Thursday, January 26, 2006

Paradise Still Lost

There are few events in the human imagination that are as world-changing as first contact with extra terrestrial intelligence. Its draw is so powerful we often loose perspective.

So is the case with astronomers yesterday when they announced the discovery of OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, to date the most Earthlike exoplanet yet discovered.

"Earthlike," however, is a relative term; there is no alien Eden here. The rock's more than five times larger than ours with an average temperature of a chilly -364 degrees F. Clearly, no life (as we know it) could exist here yet still it's lauded as progress for the search for intelligence beyond our solar system.

But even if life as we know it could exist there, I say so what? What would we do, say "Hi?" It would only take 21,000 years for the message to get there (give or take a few millennia). Normally I wouldn't be so cynical about such things but the National Science Foundation is the one that funded the research, an aimless institution that seems to spend taxpayer money finding empty planets we can't get to.

Only the government could find a pointless little planet they claim is important, but fail to name it anything remotely memorable. Must not have been in the budget.

3 comments:

Jacob said...

The detection of any extrasolar planet is a monumental achievement. The more earthlike the planet, the more monumental the achievement. As our methods to detect planets improve, the more earthlike the planets discovered will be. Ergo, progress for the search for other potentially habitable planets. As far as I know, the OGLE program was started to study dark matter, and has discovered extrasolar planets as a side effect of the nature of the research. So is the study of dark matter with the added benefit of advancing the field of extrasolar planetary research as pointless as you claim the NSF is?

And although I know you were being facetious, creative naming is a science fiction - planets are named after the stars they are orbiting around, which are sequentially named from a catalog.

Charles Krause said...

Baby steps.

Are you likely to have decried the Mercury space program as sending "pointless spacecraft that don't really go anywhere?"

Detection of extra solar planets is a venture where the payback is - for now - only "pure science" in that we are discovering how planets are formed, where they are located, and what kind of planets exist out there in the universe. We are also learning how to detect them.

The detection of OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb is exciting in that it shows up for the first time that we are capable of detecting worlds that small enough, and far enough away from their home stars, to exist in the "habitable zone" of their stars. OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb doesn't exist in such a zone, but it is farther away, smaller - and thus harder to detect - than a planet that would be.

This means that we are several steps closer to detecting "ET", or at least places where life can exist.

As for worrying about wasted taxpayer dollars, don't - unless you're from Poland, Chile, or Australia. While the American National Science Foundation does contribute funding to the American contingent of the many different international astronomical organizations that take part in the joint micro lensing observation program (the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics), the American contribution to the pot is only a small slice of the pie - and as far as I know, no American money was "wasted" on this particular observation program - as most of the data being gathered by the Perth Observatory in Australia. Still - like everyone else in the joint program - the American astronomers get to sign the paper. Sweet deal for them.

In any case, you're talking about a few night's observational time, the salaries of a handful of astronomers for a few weeks, and at couple of hundred hours of computer time for data analysis. Even if the US bore the full weight of this "crushing financial burden", the US Government probably spends more money on lemon scented napkins for Air Force One than was "wasted" on this particular venture.

It may be wise to dig into the actual costs, the actual benefits, and the actual meaning of such events before bemoaning the tragic waste of "American Resources".

David said...

Charles:

First, to answer your question, yes. I know getting to the moon (and all the steps we needed before Apollo to get there) are very inspiring to some--even most--but to say that thus it was worth the cost is not looking at the big picture.

It's the same thing with this latest project. There are opportunity costs. There are ALWAYS opportunity costs. Sure, finding this planet is exciting to some, but it also means that something else couldn't have been done. And because it was government funded (thus it comes with piles of regulations and rules and bureacracy) it's more expensive than if the private sector did it.

Still, we might learn something. A standard, but reasonable argument. But we can learn something from all kinds of enterprises. Why this one? The best answer is we should pick the "baby step" that's most likely to yield something that can improve our lives. And we know looking for empty planets isn't at the top of that list because funding it required taxpayer money.

I'm all in favor of exploring space. I just don't see why the government has to do it--they're bad at everything else.