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We don’t really know things we think we do

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A few decades ago, when my grade-school teacher told us that people used to think the Earth was flat, I thought it was funny. And I laughed when she said that some of them actively tried to dismiss the notion of its roundness, simply refusing to believe it.

How naive and unsophisticated can you get, refusing to believe emerging scientific evidence?

This week, I'm feeling a little sympathy for those long-gone folks.

Scientists are talking about changing how we define our solar system. The nine-planet lineup that I painstakingly memorized in third grade would shift. And my knee-jerk reaction is that they can't do that.

Actually, they can. By the end of the month, members of the International Astronomical Union, which gets to decide what is and is not a planet, may vote to add three heavenly bodies to the list of planets in the Milky Way.

They include Charon, which is the largest moon of Pluto; Ceres, an asteroid that orbits the sun from its position between Mars and Jupiter; and something with the clunky name UB313 that's at the far reaches of the solar system.

And news stories predict that still others may be added. The union has a "watchlist" of at least 12 other candidates that may meet any redefinition of what a planet is.

They're thinking of defining a planet as any round object larger than about 500 miles in diameter that circles the sun and has a mass at least one-12,000th that of Earth. That could, according to an Associated Press story, include some moons and asteroids, although not our moon.

The news stories say that the draft definition of the planet, which has been crafted over a couple of years, is a try at making peace between scientists who have long disagreed about planets. Remember the debate about whether Pluto's actually a planet? Under this definition, it would be.

It's hard to explain why redefining the larger world didn't seem right when I first heard about it, and I've been trying to figure out why it bugged me so much. I think my reaction may have something to do with all the uncertainties we face daily.

The news is full of stories of disasters and mayhem, tragedies and near misses and potential problems. Is today the day in which terrorists will ride planes filled with unsuspecting people into the ocean? Exactly how high can gas prices go and how will we squeeze it into the budget already stretched by the rising cost of all those other things that keep going up (in part because of those rising gas prices)? Will Social Security help me when I retire? And on and on. We've got viruses and wars and safety concerns and fears about our children's futures.

These nagging concerns are the background noise of the world in which we live, and much of it is completely out of our individual control.

It's a human tendency when some things are uncertain to want to cling to those things we absolutely know. The truth is, we don't necessarily really know the things we think we do.

Every day, we reverse our thinking on things. Something we thought was bad turns into an unexpected blessing. Something we ignored as insignificant becomes life-threatening. That's just how life is. Treatments come with side effects, and cures are found in the oddest places.

One thing, though, doesn't seem to change much. Humans are unexpectedly resilient. We grouse and fuss and worry, but most of us manage to live satisfying, even joyful lives, no matter what's thrown at us.

You can redefine the world — or the solar system — in which we live. But like that solar system, we too keep growing.

E-mail lois@desnews.com