Eight Is Enough

Rough Draft
(Richard Thompson)

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By Joel Achenbach
Sunday, September 10, 2006

I get a lot of press releases from science journals. By scanning the headlines of new scientific research, I can become sufficiently conversant about the latest findings that my friends regard me as basically a scientist myself. I may start wearing a lab coat. In my experience, you just have to throw around a few phrases like "chronosynclastic infundibulum" and people will practically ask you, on the spot, to do brain surgery on them.

What people don't realize is that, even by frenetically scanning headlines, it's impossible to keep track of everything that's going on. Science doesn't just march onward, it sprints in all directions, and reverses itself and stands on its head. It finds out the answers to questions no one has ever bothered to ask. In recent weeks, scientists announced that bees have a sophisticated sense of time, and can estimate intervals. So no one need wonder about that anymore.

They've decided that dragonflies hover over asphalt roads because they mistake them for stagnant rivers. There are scientists trying to figure out whether elephants really run, or merely lumber along at a fast pace. They're debating a claim in the journal Nature that "living plants emit the greenhouse gas methane." (Predictable: Someone's blaming global warming on plants. Killer trees. Flowers that fart.) Now, they're reconfiguring the solar system. Many of us were alarmed by the resolution proposed this summer by the Planet Definition Committee of the International Astronomical Union:

"If the proposed Resolution is passed, the 12 planets in our Solar System will be Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Ceres, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto, Charon and 2003 UB313."

Frankly, it seemed rather late for astronomers to decide there's a planet between Mars and Jupiter. You would think they would have noticed it before. Until now, the only thing between Mars and Jupiter was the Asteroid Belt. When our astronauts fly through the Asteroid Belt they have to dodge and weave through giant rocks and sometimes blast one to smithereens with their phasers. The more asteroids they destroy, the more points they get. These are known, scientific facts and, barring actual complaints, it's hard to see why they have to change.

Apparently, there were astronomers on the committee who believed that one asteroid, Ceres, was really a planet, though this seemed a bit like deciding that, upon further investigation, cows are reptiles.

Planet nominee Charon used to be considered a moon of Pluto. But some were surmising that Charon and Pluto are a double-planet system, doing a tango. Obviously it would be better to drop the last letter in Charon and add an exclamation point, so we could recite the planets and end with arms

thrust saucily in the air: ". . . Neptune! Pluto! Charo!" (Under-40 readers: Refers to exuberant, ultra-big-haired Hispanic celebrity of the 1970s, not seen since. Though perhaps we've found her! ) Obviously it is not necessary to heap derision on a planet named 2003 UB313, which no doubt hides on the edge of the solar system out of embarrassment.

I am relieved to say that, after debate so intense it caused their beanie propellers to spin spontaneously, the astronomers finally got a grip, barring the planetary system to newcomers. Disturbingly, however, the panel also left poor Pluto out in the cold, declaring it a non-planet. A true planet, the union ruled, must be able to clear its orbital path of other objects. Unfortunately, Pluto has that bully Neptune next door.

Pluto's demotion is part of the larger phenomenon of Science Changing Its Mind. Physicists are building a giant accelerator near Geneva for smashing particles together. They're searching for something called the Higgs particle, which is believed to give matter its "mass."

Here's the strange part: Some scientists would rather not find it. They'd rather find something else. Why? Because that would be more interesting! It'd put a bounce in everyone's step to find out they'd been barking up the wrong tree.

Here's a quote from a press release about scientists who say that spacecraft inexplicably speed up when they pass by planets: "Maybe," says a scientist, "the laws of gravity need reworking."

They've worked fine so far! But, no, they have to be reworked, tweaked, the equations altered, as part of the scientific quest to show that everything we know is wrong.

Preparing for the inevitable, everything in this column is hereby retracted.

Read Joel Achenbach weekdays at washingtonpost.com/achenblog.


© 2006 The Washington Post Company

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