This is a slight – OK, significant – departure from the normal subject of these blogs, but after reading a few articles recently, there’s something inside that’s just compelling me to pass comment. I found the articles in question on the BBC web site – my primary source of news – under the Science category, an occasional destination for me when I see a headline that piques my natural affinity for things extraterrestrial.
You can read the articles in their entirety here:
Now it’s worth pointing out that I have an innate fascination for things related to journeys into space and the search for other worlds “out there”, so my mind is probably more open than most when reports are subject to the personal credibility test. Even so, wandering through the corridors of the BBC’s space reports is like stepping into another world, and they’re always worth the visit. But these three reports took an extraterrestrial step just a little beyond my credibility threshold, and they left me with an overriding question – are they really serious?
The obvious answer is “Of course they are, these people dedicate their lives to their quest,” and I have to admire them for it. But just scanning through the names involved seems to indicate that it’s a kind of club – Shoskar, Gabriel Gatehouse, Oli Madgett, Charkin, McCaughrean … did they change their names when they chose their vocation, or did their professions choose them? I suspect that if I applied for a job at the Search for Extra Terrestrial Intelligence Institute, my application would be rejected when they got to “Name”.
Working in these fields also without doubt requires a mind that relishes the prospect of knotting itself into contorted, labyrinthine blobs on a daily basis. Just take the concept of a black hole, for instance. It’s defined as an object whose gravity is so great that nothing – including light – can escape them. Now I have an analytical mind, and like to think that I can occasionally get my head around complex concepts, but this one has my synapses firing off without reply into the very stratosphere where such dark cavities are “found”. Gravity … light … bedfellows … ?
They then go and compound the issue by telling me that the black hole they discovered in our galaxy is four million times heavier than our Sun, which itself – as we all know – weighs a mere two billion billion billion tons, or – more familiarly – 220 duodecillion pounds. Also that it’s 158 thousand, million, million miles from the Earth. Say what now? How heavy and how far? How do they know this, and can I check their calculations? What sort of scale did they use to weigh these things, and what kind of ruler to get the distance? Seems like they rounded off quite heavily there too, immediately raising my suspicions. At least if they’d put it in terms I could relate to – like how many elephants or how many trips to the grocery store, for instance – I might have been able to relate.
Not surprisingly, the observations were made with the Very Scientifically-Named Very Large Telescope – affectionately and curiously known as the “VLT” – in
Thankfully, we don’t need to answer these questions, and we can comfortably move on to the next, particularly satisfying phase of every science study – coining new terms. I’m not sure if coming up with this one to describe the size of this black hole also took 16 years, but they can be confident they came up with a real doozy – “super-massive.” I kid you not. What are they going to call it if they find an even bigger one? Super-duper-massive? Incredibly-mind-bogglingly-huge? So-unbelievably-big-that-it-dwarfs-the-last-one-by-three-duodecillion-times?
Moving on and talking of competitiveness, it seems that the burgeoning social networking movement doesn’t want to be left behind. Either that or they’re on a serious membership drive – they (Bebo) sent out an electronic package to a planet just around the corner, some 20 light years away. According to the report: “Some 501 photos, drawings and text messages were transmitted on Thursday by a giant radio-telescope in
Now that’s all very well, but does this planet have PayPal so they can sign up? And do they have a reliable internet connection? After all, it’s only going to reach there in 2029, by which time all Bebo’s members would have solved Saturday night’s date problem, and even if they hadn’t, how could you be sure that the message’s recipients didn’t age badly?
One of the article’s more illuminating quotes suggests that we may not get a reply: “So if anybody's out there and they find that signal, they at least know it that, in the direction of that star system over there, there must be a planet with some pretty clever things on it.” If this quote is any indication of what’s in that electronic package, I suspect that the recipients might make the Very Disruptive Decision to go and colonize a planet a little further away.
One last thing puzzles me too. The target they chose was a planet called Gliese 581C – why? What was wrong with Gliese 581A and B? Or, for that matter, the exoplanet Fomalhaut b or the three that orbit the star HR 8799?
This last option is the subject of the third article, which raises some teasers of its own. First off, who gets to name stars and planets? For example, I wonder how the residents of Formalhout b would take to being named after a fallen angel and a gatekeeper in Italian witchcraft? And not even an A-grade one at that. At least I’d be able to counter their complaints by saying their name has a little more character than the inhabitants of the HR 8799 solar system can claim. After all, if hurricanes – which are a tad more transient than planets, even if they are full of character – get real names, why not stars? At first blush it appears that there are multiple planet- and star-naming committees, some drawing on their passion for folklore, others on their favourite chemical formula, and yet others opting for a dart-in-the-board method. While they’re at it, why not take suggestions, or name the planets after real people – Bart, or Yogi, or Joe, for instance.
One other thing that emerges from the third article is the apparent reversion in planetary science to terms we can relate to. “Super-massive” broke new ground that way. Now there’s “wobble”, which is what an exoplanet induces in its parent star. It would somehow give me a sense of comfort and confidence if I were selected for a manned space mission to search for life in a far-off solar system, knowing that its star had “wobbled” in the telescopes of astronomers some 11 billion miles away.
But I’m taking things out of context here, and the article clearly states that the “wobble” method is passé. Things have moved on since then, and with today’s technology, they’ve been able to detect that Formalhout b is “the coolest, lowest-mass object ever seen outside our own solar neighbourhood.” How about that as an advertisement – cool and low-mass, bound to fill up its social calendar in a heartbeat. Needless to say, personal visits would only be possible for those able to cover those less-than-precisely-calculated 11 billion miles within a reasonable time, not to mention access to a warm wardrobe. You’d also need to have faith in the assertion of the scientists that it is indeed the coolest and lowest-mass, and be sure that they had no ulterior motive in promoting it thus.
Perhaps the most revealing of indications comes from the concluding quote of the third article – astronomers indeed have a sense of humour, or at least a colourful way of expressing themselves to those of us who spend most of our time on terra firma. When reflecting on the fact that not just one, but three exoplanets have recently been detected, astrophysicist Mark McCaughrean had this to say: “It's like a
And it wouldn’t surprise or concern me if sometime in the future they all had the last laugh at the expense of tongue-in-cheek people like me. After all, while Copernicus was encouraged to publish his heliocentric model – placing the sun at the center of our solar system – in the early 16th century, he delayed it, perhaps for fear of the reaction to his claims. Even then, the heliocentric model had been around for over 2,000 years, first emerging in
So who knows – maybe