It may be a record for exaggerating news out of proportion: the discovery of an extrasolar planet not much larger than earth has prompted giddy cries from some scientists who seem to suggest we’ll be contacting extraterrestrial life forms before mid-May! So what’s the real story?
The real story is that, through indirect methods of detection, astronomers have detected the presence of a planet that may be as little as 50% wider and five times more massive than earth. Located in the constellation Libra and orbiting the faint star Gliese 581 every 13 days, the planet cannot actually be seen; rather, astronomers used “a very sensitive instrument” that detected minute fluctuations in Gliese 581’s velocity. From there, calculations tell astronomers a few of the approximate characteristics of the planet.
But what’s causing the excitement is that these calculations indicate the planet may be warm enough to have liquid water on its surface.
But what’s causing the excitement is that these calculations indicate the planet may be warm enough to have liquid water on its surface. And, of course, in the evolutionary mind, liquid water is portrayed as virtually one step away from fully formed life. A National Geographic News article misleadingly called the planet “habitable”—an absolutely unsupported conjecture, considering that astronomers don’t even know if the planet has an atmosphere, let alone a chemical makeup friendly to life! Meanwhile, BBC News Magazine released an article titled, “Meet the Neighbors“ that, while retaining some gravity, postulated on what extraterrestrial life would look like. Again, this is despite the fact that this planet is only known from indirect measurements and calculations, and that astronomers have no clue as to what the planet is actually like. (Oh, and did we mention the planet is some 120 trillion miles from earth?)
One wonders, amid all this nearly rabid speculation (including Swiss scientist Michel Mayor’s claim that the search for life is next), if good astronomy will be thrown out the window in favor of an evolution-driven search for extraterrestrial life. We also fear the over-the-top exclamations that will no doubt result if liquid water is discovered on an extrasolar planet.
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