Thursday, September 14, 2006

Pluto is not a bird, he's a dog

I had been rolling around the idea of a post about the recent downgrading of Pluto from "planet" to "dwarf planet" in the back of my mind, but I wasn't sure it was worthwhile. Last night, I was reading the letters section of Newsweek, and there were many, many letters from people responding to a recent article about Pluto, and what I thought was funny about the letters was the manner in which so many of them seemed to be expressing the sentiment that it just wasn't something to get worked up about. What made this funny for me is that these people actually took a chunk of their valuable time to sit down and write a formal letter to express to others that this was a non-issue; it reminds me of those people who call in to news programs to answer their polls with "I have no opinion." I myself have never written a letter to the editor of any publication, so I'm not sure what gets people so worked up to do such a thing, especially if they're worked up about how getting worked up--oh never mind, you get it I'm sure.

So I thought I'd let the issue drop. It really isn't a big deal for the most part, and by now, it's pretty much old news. Here in the 21st century, we seem to absorb information and quickly move on to the next big thing as soon as possible. Things must go more slowly on Pluto, where, as one letter writer pointed out, only about a quarter of a Plutonian year (248 Earth years) has gone by since it was discovered and placed on the list of planets in the first place. Pluto didn't change, our system of classifying celestial objects changed.

But that's what hit me with profoundness after setting down the magazine. It's something profound in its simplicity. For someone like me who spends a fair amount of his time explaining away the nitpicking of skeptics towards the Bible, this is a current-day moment that we can reflect on in light of some scientific issues people have with the Bible. Follow me here...

Back in junior high school, I took an astronomy class. In that astronomy class, among the many things we were taught was that Pluto was a planet: one of nine, actually. Since this is a new thing that has changed, you'll find Pluto called a planet in most science textbooks today that talk about planets; you'll even find it all over the internet. I ask you, were those textbooks and my instructor wrong? No! To say now that Pluto is a planet is technically wrong, but up until we changed the definition just a short time ago, it was not wrong. For 76 years, "Pluto is a planet." was a true statement. The fact that it has changed now is not the fault of those who said it then, but a natural result of a paradigm shift in astronomy.

Oddly enough, this is not the first time we have had a major paradigm shift in the definition of "planet". If you look up the word in the dictionary, and look at the etymology, you'll note that the word originally meant "wandering" and referred to "(def. 1c) a celestial body moving in the sky, as distinguished from a fixed star, applied also to the sun and moon." While until a couple months ago, we had nine planets which were Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune and Pluto, before the Copernican heliocentric model of the cosmos became popular, we had seven planets, which were Moon, Sun, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter, and Saturn. A planet was an object that you could see in the sky that didn't stay in one place like the stars did. This ruled out the earth, since it was not in the sky, and included the sun and moon. Pretty much from Ptolemy to Copernicus, it was acceptable and entirely correct to say "The sun is a planet." simply because the word meant something else then.

So, to get to my point... A verse that's often been a darling of the Bible skeptics is , which reads:

And these are they which ye shall have in abomination among the fowls; they shall not be eaten, they are an abomination: {long list of various birds, ending with} and the bat.
People love to point to this excerpt from the Bible and point out triumphantly that bats are not birds, some as though they are the first enlightened messenger in the history of Christendom to notice this fact. You are correct, bats are not birds. So what?

Do you think the Israelites thought that bats had wings and beaks and laid eggs? If you live in a place that has a lot of bats and you're interested in studying them, it's not hard to do. For a couple of months when I was a kid, I lived in a drafty old cabin in the mountains, and there were bats that nested in my bedroom. At night they would go out and fly around eating bugs, but in the morning when I got up for school, I could get out a flashlight and peek around in the nooks and crannies of the cabin and find them nestling down to go to sleep for the day. They don't look anything like the creatures we call birds; to me they actually looked like little furry winged pigs.

The Israelites knew the difference between bats and "other" birds, I assure you. It wouldn't be hard to figure out. So why does the Bible call them birds when they most surely are not? For the same reason the ancient Greeks called the sun a planet: at the time, it was the correct terminology. The word translated as "fowl" in verse 13 is a general-purpose word that might translate better to "flying things" than "fowl" or "birds". Case in point, the same word is actually used in verse 21 of the same chapter to refer to insects, and is translated "flying". The word is not wrong; the best one could say is that "fowl" is a questionable translation.

For those who wish to continue to think of Pluto as a planet, I personally don't care. By the 20th-century meaning of that word, it is a planet, after all. It's going to take some time for everybody to get used to the 21st-century definition, and in the meantime, while technically wrong, the old definition will still have cultural acceptance. For those ancient documents that want to commit the unforgivable sin of using terminology consistent with the time in which they were written rather than modern scientific terminology, I'll accept you, even if some people want to pick on you just for being what you are.

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