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On placemats and other mostly cultural stuff August 24, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Definition of planet.
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4 comments

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.