Op-Ed: Have you heard of the new continent Zealandia? Gah! Stop it already.

Op-Ed: Have you heard of the new continent Zealandia? Gah! Stop it already.
Op-Ed: Have you heard of the new continent Zealandia? Gah! Stop it already.

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 Magazinewriter could figure out, is that it's "composed of two tissues, is self-contained and performs a specific function." 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.

Commentary by Elizabeth Lopatto, the science editor at The Verge. Follow her on Twitter @mslopatto.

For more insight from CNBC contributors, follow @CNBCopinion on Twitter.


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