Thursday, February 7, 2013

Earth-like media frenzy



The Harvard-Smithsonian center for astrophysics announced yesterday in a press release that, Earth-like Planets Are Right Next Door”

This title like many press releases from the exoplanet community, of which I am a part, is not only misleading but also spiraled through various media outlets producing a black and white picture from a vibrant image.
Here are just a few of the headlines released from the reasonable, given the title of the press release, to the absurd, making me think that they have not even gone and read what they have written about. The depressing thing is the FOX News title is not the worst!

New Scientist - Closest Earth-like planet may be 13 light years away

BBC science - Exoplanets near red dwarfs suggest another Earth nearer

Huffington Post - Earth-Like Planet In 'Our Backyard' Could Harbour Advanced Life

Universe Today - Earthlike Exoplanets Are All Around Us

The Telegraph - Nearest Earth-like planet 'in our own back yard'

The LA Times - Earth-like planets — and aliens? — may be closer than we thought

Associated Press - Closest Earth-like planet 'stroll across park'

FOX News - 4.5 billion 'alien Earths' may populate Milky Way


To get across the real meaning behind the press release you have to go to the 8th statement
Dressing identified 95 planetary candidates orbiting red dwarf stars. This implied that at least 60 percent of such stars have planets smaller than Neptune. However, most weren't quite the right size or temperature to be considered truly Earth-like. Three planetary candidates were both warm and approximately Earth-sized. Statistically, this means that six percent of all red dwarf stars should have an Earth-like planet.”
This sets the definition that they use for Earth-like as both warm and Earth-sized. The term warm implies that the temperature is in what we call the Goldilocks zone where liquid water can condense at the surface of the planet. This definition of the habitable zone, however, does not imply habitability; as we know from our own solar system both Venus and Mars are on the edge of our suns habitable zone and whilst there is still a margin, albeit a very fine one, for life on Mars, we know that Venus certainly has none. The second term Earth-sized relates to the apparent radius of the planet, which is measured relative to the known radius of the star. This is generally accepted to be up to three times the radius of the Earth, as any larger and it would be considered a Neptune or mini Neptune sized world.   

Though as Courtney Dressing the author of the paper and press release pointed out, ‘You don't need an Earth clone to have life,’
This is an important point as some of these worlds will be so close to their star they may be tidally locked, meaning that one face is always towards the star and the opposite face is always encased in darkness. This may seem like a truly alien world for life to evolve, but under the right atmospheric conditions and planetary topography, temperature can be efficiently redistributed and an Earth-like world can be born, where Earth-like simply means is rocky and has things living on it.

It is important that we keep looking and keep discovering what weird and wonderful situations the universe can cook up but I fear for the day that we do find a world that is truly habitable and that there will be no uproar, no discovery party, and no wonderment, because as far as the public is concerned we would have already found hundreds and known about their absolute existence for years. 

The media deals in black and white, while science is amazing in all its technicolor. 




What's next?

The press release from the Harvard-Smithsonian Center of Astrophysics can be found here http://www.cfa.harvard.edu/news/2013/pr201305.html 


IMAGES ARE FROM THE HARVARD-SMITHSONIAN PRESS RELEASE