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“What’s in a name? That which we call a rose
By any other name would smell as sweet.”

Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2)

One of the first lessons Bambi learns is that categorization is hard. Butterflies, despite flying, are not “birds”. Skunks, despite being fragrant, are not “flowers”. Or perhaps we’ll let that one slide.

But as my above quote asks, “What’s in a name?”

Apparently a lot if you’re to go by the hate mail from elementary school students Neil DeGrasse Tyson, astronomer and director of New York’s Hayden Planetarium, received after his role in having Pluto demoted from full planetary status and reclassified as a “dwarf planet”.

Pluto is a fantastic point on how names work. After all, nothing intrinsically has a name or category. God did not hand down any designations; even in the Bible, God assigns Adam the task of naming everything (Genesis 2:19).

So why did Pluto get demoted? Before I discuss this any further, I should do a bit of full disclosure: I graduated from the University of Kansas. It happens to be the same university from which Clyde Tombaugh graduated. He’s the guy that discovered Pluto. So I’m somewhat pre-disposed to having a soft spot for the ex-planet.

Before we can understand why Pluto got demoted, we need to understand what the definition of “planet” was in the first place. The foundation of the word is Greek. It means “wanderer” because, before telescopes were invented, some objects in the night sky, indistinguishable from the points of lights that are stars, would change their position and wander across the sky.

As Galileo developed telescopes for astronomical use, it became clear that these weren’t mere stars. Through the eyepiece, they became discs, with surface features. Our understanding of them changed, but for the time, the name stuck.

This began to change in 1801 when the Italian priest, mathematician, and astronomer Guiseppe Piazzi discovered a new planet. This planet lay between Mars and Jupiter. He named it “Cerere Ferdinandea“. I doubt many of you have heard of it.

The reason is that within the next few years, several more “planets” were discovered between Mars and Jupiter as well. This didn’t fit with what was expected for planets. Some, like Jupiter and Saturn, may have a host of moons it dragged along, but these other bodies were completely detached. Eventually, after around 50 years, the planet was demoted. It became an “asteroid”.

This is nearly identical to what happened with Pluto. When Pluto was discovered in 1930, it was the only object in the region. But at the end of the last century, astronomers began discovering many more objects in the same region. Pluto didn’t fit the expectation that, with the exception of some moons, that it be relatively isolated. Thus, Pluto was demoted.

Reclassification is common in science. It’s also quite often what helps to drive science. Another important example is how we classify stars. We place them in lettered boxes. The current classification scheme has them in the following order: O, B, A, F, G, K, M.

Makes perfect sense, right?

Yeah, right. Almost no sense at all. Usually if we’re using letters, we’d expect them to be in alphabetical order. Which is exactly how it used to be. Before astronomers understood what was going on with stars, they looked at the spectra and just started tossing them in boxes based on similarities among that. But while it gave astronomers a convenient classification system to discuss things, it didn’t tell them anything about the stars. Ideally, a name will both identify something and tell you about it.

Then in 1901, astronomer Annie Jump Cannon reordered the boxes to the O, B, A, F, G, K, M order, dropping all other letters, when it was realized that this progression ordered stars from hottest to coolest, and removed redundancy. Thus, the classification scheme improved. Stars were reclassified, but the new designations were more useful than the previous ones.

But is the same true for Pluto?

In most respects, yes. Pluto has far more in common with the collection of objects found in the same general vicinity, the Kupier Belt Objects, than it does with the canonical planets. Thus it makes sense to include it among them so we can be sure it gets counted when we discuss such objects.

Yet in many regards, the reclassification stinks. It was brought about by a redefinition of planet that has many flaws. It requires that planets be “round”. Well, how round is “round”? Saturn spins so fast, it’s 10% wider than it is tall. Should it get excluded? It requires that the planet “clear it’s orbit”, either ejecting or accumulating all the other stuff in the vicinity. Ceres and Pluto haven’t done this, but in many ways, neither have other planets. Jupiter has a retinue of asteroids that precede and trail it in gravitational stable points. Should it get excluded too?

And there’s also the historical argument. We called it one for quite some time, so perhaps we should let the designation stick. I’ve written elsewhere that I think historicity is a very poor argument, but I can’t deny that we frequently allow it in science. When measuring the brightness of stars, astronomers use a “magnitude” system which is absolutely stupid. Not only does it run backwards, assigning smaller numbers to brighter stars, but it’s also logarithmic which makes it more mathematically challenging to deal with.

So what’s the takeaway from all this as it applies to Bambi’s linguistic difficulties?

I find it curious to ask how useful Bambi’s definitions are.

The first error he makes is calling a butterfly a bird. It’s not the first time that things we don’t recognize as birds have been included. Indeed, the Bible makes the same error. Regardless, including butterflies in the classification of “birds” doesn’t strike me as one that really has any beneficial or negative issues associated with it. Unlike scientists, I don’t suspect a deer has great need of knowing the taxonomic differences between the two.

The case I find more interesting is the inclusion of a skunk as a “flower”. When Thumper tries to correct the mistake, Flower stops him saying, “you can call me flower, if you want to.”

In this case, there is a distinct advantage to the miscategorization, although it’s not in Bambi’s favor. Flower (the skunk) benefits because he gets to avoid the negative connotation that may well be associated with skunks which are known to smell awful. Instead, he rebrands himself as a good smelling “flower”.

This is a very subtle and quick point this movie makes that I think is easily the most important one in the entire film: Words carry weight.

So what of the rest of the film?

Bambi’s mother takes him to the meadow and tells him to be careful of hunters. Bambi and Thumper go ice skating. Bambi meets Faline. Bambi’s mom is shot; the hunter’s fire spreads, and he runs off with his dad, who only then reveals that he is Bambi’s father. The next spring, all the animals get “twitterpated” and start making babies. Bambi and Falene have twins.

Pretty lame plot.