August 24, 2006
Dioramas in peril.....
I just read (thanks to the Boston.com News Alert) that Pluto is no longer a planet. Wow, I imagine that there will be a lot of shoe boxes with painted Styrofoam balls in this week's recycling. I know that my sense of universe has been altered. Alright, maybe not; after all, my only real connection with Pluto was wondering why a dog had a dog as a pet. But, I think (wait for it, here comes the ASP link....) that this is a teachable moment for our students.
The declassification of Pluto as a planet is a result of a change in the rules that define planets. This is an eerie parallel to our legal system; after all, whenever an authority (be it scientific, legislative or judicial) decides to change a rule, the consequences can be quite dramatic. Not only that, but the thought process and debate that went into the change in the definition of "planet" were strikingly similar to rules synthesis and legal analysis. After all, the scientists concluded that a planet was:
''a celestial body that is in orbit around the sun, has sufficient mass for its self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that it assumes a ... nearly round shape, and has cleared the neighborhood around its orbit.'' (from AP article located on NYTimes.com).
Think of this as an elemental test (not in the chemistry way). To be a planet, you must: (1) be in orbit around the sun; (2) have sufficient mass for self-gravity to overcome rigid body forces so that you assume a nearly round shape and; (3) a clear neighborhood around your orbit. If you cannot prove all of these things, you are not a planet. (I may actually be a planet, but I digress.) Pluto couldn't show sufficient evidence on the third element.
The scientists who synthesized this rule clearly were shooting for the stars here (pun awful, but intended). They were seeking a universal (again, awful but intended) rule that would draw a line that was less likely to be arbitrary than the rule they already had. This is exactly what the legal system tries to do in fashioning rules. We are always seeking to create a better, less arbitrary and longer-lasting rule. We strive in our analysis of rules to synthesize the one statement of the rule that is the fairest statement of what we want the law to be.
Also, the scientists addressed the "floodgates" issues. By allowing Pluto planet status, they would have been forced to allow a number of other undeserving large rocks to be called planets as well. Instead, the scientists created a tiered system which classifies Pluto and some others as dwarf planets (sleepy, dopey, etc... I couldn't resist), but not as "classical planets."
In the end, we lose a planet but gain insight into legal reasoning. Hi-ho. (ezs)