Hyperbole As Large As Space Itself

Over the past few days I’ve seen headlines for, and mostly avoided reading articles on, the discovery of a new planet, Gliese_581_c. Time Magazine headlined: “Life on the New Planet?” Those words just don’t pass the sniff test.

It would be nice to say I’m excited about Gliese_581_c, except there’s a whole lot less here than meets the eye.

“On the treasure map of the universe, one would be tempted to mark this planet with an X,” said Xavier Delfosse, an astronomer with Grenoble University in France and one of the planet’s co-discoverers. Dmitri Sasselov of the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics, went further, enthusing to The New York Times, “It’s 20 light-years [away]. We can go there.”

Sure, what’s 120,000,000,000,000 miles?

He’s talking 20 years, if we travel as fast as light. The fastest a man made object has ever traveled is around 150,000 mph by the Helios 2 spacecraft. This amazing speed was reached as the probe whipped around the Sun, using solar gravity for an assist.

Even at that normally unattainable rate, 120 trillion miles would take about 91,000 years.

And that life stuff – no one has actually seen the planet. Its existence is implied, based on orbital mechanics and shifts of the star it orbits. We don’t know if its got water or an atmosphere or what the surface temperature is. Gliese_581_c’s extremely close proximity to its “sun” probably affects its rotation, though we have no firm understanding of the final result.

The assumption is, gravity would be about twice what it is on Earth with tidal forces about 400 times what we see. The planet might be locked into its orbit in such a way that one side is always illuminated while the other side is under constant darkness.

What I’m getting at is, it’s an immense leap of faith to go with Time’s headline and project a planet supporting life.

It’s good to get excited about science. Why spoil that by turning on the hype machine?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *