The Indiana Pi Bill in popular legend was an attempt to bring the stubborn decimal expansion of pi into accord with the Biblical value of 3. Of course like many popular legends it’s entirely incorrect. The bill didn’t set pi equal to three, didn’t even mention pi directly at all, didn’t contain binding language regardless, and was wholly unrelated to any religious or metaphysical idea. (Anyway I suspect the ancient Hebrews were merely being approximate when they specified their famous bowl with diameter 30 cubits and radius 10 cubits.) Instead a crank named Edwin J. Goodwin believed he had discovered the solution to a famous mathematical problem which provably has no solution. A resolution was proposed honoring him, and an actual mathematician who happened to be visiting the legislature prevailed on the lawmakers to table the bill indefinitely.
Something similar is happening in Illinois:
Like some sort of rulers of the universe, state lawmakers are considering restoring little Pluto’s planetary status, casting aside the scientific community’s 2006 decision downgrading the distant ice ball.
An Illinois Senate committee on Thursday unanimously supported planet Pluto and declaring March 13 “Pluto Day.” The idea now moves to the full Senate for a vote.
The push for a state decree on Pluto comes from state Sen. Gary Dahl, a Republican whose downstate district includes Streator, birthplace of Pluto discoverer Clyde Tombaugh. Dahl told colleagues Pluto is important to the local community, which considers the vote to downgrade Pluto to “dwarf” planet was unfair as it involved only 4 percent of the International Astronomical Union’s 10,000 scientists.
It’s fairly clear that Indiana is not actually redefining Pluto as a planet despite the dramatic wording of the first sentence. Instead they’re merely voicing their opinion officially.
But the whole point of a word is to communicate meaning. The solar system is full of all kinds of junk. Some of it is pretty huge – Jupiter, Saturn, etc. Some of it’s tiny – meteoroids, asteroids, comets, etc. But – and this is the crucial point – there isn’t a lot in the middle. It’s mostly either huge or tiny. The huge things have been traditionally called planets. The rest are called different things depending on their particular characteristics. Pluto is definitely on the small end of the “huge stuff” class, but for a long time scientists were very comfortable with calling it a planet.
It has fairly recently been discovered that things aren’t quite as clear-cut as that. It turns out that there are a lot more things in the middle than we thought. Some were actually larger than Pluto. To give the word planet a consistent meaning there were only two options: add several more (and probably eventually scores or even hundreds more) planets to the list even though they weren’t really anything like the other “major” planets, or chop them all from the list including Pluto.
The decision of the largest association of astronomers has been to chop Pluto. The definition of planet has been redefined to include both the standard size criteria and a criteria that amounts to “dominating” its region of space by in a particular sense being very much larger than anything near it. Mercury, Venus, Earth, and the rest do that without a doubt. Pluto and the rest don’t. It’s a nice and clean definition but for the sentimental attachment some people have to Pluto as a planet.
But a definition is just a definition. My native state’s Driskill Mountain doesn’t become any taller than its 535 feet despite its impressive title. Pluto doesn’t become any more like the other planets just because you leave the word planet attached to it. You might as well make the word mean something useful, even if some sentimental status is lost for a particular thing.
So if I were like the mathematician who saved Indiana from embarassment, I’d give Illinois some advice: don’t cast the change as an aspersion on your native son Clyde Tombaugh. Instead, pass a resolution celebrating him as the discoverer of the first in an entirely new class of celestial objects: the Plutoids!