My language and linguistics hero, Geoff Pullum, reports an astute observation one of his readers made regarding the discussion over whether to change the status of the celestial object known as Pluto from its current title of "planet," which it has held since 1930, to Kuiper belt object, a designation that some appear to feel is somewhat less exalted.
Prof. Pullum's reader Adrian Morgan wrote to comment that those who object to the change in Pluto's status may share something in common with those who insist upon a rigid, prescriptivist approach to grammar: the desire to ensure that everything they learned in elementary school is correct, for all time.
Prof. Pullum applauds the comparison, adding: "For people who want to make sure the material they were taught in elementary school and high school stays unchanged forever, the path is clear: stay away from all intellectual activity, avoid contact with anyone who is intellectually curious, live a dull and unexamined life."
I couldn't agree more. When I was a physicist (in my previous life) among the aspects that always astonished and fascinated me about the field - and there were many - was how quickly our understanding of the universe could change at the margins; how swiftly the scientific truths taught to one generation became the quaint, antiquated models of the physical world to the next.
When I was a young graduate student, a fellow student and I wandered into a lounge amongst the physics department offices and found a collection of old Ph.D. theses dating as far back as the 1950s. As we flipped through them, we were suprised to discover that problems in quantum perturbation theory that we were struggling with in our weekly homework assignments had been the thesis problems whose solutions earned doctorates for Julian Schwinger's students.
That is not to say that we were smarter than Schwinger's students. Rather, physics had marched on such that what was the leading edge of applications of quantum mechanics at a time when not everyone was convinced that the theory was even correct had become so established as to be routinely assigned to students grinding through their introductory graduate courses.
In the late 19th century, many scientists believed that they had figured out pretty much everything there was to know about physics. Only a few loose ends remained to be cleaned up, and then physics would be done.
Those loose ends led to quantum mechanics and Einstein's special and general theories of relativity.
As the collective human mind continues to contemplate the universe it finds itself in, wild new theories become accepted principles, and old theories must recede or be superceded to make room for them. If we aren't open to that possibility, we will close off nearly all areas of inquiry. And who knows what wonders we would miss out on?