking for “educational” skematics of Solar System planets you’ll already be finding mostly simplified and neat 8-planet versions of the girl’s placemat, with bloated planets, not-to-scale distances between orbits and all the orbits as neat circles (or ellipses if the thing is supposed to show some perspective). In other words, it’s worse than before. Before, at least they had the “oddball Pluto” to show that things aren’t really that asseptic. Not anymore.

3. Laurel Kornfeld - August 24, 2009

Placemats like this should be viewed as art, not science. They can be used to stimulate discussions of the solar system, but without taking artistic license, there is no way they can accurately show to scale the sizes of the planets and spacing between them.

There are educational schematics out there still being sold with more than eight planets. I know, as I buy them regularly for my nephews. What I would like to see, even if it is not to scale, is a placemat that includes not just Pluto but Ceres, Haumea, Makemake, and Eris.

In this day and age, computer programs like Stellarium and Celestia do a much better job at depicting the night sky in any given location. You can zoom in on any star or planet; with the planets, you can enlarge the image to make a tiny dot look like actual, real photos of them taken from the space missions. These programs are the way to go for education because they have the space, memory, and capacity to show hundreds, if not thousands, of planets, with as much or as little detail as the viewer chooses.

There are also a lot of great online videos that illustrate various solar system pheonomena. My now six-year-old nephew was fascinated by youtube videos showing comet Shoemaker-Levy 9 impacting Jupiter. You have to do some searching to find the really good stuff, but when you find it, the educational and artistic value are definitely worth it.

4. rikchik - August 24, 2009

For me, Brown’s post really crystallized my feelings about this. Either there are 4 planets in the local system, or there are 14-and-counting. The 8-planet definition is just choosing your line to privilege Earth.

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