How Did We Get Here?: Planet

In this installment of “How Did We Get Here?” we considered the idea of “planet” throughout the history of astronomy starting with the ancient Greeks who identified seven, planetes asteres (or wandering stars).  This included the Moon and Sun, but not the Earth.  Then came Copernicus who changed our view, identifying planets as bodies which orbit the Sun, making the Earth a planet, but not the Sun and Moon.  The development of telescopes led to yet further discoveries, including new planets (like Uranus and Neptune) and many other objects, such as Ceres, Pallas, Juno, and Vesta (which were first called planets, and then recategorized as asteroids).

Along came the 20th century which brought more complexity to the nature of planets, with the discovery that Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars are a very different type of object than the gas giants Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune.  The discovery of Pluto further muddied the waters, leading to the International Astronomical Union’s controversial 2006 decision to kick Pluto out of the major planet club! (Poor Pluto).  Today, planets are one of the hottest fields of research; astronomers have discovered thousands of exoplanets orbiting around other stars, leading us to more complexity, as we must consider where we draw the line between very large planets and very small stars. 

So where does philosophy fit in with all of this?  In addition to the cadre of historical thinkers identified as ‘natural philosophers’  (all of whom rigorously engaged in such ponderings in their own ways), the fields of metaphysics and epistemology come to mind.  Scientific words and their definitions serve as a specific lens through which we can view the world.  By scientifically defining words so that they most closely match real categories that exist in physical reality, this makes it easier for us to understand, investigate, and make sense of the universe.  As such this installment of HDWGH and the evolution of how we understand and use the word planet gave us important insights into the nature of science and the foundations of our modern civilization.


About Kelly

Famous for his packed public lectures in which he explores, examines, and explains astronomy, physics, and mathematics, Dr. Kelly Cline (Ph.D. in Astrophysics, University of Colorado) is not only an accomplished lecturer but also a gifted scholar and a world traveler. During the 2010-2011 academic year, Dr. Cline worked as a Visiting Lecturer at the University of Stirling’s Department of Computing and Mathematics in Scotland while on sabatical from his position at Carroll College. While in Scotland, Kelly took his public lectures “global,” presenting the world of astronomy to the Ochil Hills community and arousing the same kind of enthusiasm and praise he is met with in Helena. In continuing to work from the scholarly perspective on the pedagogy of classroom voting in mathematics, Kelly’s work reveals a new way in which instructors can keep their students engaged in course material.  


To support his research, Kelly, together with Dr. Holly Zullo, landed a $180,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for their project titled Project MathVote: Teaching Mathematics with Classroom Voting (2010-2013), demonstrating the important intersection of pedagogy and scholarship. Then, during his time at the University of Stirling, Kelly introduced campus community to classroom voting while also beginning his oversite of the University Physics Competition, which has finished its seventh annual competition, with 197 entries from all over the world. Additionally, he has received two other major grants since beginning his work at Carroll –  a $100,000 grant from the NSF for MathQUEST: Math Questions to Engage Students (2006-2009) and a $250,000 from the W. M. Keck Foundation which funds the current Project InterStats:  Redesigning Statistics Education with Research Methods and Active Learning (2014-2018).

Kelly is co-editor of the book Teaching Mathematics with Classroom Voting: With and Without Clickers (2011), published by the Mathematics Association of America.

Dr. Cline takes a special interest in and enjoys coaching Carroll’s annual Mathematical Contest in Modeling teams. As a student, he did the contest himself and found it to be an amazingly fun and powerful learning experience.  See Dr. Cline’s guide to the MCM.

During his free time Kelly enjoys gardening, piano, and traveling.

Thank You’s

Thank you to Kelly Cline and the Helena community for helping to make this event such a success!  Thank you also to the American Philosophical Association and the Helena Area Community Foundation for grant funds helping to support our “How Did We Get Here? Planet” series and our community sponsor Best Western Premier Helena Great Northern Hotel.

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