It often seems a parade of researchers are trying to foist new things I don’t want on me: a new organ, a new planet, a new dwarf planet, a new continent.
I would like to respectfully decline. No, thank you, I have quite enough continents already.
A group of scientists is currently arguing in favor of a new continent in GSA Today. Here’s the deal on the “new continent,” which is not a new continent: it’s underwater, and it’s not new. Not only is it about 100 million years old, these researchers have been fighting for it to be recognized as a continent for a decade. They are going to have to keep fighting, because there’s no international body that designates what is and is not a continent.
The landmass, which would be called Zealandia if it were a continent, which it isn’t, contains two above-water parts: New Zealand and New Caledonia. The rest of the 5-million-square-kilometer mass is submerged.
“If you could pull the plug on the world’s oceans, then Zealandia would probably long ago have been recognized as a continent,” New Zealand geologist Nick Mortimer told Nature. First of all, you can’t pull the plug on the world’s oceans, and if you tried, I would stop you. (Do you have any idea how many fish you’d kill? To say nothing of the invertebrates!) But forget that — this quote highlights the exact conceptual problem Mortimer faces: a continent is a continuous expanse of land and is identified mainly by convention. Europe and Asia are considered separate continents, for instance. They are, however, a continuous landmass, Eurasia, and are treated as such by geologists. “Zealandia” is 6 percent land and pretty much all sea — so he’ll have to win over a bunch of people like me in order to get it acknowledged by convention.
That’s a lot harder — ask anyone who’s still sore about Pluto’s demotion from planet to dwarf planet. In that case, the International Astronomical Union reclassified the icy world, because “planet” has a specific definition and a governing body. Rogue science teachers still lurk in the wilds of the US, treating Pluto as a planet; rogue scientists send us grumpy emails when we write about Pluto as a dwarf planet. And that’s with a governing body and a definition.
There’s also the strange case of the mesentery, which made headlines in January as a “new organ.” The mesentery has been known for thousands of years; the definition of an organ is... squishy, at best. First of all, it’s impossible to get anatomists to agree on the number of organs a person has. Second, the definition of an organ, as best as one Discover Magazine writer could figure out, is that it’s “composed of two tissues, is self-contained and performs a specific function.” Skin isn’t even agreed on as an organ. So yes, one guy might think the mesentery is an organ, but it doesn’t seem remotely likely it’ll be universally accepted.
Honestly, sometimes I think scientists just like having nit-picky nerd fights. That’s fine; those fights are fairly solid entertainment. And figuring out definitions of concepts, like any kind of identity quest, is surprisingly difficult. Even more difficult? Getting people to accept change.
When I attended college, there was exactly one (1) bar in town, which was named the Gambier Grill. But no one called it that; its previous ownership had called it the Pirate’s Cove, and so the bar was still known as The Cove. The name had changed before I matriculated, but it didn’t matter. That bar was The Cove. It wasn’t named The Cove. That’s just what everyone called it.
That doesn’t just apply to bars. I mean, Asia and Europe really shouldn’t be separate continents and yet just about anyone you ask will tell you they are. (Except geologists, I guess.) Maybe Zealandia will take off among geologists — but it does seem unlikely anyone else is going to be interested in a “new” continent that’s less than a tenth land.