Science! Headline Not Exactly Right…

…in the sense of being totally wrong:

Three habitable worlds found around the same star

Merriam-Webster says:

habitable

What the article attached to the headline says:

Aliens could be watching aliens watching aliens. That’s a realistic prospect now that three potentially habitable planets – a record – have been glimpsed orbiting the same star.

Earlier studies had suggested that a nearby star, Gliese 667C, had three planets, only one of which might support life. But the very presence of multiple planets made their precise number hard to tease out.

Now Guillem Anglada-Escudé of the University of Göttingen in Germany and his colleagues have reanalysed the original data and added some new observations. They found evidence for up to seven worlds, including three rocky planets in the star’s habitable zone, where temperatures should suit life.

So, three potentially habitable planets. They are also potentially made of green cheese – in both cases, we’d need more evidence to be sure.

But next: earlier studies suggest only one of these may support life – which I’m supposing means ‘habitable’?

Finally: “..in the star’s habitable zone, where temperatures should suit life.”  Did you know that the moon is smack dab in the middle of our sun’s habitable zone? At various places at various times, temperatures are quite nice 0n the moon. Yet squirrels and pine trees and any other form of life are noticeably lacking. Sooooo – it looks to take more than nice temperatures to be habitable?

But, hey, we’ve got a drum to beat here, and a fan base to fire up! Let’s not quibble over the complete and utter lack of evidence for trivia like water and atmosphere, or what temperature *ranges* might prevail – I just bought a lottery ticket, and I might win millions of dollars!

Well, that’s not fair – to the lottery ticket buyer. Some tiny percentage of people have actually won millions in a lottery, while no one – No. One. – has ever found any life on any planet other than earth. The lottery ticket holder has a realistic (if tiny) reason to hope. The alien life hunter has no reason to hope, except for blind faith in some dogma. Until we find case #2 of a life-infested planet, we have no evidential basis upon which to believe we ever will.

One last caveat:

That’s assuming the new trio of habitable planets is real. In 2010, two of the paper’s co-authors were acclaimed and then criticised when they claimed to have found the first potentially habitable rocky planet around the star Gliese 581 – a discovery others were unable to confirm. Anglada-Escudé is not worried: “We made sure to be very careful this time.”

Well! I feel much better about that this time. You?

To recap: buried within paragraphs of fan-boy heavy breathing, we are told scientists may have found 3 (or so) planets which lie within their sun’s habitable zone, which means that one potential deal-killer – temperatures that are much too hot or much too cold – might be ruled out, given a whole slew of other things (atmosphere (composition, density), rotational period, regularity of orbit) fall exactly right. The scientists involved have a poor track record, but *this* time they assure us they really, truly checked it out.

(aside: of course, if we do find alien life on another planet, I’ll be as thrilled as anyone. I’m just not buying that it is somehow inevitable – we just don’t know.)

UPDATE: It just keeps getting better –

Four habitable planets orbiting three tiny suns? New first in planet-hunting.

Up to 4! and we’ve got tiny suns to boot. BUT – really appreciate the question mark. Good show, Christian Science Monitor. Honesty in science headlines isn’t all that hard.

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Author: Joseph Moore

Enough with the smarty-pants Dante quote. Just some opinionated blogger dude.

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