Hunting for Intelligence in the New Planets News

My grandfather turned 87 last week, and being the considerate grandson that I am, I waited a few days to call  – to let the holiday linger, you know.

The report from Indiana included the news that he  enjoyed his birthday dinner of broasted chicken and a can of beans from the Pay Less grocery; that Mr. Trump was likely not spanked enough as a child, since he turned out to be such a brat; and that there were some new planets discovered that might support life though “their sun ain’t as hot as ours.”

Despite the provincial nature of my job as a local newsman, I sometimes like to know what’s going on out there in the worlds. So after exchanging weather notes with Grandpa and saying goodbye, I plugged “new planets” into the search machine.

The Fox News headline above was Number Two on the results list; given the bear-blinding flashlight advertised, it seems they have targeted what their readers want to know about life.

New aliens to hunt? Martha, pack your bags. We got a new place to go on safari!

And we wonder why the aliens don’t want to say hello.

The National Geographic headline reminds us of the paradoxes inherent in this thing we call life:

New Earth-Size Planets Would Be Nothing Like Earth

The three dimensions are so passe when we’re talking about outer space.

Listed as our “in-depth” option on p.1 of Google News results, the NatGeo lead is about as purple as the infrared light put off newly discovered ultracool dwarf star TRAPPIST-1  might appear to our eyes:

A tantalizing trio of Earth-size worlds circles a tiny, dim star relatively close to us, and each planet is within or near the region where the star’s light could support the whispers and sighs of extraterrestrial life.

Don’t worry about the aesthetic life of any potential life on this planet, though; as astrophysicist Michaël Gillon goes on to explain in the NatGeo article, “for local creatures with infrared vision, plants would have some colors and would look much nicer.”

Several of the articles, like that from CNN – which, oddly, nests the news under its “health” directory – and that from his home school of MIT make sure to quote postdoc Julien de Wit’s line that it was a “risk” to bet on looking into the infrared spectrum. Such a risk that, as the MIT article notes, it was funded in part by the Belgian Fund for Scientific Research, the European Research Council, and NASA.

The Reuters lead is a simple example of the basic issue in reporting on Outer Space news: The only thing we care about is “Can we go there?” and that’s the only way science gets funded.

So you have this:

The discovery of three planets that circle a small, dim star could bolster the chances of finding life beyond Earth, astronomers said on May 2.

Which, rewritten for more pedestrian topics, comes out something like this:

The discovery of a fact could bolster the chances of having something we want to be true, be true, authorities said.

Oh, that’s how we write the news anyway, from official handouts and assertions? I’ll shut up now.

Start reading the letter in Nature which broke the research and it becomes clear why all these sources are fine with repeating whatever the scientists tell them: even the intelligent layman can’t be expected to decode the stuff in these journals.

But I can read good enough to know that I like these two sentences of “it depends”:

The planets’ atmospheric properties, and thus their habitability, will depend on several unknown factors. These include the planets’ compositions; their formation and dynamical history (their migration and tides); the past evolution and present level of the extreme-ultraviolet stellar flux (probably strong enough in the past, and perhaps even now, to significantly alter the planets’ atmospheric compositions); and the past and present amplitudes of atmospheric replenishmenmechanisms (impacts and volcanism).

Unfortunately, a Tbilisi, Georgia-based psy-trance duo has beat you and me to the band name “Stellar Flux.” 

I do have to give the Google ‘rithm credit for its selection on one count. At the bottom of the page one results for “new planets” was this science column from Tim Philp of the Brantford (Canada) Expositor: the opening and closing ‘graphs are generically “gee-whiz, things have got crazy since I was a kid,” but in the core five paragraphs, he does some fine expository writing on how astronomers have been finding so many more planets in recent years. It’s a two minute read that’ll leave you more intelligent.