• Mama PhD

    Mothers attempting to balance parenthood and academics.


Math Geek Mom: A New Neighbor

Another planet.

February 25, 2016

In math, we often present information in the form of “sets,” a concept that can be used to build quite sophisticated mathematical concepts. For example, the members of the set describing the first five letters of the alphabet can be written as {a,b,c,d,e}. I found myself thinking of this recently when I read that there is now information that suggests that a new planet can be found, far out in our solar system, beyond Neptune, one that is large enough to be an actual planet. This may lead to an even greater change to the set once described as “the nine planets.” With the omission of Pluto as a true planet only recently, it is interesting that a new ninth planet may join the set. Why has this planet not yet been included? It seems that it takes tens of thousands of years for this planet, which no one has actually seen, to orbit the sun. And, that long ago, humans were just starting to create civilizations. It is not surprising, then, that such a planet has not yet been recognized and invited to join the set described as “the planets orbiting in our solar system.”    

My daughter has already survived changes in what it is she is expected to learn. She missed a chunk of math information when the trajectory that she was on did not easily intersect with the trajectory required for the new “common core,” leaving her to catch up on material that would have been in the curriculum had such a change not been made. Now, she will be expected to learn about a new planet. Of course, this will change the method used to remember the names of the planets. One currently used actually applies quite often to dinner in our house; “my very educated mother just served us noodles.” Now there will need to be another word added to this statement. I wonder what it will be.

Since the planet is currently being described as “planet nine,” I am reminded of the fact that my family sometimes tells me “please no!” when I tell them that we will once again have pasta of some sort for dinner. If only I had learned more about how to cook in those long years of graduate school!

Of course, this planet is so far from our sun that it is unlikely that it will be the home to life as we know it. However, maybe it will be home to life that is different from that on Earth, but is, still, life. This thought made me wonder what the inhabitants on that planet might think of us Earth-dwellers, should we finally meet, when it passes closer to the Earth, in what might well be thousands of years from now. Remember, the last time they came even close to the Earth, humans were probably just starting to become the creatures we are today.

What would such creatures be like? Would they be intelligent (and, more importantly, would they think that WE are intelligent?) Would life on this “new” planet have figured out solutions to some of the things that we struggle with on our planet? Will they have found a way to live within the confines of the limited resources on their planet, and will they have found a way to live in peace with creatures that may not all be exactly alike? I wonder what method students on that planet would use to remember the names given to the planets in our (shared) solar system.

Recalling the story of “War of the Worlds,” I find a hopeful thought in the discovery of yet another planet. Perhaps at this point in history, it is a good thing for those of us who inhabit the Earth to stop thinking about our wars and elections and stock markets for just a moment to recognize that we are all part of the same planet, and that all things and people we have ever cared about or loved are tied to this spinning piece of rock that is sometimes remembered by school children by recalling that one’s mother is “educated.”


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