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How about hiring a linguist? December 1, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Terminology.
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Warning: this post will be a wee bit ranty. Well, perhaps more than just a wee bit.

Last chance to go read something else. No?

OK, you were warned. Here goes.

Often, I get the feeling that astronomers should be kept under a tight leash when it comes to naming things. Even when they do it kinda right, given what they know at the time of the naming, they usually show an appaling lack of vision, and then we’re stuck for all eternity with all these oh-so-misleading terms.

Take “asteroid”, for instance. OK, fine, at the time of naming, they looked through their telescopes and saw only an unresolved point of light, like a star, hence “asteroid” (which means “star-like” for those who don’t know). But they did already know that those objects were circling the sun, they did know that telescopes were constantly getting better, couldn’t they have, you know, forseen that one day we would probably be able to actually see asteroidal shapes? And that once we did, they would not look anything like stars anymore?

Another instance is planetary nebulae. Someone peeked at a telescope, saw a diffuse and faint disc and decided to make an association with the planets, despite the fact that nebulae were fixed in the sky, not at all wandering around as planets are inclined to do. And then, inevitably, it was found that planetary nebulae have absolutely nothing to do with planets. Obviously.

Stars don’t come in intermediate sizes, you know?, although they actually do. In astronomerland, they are either giants or dwarfs, no middle term. And who was the genius that came up with a name such as “brown dwarf”? Brown isn’t even a spectroscopic colour, for Pete’s sake!

And now, we have the dwarf planets. Oh, where to start with the dwarf planets? Well, here, for instance: they want to persuade us that dwarf planets are not planets. Beauty! But it actually gets much better. One would think that they are dwarfs because they are small, right? Oops: wrong. They are dwarfs because they belong to donut-shaped swarms of objects called “belts”. So, since the term dwarf doesn’t have anything to do with size, despite having, some day we’ll inevitably discover a non-dwarf planet which is smaller than part of the dwarfs.

Actually, we may have already found one: PSR B1257+12 D is the fourth planet discovered around pulsar PSR B1257+12 and, despite what wikipedia says, is not a dwarf planet because it’s the only body in its orbital zone, speculations of a Kuiper belt analogue notwithstanding. Yet, at some 0.0004 Earth masses it’s much smaller than Eris, which is about 0,0028 Earth masses.

Yeah, that’s right. PSR B1257+12 D, a non-dwarf planet, isn’t even 15% as massive as Eris, a dwarf planet. It’s your cue to facepalm.

Dwarfs, however, aren’t set in stone, unlike asteroids. Yet. We’re stuck with asteroids, but to avoid the dwarf disaster there’s still time. So how about this: want to have a term designating planets (or planet-like objects, if you prefer) that reside in belts? Fine, I think it’s a good idea. But if you are naming them after where they are for the sake of the holy FSM don’t choose a name that has to do with their size. A dwarf planet should be a small planet, regardless of where it is. Oh, but there’s that terrible question about what to call a planet that resides in a belt! Gosh! Hell, I hadn’t thought of tha… oh, wait! I know! How about belt planet?

Sometimes I scare myself. Eerie.

End rant. You can come back now.

So you want to talk about double planets? No sweat. November 30, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Definition of planet, double and multiple planets.
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The post where I explain why 8 planets are bad science has been generating both good traffic and a rather interesting discussion in the comment boxes. Part if it is about double planets.

If you check the page, on this blog, where I present the current (and highly flawed) definition of planet and my alternative, you’ll find two things. One is that my alternative is quite simple and quite radical. Those long posts I keep mentioning but never get the time to write are mostly meant to explain all the reasoning behind that simplicity and radicality, along with why I think so poorly of the IAU’s definition. But I have been lacking the time to dive in those waters, and the best you may find for now are some hints spread here and there. One of the places where hints are to be found is the thread of comments in that post.

But maybe it’s time to actually write something a bit more solid than mere comments. And, since any place is good to start, why not taking the lead from the visitors to this blog and write about double planets?

The concept of double planet is very similar in its essence to that of a double star: two objects that share, more or less, the same characteristics, and that are gravitationally bound to eachother. However, whereas a double (or its extension: a multiple) planet has no definition anywhere, there is no question about what a double (or multiple) star is. A star is multiple if there is more than one star revolving about the same center of mass, the system’s baricenter. Note that nowhere is there any reference to where that barycenter lies. A small-mass star may be so close to a heavy star that the system’s barycenter lies inside the heavy one, and the system is still a double star. Undoubtedly.

The problem with planets arises because the only objects that are considered planets are those that revolve around stars (according to the IAU, it’s even worse: only the Sun can have planets, which is the most ridiculous aspect in that definition, but let’s forget about that particular nonsense for now). The fact that every planet that is part of a multiple-body system (i.e., the planet and its satellites) also revolves around that system’s center of mass murks the waters. True, in most situations the planet is much larger than its satellites, and the system’s center of mass lies deeply within it. But what if some day we’ll find two bodies of very similar sizes revolving around a center of mass that lies outside the planet? Which one is the planet then? Both? None?

And what to you mean “what if”? We already know one such system: Pluto-Charon. Even the Earth-Moon system may one day be in that scenario, for the Moon is constantly drifting away from our planet, which means that the system’s center of mass gets closer and closer to the Earth’s surface. But so far, it’s only Pluto-Charon. Pluto has traditionally been considered the planet and Charon the moon, but Pluto’s traditional standings have been getting a serious beating recently, and that one is no exception. In the first draft of the IAU definition of planet, swiftly defeated, Charon was to be “promoted” to the condition of planet and, together with Pluto, would form a double planet. The criterion was the position of the system’s barycenter.

That criterion is, however, just plain awful. Since the position of a system’s barycenter depends on the mass of the system’s components and on the distance between them, such a criterion could result in absolutely ridiculous situations. Imagine we find some fine day a system where the satellite’s mass is close to the planet’s and it’s on a highly eccentric orbit, meaning that the distance between the two objects varies a lot during an orbit. With the right masses and distances, when the two bodies get closer, the barycenter dips within the heaviest of the two bodies, and when they drift apart, the barycenter jumps from within the heaviest, hovers for a while above its surface only to dip again in the next orbit. Or, in other words, using that criterion, for part of each orbit the system would be composed of one planet and one satellite, and for the rest of each orbit it would be a double planet, obviously composed of two planets.

Sheer nonsense, don’t you agree? You do. I’m sure you do.

There are ways to solve this problem, of course. One is to say that there is no such thing as double planets: the heaviest of the set is a planet; the others are satellites and that’s it. Another one came up in the discussion of that post of mine: just establish an arbitrary limit of mass ratio between the two, above which the system would be considered a double planet, and below which it would just be a planet-satellite system. Since I’m very strongly opposed to establishing arbitrary limits (which is one of the reasons why I really hate the current IAU definition, but that’s for subsequent posts), I dislike the second option almost as much as I dislike the barycenter criterion. The first one is not arbitrary, so it’s fine with me.

Except that I have a better idea.

Let’s cover every part of the sizes’ scale. We’ve talked about stars and saw no problem there, we’ve talked about planets and saw a complete mess, let’s now see what happens in the lowest area, the asteroid, or small body, zone. Asteroids have also been found in associations of two or more gravitationally bound sets. The first asteroid found to be a binary was Ida, when Galileo (the probe, not the astronomer) photographed its moonlet Dactyl, in 1993, but in the last 16 years we’ve found almost 200 more such systems. Including systems with more than two components, the first of which was Sylvia, which has two (much) smaller companions: Remus and Romulus. What’s the terminology there?

Unsurprisingly for such a new set of concepts, it’s also a mess. People talk about asteroids and their moons, or moonlets, like they talk about planets and their satellites. However they also talk about binary asteroids and triple asteroids, without taking mass into account. The Ida-Dactyl system is a binary asteroid, despite the large difference in sizes between the two bodies. Hermes, number 69230 in the asteroid list, and composed of two components of almost the same size, is also a binary. That’s because, if taken independently, they both would surely be considered asteroids, so there’s no ambiguity. An asteroid moon is also an asteroid.

And that’s my great idea. If you look at my definition of planet, you’ll see that it only mentions roundness caused by self-gravity, not the position each body occupies in the great merry-go-round in the sky. This means that, yes, the Pluto sistem is a double planet, with two planets and two smaller bodies. An ice dwarf / ice dwarf kind of double planet. The Earth system is also a double planet, this time a terrestrial / terrestrial dwarf kind of double planet. Mars, on the contrary, is a single planet, despite being accompanied by two small bodies. Jupiter isn’t single and isn’t double: it’s a multiple planet, with 5 planets belonging to different categories (gas giant, terrestrial dwarf, maybe also ice dwarf) and a lot of smaller bodies. Saturn and Uranus are the “multiplest” of the planets, the first composed of 8 planets and a lot (really, a lot) of smaller bodies, the second comprising 6 planets plus debris. And Neptune is, again, a double planet. A gas giant / ice dwarf kind of double planet. Or perhaps an ice giant / ice dwarf. Plus small worlds, of course.

This way you get coherence along the whole scale of celestial objects. And solve easily and without ambiguity the whole double planet controversy. That’s on the plus side. On the minus side, it would make us change radically the way we look at these things. But maybe that’s not really a minus; you see, there are other reasons to do it.

But that would be for other posts.

A magnificent photo tour November 25, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Blogroll, Planets.
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No, my friends, unfortunately I still lack the time to feed this blog properly, with the long posts I plan to write. But in the meanwhile I may as well call your attention to a couple of posts in a blog called Daily Kos, which gather together a very, very nice set of photos (mostly) of pretty much all of the Solar System planets, satellites and minor bodies that have been imaged by spacecraft thus far.

You can find the first part here, showing us the planets Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter and Saturn, the planetary moons Luna, Io, Europa, Ganymede, Callisto, Mimas, Enceladus, Tethys, Dione, Rhea and Titan, the minor moons Phobos, Deimos, Amalthea, Thebe, Pan, Daphnis, Atlas, Prometheus, Pandora, Epimetheus, Janus, Telesto, Calypso and Helene, and the minor bodies Itokawa, Eros, Ida (and Dactyl), Gaspra, Mathilde, Šteins, Annefrank, Borrelly, Wild 2, Tempel 1 and Halley.

The second part, found here, features the planets Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Haumea, Makemake and Eris, the planetary moons Iapetus, Miranda, Ariel, Umbriel, Titania, Oberon, Triton and Charon, the minor moons Hyperion, Phoebe, Puck, Larissa and Proteus and the minor body (albeit dwarf planet candidate) Quaoar, plus a bunch of schematics and plots.

Wonderful stuff. Enjoy.

Why are 8 planets bad science August 12, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Definition of planet, Plutophiles.
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Yesterday, there was a small rebellion of “plutophiles” on twitter. A hashtag, #bringbackpluto, made it to number one in the trending topics list, and the messages that came along with it were, in general, as silly as you might expect. People just don’t get it.

The people who took part in that particular hashparty vastly misunderstand the reasons why the whole business of Pluto’s “demotion” came about. And their revolt does nothing to further their case and actually “bring back Pluto” (as if Pluto went anywhere; as if it isn’t right where it has always been, going round the Sun beyond Neptune). Quite the contrary. By showing so eloquently that they don’t get it, they simply won’t sway any of the people who actually have some knowledge about this stuff. The only way to sway them is to play their game, which means learning the science and discuss it scientifically. And learning some history of astronomy as well. And remember my mantra: “this ain’t about Pluto!”

Hop aboard. I’m taking you in a small historical trip. A trip you may get from plenty of other sources, but in this there’s no such thing as too many sources of information. And besides, nobody tells it quite like I do. In the end of this necessarily long text, I’ll tell you the main reason why I think that to speak about 8 planets is bad science. You can jump immediately to that point, if you think you already know all the historical stuff, but you’ll be missing my emphasis, on which I base my conclusions. It’s up to you.

Ready? Allright then. Fasten your seatbelts and let’s go visit the ancient Greeks.

Not that those were the guys who discovered the first planets. Ever since the first records of celestial movements were made, probably by the very first astrologers, people knew that there were some lights in the sky that stayed put, wereas other lights walked about. The Greeks were simply the guys who came up with the word “planet”. It means, aptly enough for the level of their understanding, wanderer.

Back then there were two different kinds of wandering celestial objects: those with an obvious disc, and those that looked like point sources of light, like moving stars. The first kind encompassed the Sun and the Moon, and there were all kinds of legends about them; the second kind was composed by 5 objects: Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. These five were always thought of as planets, the Moon and the Sun kept coming and going from that category. The Earth, of course, at first was not thought of as a planet like the others, being as it was the center of it all (and flat). But whatever the actual numbers and groupings were, one thing remained constant: planets were special. Worthy of being used as characters for all sorts of myths and stories. How could they not be special? They were a handful of wandering lights in an otherwise static sky! They had to be pretty important and unique indeed! Right?

Then happened the first revolution in our understanding of these things, when the geocentric models of the Universe gave way to Copernicus’ vision of a universe centered in the Sun, a heliocentric vision. Planets, once rotating around the Earth, were now circling the Sun.

And the Earth with them.

This meant that planets were not point sources of light after all, but (probably) solid, round worlds like our own, maybe even with their own inhabitants. It also meant that the Moon was not a planet, but a satellite, for it circles not the Sun, but the Earth. The Sun? Ah, not a planet either. The Sun now became the center of everything. Not a star, as yet, but so unique it had no category to belong to. It was just the Sun.

This was a complete turnaround in our understanding of what a planet is. But, despite that, the now 6 planets remained very special places indeed. Think about it: thousands and thousands of stars, and only six worlds like our own? They’re special, no question about it!

And more: there was an order to them, an order that was often used as an evidence of divinity, for only an allmighty God could create such perfectly harmonious structures. When Galileo peeked through his telescope and saw for the first time that the other planets were, indeed, discs, that seemed to confirm this notion, although shortly after two discoveries shook things a bit: the discovery of the four galilean moons of Jupiter (which were also called “planets” for a while, as were, later, the first moons of Saturn to be discovered), and a pair of strange “ears” protruding from the sides of Saturn, which even changed shape over time. It was only in mid XVII century that these ears were recognized as rings, and that the first moons of Saturn (starting with Titan, of course) became known. There was something else that also tainted these notions of divine astronomical perfection: the discovery, by Kepler, that the planets did not follow perfectly circular paths, as previously thought, but moved along ellipses.

In the next century two relevant things happened. First, some astronomers noticed that the planetary distances to the sun followed closely a mathematical relation which came to be known as Titus-Bode Law. There was a gap between Mars and Jupiter, though. And the law said nothing about ending the fun at Saturn. So everyone began looking for new planets in the gap and beyond Saturn, and Uranus was found right where the law said something should be. You can imagine by yourselves how that bolstered up its credibility and the notion that, despite some annoying facts, God really did have a finger in making an orderly and predictable universe, in which the planets had their very special parts to play.

When Ceres was found in 1801, again right where Titus-Bode predicted it, it all seemed to be proved beyond a doubt. And Ceres quietly became the 8th planet of the Solar System. But then, shortly after, 3 more planets were discovered in the same general area, and heads began to be scratched.

And then stranger things began to happen. Uranus wasn’t behaving: instead of peacefully following its path, it wobbled back and forth, as if something unseen was pulling it. So the astronomers crunched the numbers, determined the position where the perturbing object should be, pointed their telescopes to that position, and there was Neptune, yet another planet, just waiting to be discovered. This happened in 1846. Great news, right? Wrong. Neptune’s position deviated significantly from what was predicted by the old Titus-Bode Law.

Oops! Could it be that such a venerable law of nature was wrong?

To make things worse, the year before a 5th body had been found between Mars and Jupiter, and from 1847 on new discoveries around the same zone happened at a steady pace. By 1900 they were already 450. Things were a lot more chaotic than they had seemed to be. The neatly ordered plan of God was taking a beating from reality.

These were the signs of a revolution to come.

That’s when astronomers noticed two things: firstly all the chaos was restricted to the zone between Mars and Jupiter, where Titus-Bode predicted there should be a planet. Maybe it exploded, and what was being discovered were mere fragments? All the other planets seemed to behave, kinda. The divergence between Neptune’s position and Titus-Bode could perhaps be a fluke? A statistical outlyer? Astronomers also noticed that all of the well-behaved planets showed typical planetary discs. But the annoying rebels beyond Mars didn’t. Like the planets in the old days, they looked just like moving stars.

And so they were christened “asteroids”, a word that means “similar to stars”, and the number of planets was reduced to 8. And the order was preserved. And the planets continued to be special objects in the sky.

Ah! What a relief! Sometimes you need a revolution to keep things as they were.

Pluto came about in 1930 (although it had been detected much earlier), and deviated so much from Titus-Bode that effectively killed it for good. At first its size was greatly overestimated, but there was little question that it had to be called a planet, even though no disc could be seen and even though its orbit was weird. It was alone out there, very far from the area where asteroids dwell, and much bigger than asteroids were. But that weird orbit… many people found it really hard to swallow. It seemed too odd, too distant from the orderly display the other 8 showed. But, hey, 9 planets in such a large Universe are still pretty special, aren’t they? So they went with it anyway.

But then came the 1990’s. Astronomers began an amazing series of discoveries in the outer Solar System. Small and not so small icy bodies in orbits similar to Pluto’s became commonplace, a chaos of intersecting, eccentric, inclined orbits that seemed to mirror closely what happens in the Main Asteroid Belt. Those that were uncomfortable with Pluto’s oddity became increasingly more uncomfortable. And when finally an object larger than Pluto, Eris, was found, something just had to change again. It was inevitable. We just had to fundamentally rethink what makes a planet for the third time in our history.

It could be simple. Just make with Pluto the same that was made with Ceres, Pallas, Juno and Vesta in the XIX century, reduce once more the number of planets to 8, and get on with it. Keep the order. Keep the specialness of planetary status. That’s what the IAU astronomers did, and that’s the source of the current definition of planet.

But it really is everything but simple. At the same time trans-neptunian objects were being found everywhere, exoplanets were also being found by the hundreds. Around “normal”, sun-like stars, around stars smaller and larger, around red dwarfs, around pulsars, even free-floating, roaming alone the empty spaces between the stars. Other planetary systems were found that didn’t look anything like our own. Systems with planets larger than Jupiter in orbits much more eccentric than those of any Solar System dwarf planet. Systems with 2, 3 or more giant planets packed inside what in the Solar System would be the orbit of Mercury. Systems with resonant giant planets. A wide variety of outcomes of a process that is apparently universal: planetary formation.

And all of a sudden there’s no order, only different outcomes of a process that is inherently chaotic. And all of a sudden planets are no longer special: we already know where are hundreds of them, and it’s now clear that we’ll end up finding many billions in our galaxy alone. Planets are literally everywhere.

And this is why 8 planets are bad science.

By insisting on a small number of planets, the astronomers are trying to perpetuate a notion that science itself has already defeated: that planets are rare and special bodies, that they are well-behaved and orderly, that it’s still possible to find in them the music of the spheres. When none of this is true.

This time, no revolution can leave things as they were. This time, we simply cannot avoid a true, paradigm-shifting revolution.

As Mark Sykes puts it, “we are in the midst of a conceptual revolution […], shaking off the last vestiges of the mythological view of planets as special objects in the sky – and the idea that there has to be a small number of them because they’re special.” That’s exactly it. And that’s why the most amazing part of all this is, to me, that the IAU definition was already obsolete when it was created and approved.

Which is to say, bad science.

This is also why I’m absolutely certain that it will end up being defeated. This definition will not stand. Not because thousands of “plutophiles” go do some agitprop to twitter, but because it just doesn’t fit reality. Not because people are annoyed by the “demotion” of Pluto, but due to the wide diversity of planets that exist out there. In the end, the only possible outcome of all this is a broad definition of what planets are, as broad and inclusive as planets are varied in this vast universe we live in, and a classification scheme that sets up categories within that definition. They are already emerging, even. The literature is crawling with “jupiters”, “neptunes”, “super-earths”, “hot neptunes”, “gas giants”, “ice giants”, “terrestrial planets”.

And, yes, “dwarf planets”, why not?