Status of Pluto – Zombie Feynman Replies

I can’t believe there is still all this talk about what to call Pluto. Can’t we just move on? In an effort to help, I have summoned the Zombie Feynman to get his words on the subject. This is what he said:

“We (my father and I) used to go up to the Catskill Mountains for vacations. In New York, you go the Catskill Mountains for vacations. The poor husbands had to go to work during the week, but they would come rushing out for weekends and stay with their families. On the weekends, my father would take me for walks at night. He often took me for walks, and we learned all about the sky, and so on, in the process. But the other children, friends of mine also wanted to go, and tried to get my father to take them. He didn’t want to, because he said I was more advanced.

So we went alone for our walk at night. But mothers were very powerful in those day’s as they are now, and they convinced the other fathers that they had to take their own sons out for walks at night. So all fathers took all sons out for walks at night one Sunday evening. The next day, Monday, we were playing in the fields and this boy with a telescope said to me, “See that object up there? What’s the name of it?”

I said, “I haven’t got the slightest idea.”

He said, “It’s Pluto, a dwarf planet. Your father doesn’t teach you much about science.”

I smiled to myself, because my father had already taught me that [the name] doesn’t tell me anything about the object. He taught me “See that planet? It’s Pluto, but it was originally suggested to be Hades, and in Chinese they call it the underworld king star and even if you know all those names for it, you still know nothing about the object–you only know something about people; what they call that planet. Now that Pluto has a low density, and is quite small, and is likely made of ice, and nobody knows how it got there,” and so forth. There is a difference between the name of the thing and what goes on.

The result of this is that I cannot remember anybody’s name, and when people discuss physics with me they often are exasperated when they say “the Fitz-Cronin effect,” and I ask “What is the effect?” and I can’t remember the name.

I would like to say a word or two–may I interrupt my little tale–about words and definitions, because it is necessary to learn the words.

It is not science. That doesn’t mean, just because it is not science, that we don’t have to teach the words. We are not talking about what to teach; we are talking about what science is. It is not science to know how to change Centigrade to Fahrenheit. It’s necessary, but it is not exactly science. In the same sense, if you were discussing what art is, you wouldn’t say art is the knowledge of the fact that a 3-B pencil is softer than a 2-H pencil. It’s a distinct difference. That doesn’t mean an art teacher shouldn’t teach that, or that an artist gets along very well if he doesn’t know that. (Actually, you can find out in a minute by trying it; but that’s a scientific way that art teachers may not think of explaining.)

In order to talk to each other, we have to have words, and that’s all right. It’s a good idea to try to see the difference, and it’s a good idea to know when we are teaching the tools of science, such as words, and when we are teaching science itself.”

I think if the zombie Feynman were able to speak more on this matter, he would say “it doesn’t matter what you label Pluto as, it still is what it is.”

P.S. – I am kidding. This is modified form the original Feynman lecture – you can see that here

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