What Makes Something A Planet, According To An Astrophysicist?
“A dolphin may look like a fish, but it’s really a mammal. Similarly, the composition of an object is not the only factor in classifying it: its evolutionary history is inextricably related to its properties. Scientists will likely continue to argue over how to best classify all of these worlds, but it’s not just astronomers and planetary scientists who have a stake in this. In the quest to make organizational sense of the Universe, we have to confront it with the full suite of our knowledge.
Although many will disagree, moons, asteroids, Kuiper belt and Oort cloud objects are fascinating objects just as worthy of study as modern-day planets are. They may even be better candidates for life than many of the true planets are. But each object’s properties are inextricably related to the entirety of its formation history. When we try to classify the full suite of what we’re finding, we must not be misled by appearances alone.”
You’ve heard about the IAU’s definition, where in order to be a planet, you must pull yourself into hydrostatic equilibrium, orbit the Sun and nothing else, and gravitationally clear your orbit. You’ve also heard about the controversial new definition from geophysical/planetary science arguments, that planets should be based on their ability to pull themselves into a spheroidal shape alone.
Well, what about a third way: defining planets (and a whole classification scheme) based on astrophysical concerns alone? It’s time to start thinking about it!
This Is Everything That’s Wrong With Our Definition Of ‘Planet’
“There are many people who would love to see Pluto regain its planetary status, and there’s a part of me that grew up with planetary Pluto that’s extraordinarily sympathetic to that perspective. But including Pluto as a planet necessarily results in a Solar System with far more than nine planets. Pluto is only the 8th largest non-planet in our Solar System, and is clearly a larger-than-average but otherwise typical member of the Kuiper belt. It will never be the 9th planet again.
But that’s not necessarily a bad thing. We may be headed towards a world where astronomers and planetary scientists work with very different definitions of what attains planethood, but we all study the same objects in the same Universe. Whatever we call objects — however we choose to classify them — makes them no less interesting or worthy of study. The cosmos simply exists as it is. It’s up to the very human endeavor of science to make sense of it all.”
Next month will mark 13 years since the International Astronomical Union (IAU) officially defined the term planet and ‘Plutoed’ our Solar System’s (up-until-that-point) 9th planet. With an additional 13 years of knowledge, understanding, data, and discoveries, though, did they get the decision right?
Certainly, there were aspects that needed to be revised, but the IAU’s definition comes along with some major gaps and mistakes. We can do better! Come learn how.
Ask Ethan: What Is Energy?
“We talk about energy and we know that there are various forms of energy (PE, KE …) and you can do work with it, and it has to be conserved, and energy and matter are interchangeable, etc. But what is energy?”
Energy is something that touches all aspects of our lives. Yet if you try defining it, you’ll wind up tying yourself in knots. It’s not something we can isolate in a laboratory, but rather is a property inherent to all matter, antimatter, and radiation particles. It can only be defined relative to other particles, rather than absolutely. The definition we use in physics, that it’s the ability to do work, is over 300 years old and is rather circular.
A little over a century ago, the esteemed physicist Henri Poincaré noted the following, “science is built up of facts, as a house is built of stones; but an accumulation of facts is no more a science than a heap of stones is a house.” We speak all the time of what energy can do, how it’s used, where it appears and in what quantities, and how to accomplish a myriad of tasks with it. But a fundamental, universal definition?
For as far as we’ve come, giving an unambiguous, universal definition of energy is still beyond our reach. Come find out why.