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How about hiring a linguist? December 1, 2009

Posted by Jorge Candeias in Terminology.
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1 comment so far

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.