Reaction to waves 
I'm late in posting about the discovery of gravity waves, which was announced with much fanfare over a week ago. The New Yorker and the Telegraph have nice write-ups.

The Telegraph headline claims that "this announcement is the scientific highlight of the decade", but everybody said the same thing about the discovery of the Higgs boson. The article written by astronomer Martin Rees acknowledges this. He writes, "This detection is indeed a big deal: one of the great discoveries of the decade - up there with the detection of the Higgs particle, which caused huge razzmatazz two years ago."

I heard Harry Collins give a talk years ago when the LIGO project was just starting, so the news is interesting as an update to that. The positive result occurred earlier than expected, so it's a pleasant surprise for the researchers.

But for someone who hadn't been following the research closely - for me - the result didn't come as a surprise. Theory predicted gravity waves, scientists were persistently refining detectors, and gravity waves were eventually observed. The technical accomplishment and precision is impressive, but the result doesn't pull back the curtain on any cosmic secrets that hadn't been anticipated.

The recent suggestion that there might be a ninth planet out beyond the Kuiper Belt was more of a surprise. And I'm more interested in seeing how the project to observe it turns out. I don't know which result to expect, so I look forward to seeing the evidence accumulate.

Of course, the existence or non-existence of a planet in our solar system is just a local, contingent fact. The existence of the Higgs boson and gravity waves are (perhaps) about the fabric of everything. I suppose that these are billed as the grand discoveries of the decade because of that.

Partly just as a matter of temperament, I'm not dazzled by fundamentality. The theory which predicts the Higgs boson and the theory which predicts gravity waves don't sit too well together.[1] So, despite the observations, we can't simply take both to be confirmed. But if we observe another planet in the outer solar system, it will be a thing which exists. Without fretting about fundamental ontology, planets are things.


[1] For a nice non-technical discussion of this, see this recent article by Lawrence Krauss.

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Special issues 
If this blog platform had a more fluid system for tagging, there'd be a category for Synthese scandal. The journal has recently been tarnished (again) by egregious problems with a special issue. The philosophy blogosphere lit up with it a week or two ago. If you missed it, the post at Daily Nous covers the essentials.

Unlike earlier debacles, however, the editors have responded to this in a responsible way before the petitions were drawn up and boycotts were organized. They've made a public apology for the mess. They have announced a moratorium on future special issues so that they can take a serious look at the process, although issues already underway will go forward. Well done!

I have a paper on natural kinds forthcoming in a special issue of Synthese. As I blogged earlier, they refereed it thoroughly.

On reflection, I think it is important for there to be reputable journals which publish special issues of conference papers. It seems to me that the alternatives are (a) that conference papers not be published at all or (b) that they be published as stand-alone volumes. Not publishing at all would be a shame. The Paris symposium where I presented my paper brought together several of us doing related work on natural kinds, and it makes sense for the work we presented to appear together somewhere. And stand-along volumes are often only carried by a few libraries, so the papers don't get widely read. Having the papers appear in Synthese at least gives them a chance at readership.

There is a the third option, (c) that the papers would simply be made freely available from an on-line archive. This would be optimal, I think, although the authors might not feel an impetus to edit and complete their contributions. Conditional on closed-access journals being a thing that we still do, special issues of journal are valuable.

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Nine again, fine again, jiggety jig? 
There's news that there may be a ninth planet after all. It is posited by Mike Brown and Konstantin Batygin to explain the skewed orbits of otherwise inexplicable dwarf planets like Sedna, out beyond the Kuiper Belt. Several such objects have orbits skewed off in the same direction, and modelling suggests that this wouldn't occur without some massive thing skewing them.

Regardless of what you might think about the vexed word "planet", this is exciting. And it underscores that there is scientific value to thinking about the class of things which gravitationally dominate their orbit in a solar system. Whether we use the word "planet" to label that class, it's a natural kind and we need some word for it.

It's also worth mentioning that this might just be a mistaken conjecture. The posited object needs to be spotted with a telescope and observed for a while.

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Seasonal notes 
It's late December, which means that it is time to mark the end of the year with silly blog traditions.
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Must a bulldozer be an egg? 
I recently read a forthcoming paper by Carl Brusse about conceptual change and the planet category. [1] He is "broadly in agreement with the approaches to scientific kinds argued for by Magnus", and I am broadly in agreement with him. I just want to comment on a point where he directly engages my account.
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