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  • Kepler, blowing it up right now

    2011 - 02.06

    Big cosmological news this week, huge news. More exciting than the arsenic bacteria, I think.

    The Kepler Space Telescope team has just released a dump truck’s worth of data on what they have seen. The short synopsis: 1235 new planets outside our solar system. There’s a lot of juicy details to talk about, but the main takeaway is that these 1235 new planets are just the tip, of the tip, of the iceberg. A small iceberg, in a vast sea of ice.


    So first the disclaimers: they need to gather more data to firmly verify many of these planets. But that disclaimer becomes a moot, scoffable footnote when you consider how they found these 1235:

    The Kepler Space Telescope has been floating in space, watching a specific group of stars, around 145,000 of them. The size of the group is roughly equivalent to the size of one’s fist held at arm’s length if you were looking up at the sky. Note here, the entire Milky Way has an estimated 100-400 billion stars. So really just a tiny little group is being looked at.


    The way Kepler detects a planet is by watching a star to see if it’s brightness dips, when something passes between the star, way far away, and the telescope, near Earth. Now this is a hugely important point: the odds of a planet just-so-happening to be in the perfect orbit that it would actually pass between its star and Kepler’s vantage point is less than a 0.5% chance. Those 1235 repeating brightness changes that Kepler saw are only the ones that beat the incredible odds of lining up perfectly for our convenience. There is no special law of the cosmos stating “planets must be aligned perfectly between their stars and the planet Earth.” These 1235 worlds are the ones that actually do obey such a ridiculous, nonexistent law.

    So what does it mean? That are abundant planets. Everywhere. As in, more of them than you or I can possibly imagine. Says Wikipedia: “Based on Kepler data, an estimate of around 100 million habitable planets in our galaxy may be realistic.” “HABITABLE.” As in, if we ever get our act together and figure out terraforming, we could go live there. And “PLANETS.” As in, ‘we’re not counting all the moons in orbit around the giant Jupiter-like worlds that could also be habitable too’. (For reference, Jupiter has 4 large moons, while Saturn and Neptune both have 1 large moon each. So these moons are common too.) I would call 100 million a conservative estimate.

    I’ll go back to that mind-blowing sentence from the “Cosmos: A Field Guide” book: “There are more galaxies in the universe than there are stars in the Milky Way.” Oh how that sentence delights me! Andromeda, our nearest galactic neighbor, is over twice the size of the Milky Way. Multiply the conservative 100 million habitable planets by a conservative number of galaxies in the universe, let’s say 170 billion, going again by Wikipedia (though this may be low). So if every galaxy were at least somewhat like ours with regard to the odds of planetary formation, or would grow to be like ours by the time we could ever reach it…

    100,000,000 x 170,000,000,000 = 17,000,000,000,000,000,000 or 17 Quintillion habitable planets in The Cosmos.

    Quintillion, ten to the eighteenth power, I actually had to look that up before I knew what it was. When’s the last time you heard someone use that in a conversation? I mean, is that even a number? Or is it just some bafflingly abstract word? Carl Sagan loved to say “billions and billions”; well one quintillion is what you get when you multiply one billion by one billion. I think he hit pretty close to the mark.

    Now I know what I just did there was wholly unscientific, and it’s way more complicated than just multiplying some numbers. The galaxies further away are younger and undeveloped, there’s so much we still don’t know, you can’t just multiply like that, I know, I know! But hear me out: the larger point is, that there is a universe out there ineffably vast and surprisingly accommodating to life as we know it. (never mind life as we DON’T know it!) My absurdly large 17 quintillion doesn’t consider moons either. If there is a non-zero chance of life arising, which there obviously is because we’re alive, I’d say it’s a pretty safe conclusion that, in the incomprehensibly wide expanses of this universe, life abounds.

    – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – – –

    There’s an awesome interview with this guy Geoff Marcy over at Wired Science. Dude is like Mister Exoplanet. It probably says that on his business card. Out of the first 100 discovered, he was involved in 70 of those, and he is listed as a co-investigator with the Kepler telescope team too. He has a bunch of deeply thought provoking things to say, one of the largest of which centered around the question, how common is intelligent life in the galaxy?

    “What we need are big radio telescopes that hunt for radio signals. It’s not that much of a secret. But we don’t have the cultural, political will to fund a serious radio telescope to answer a question that every six-year-old asks. The telescope called the Allen Telescope Array, which is our greatest hope, is struggling. And for what? It costs $100 million. NASA’s budget is $19 billion. Less than one percent of NASA’s budget in one year is enough to fund this marvelous, epochal Nina, Pinta, Santa Maria – why aren’t we doing this?”

    Word.

    I suppose it will forever be the fate of the scientist to have their resources be dictated by the whims of bureaucrats who can’t be reasoned with. I’m sure the funding proposals for the Allen Telescope Array has taken many a red ink slashing on the desk of some idiot senator. This is one reason why I’ve decided (at least for now) not to write about politics on here. Seems like even when the so-called “good” guys are in control, foolish decisions are bound to be made and tantalizing opportunities are still squandered. I’d rather spend my time talking about things that inspire and fascinate me, rather than just complaining.

    Some more memorable quotes from Marcy, speaking about his early days, “Everyone seemed smarter than me. I felt a little bit like an impostor, like they haven’t figured out that I’m not as smart as them, that I’m not really smart enough to be a scientist. I thought okay, well now the jig is up. Maybe my career is over… I remember one morning in my apartment in Pasadena, as I took my shower, thinking, I can’t suffer like this anymore. I’ve got to just enjoy myself, do research that really means something to me… by the time I turned off the shower, I knew how I was going to end my career… by knowing I was a failure, I was free. I could just satisfy myself and hunt for planets–even though it was a ridiculous thing to do. At that time, I hadn’t heard of anybody actively hunting for planets.” When asked what people thought when he told them what he wanted to do, he says, “They were embarrassed for me. I might as well be looking for little green men, or how aliens built the pyramids in Egypt, or telekinesis.”

    I find those quotes both deeply moving and deeply inspiring. Anyone trying to do something great feels self doubt, whether it be something as modest as trying to make a painting, a film, find a job, or search for far away planets, against impossible odds. No matter how fucked up your life gets or how little you have to work with, you can always keep trying. Even if you fail a hundred times, you can always try again. I mean, here he is, talking about these 1235 new planets–what a triumph, what an utter victory! That moment is like solid gold, you can put that in a museum, in a spotlight on top of a Greek column. He’ll be getting a steady stream of congratulations in the mail as the months go by, and even if they never hear his name, people for millennia will look back on the time when we started discovering exoplanets as one pivot point in the enlightenment of the scientific & astronomical communities. A pivot point in the awakening of our species to our place in the cosmos. Maybe someday there will be a Geoff Marcy Space Telescope.

    And to think it all goes back to that one moment in the shower, when he was wracked with despair that, maybe this whole pipe-dream of being a scientist just wasn’t going to happen. Maybe I’m just not good enough, he thought. And then another part of him said, ok, look, maybe there are these other people with their unreachable masterpieces, who will always look down on the smallness of what I am trying to do. Maybe I can never join those ranks. But I’ve GOT to keep TRYING to do my thing.

    I wish the telescope could be named after whatever voice in that man’s mind told him that. The voice that says hey, even if your life’s work amounts to little more than some footnote in the annals of much more important discourse, that’s still something. And you should do that little something. I kinda got a bit emotional when I read those quotes, because it’s such a meaningful discovery–what that number of planets signifies about our own world’s role in the historical canon of the larger universe–and it had such humble, awkward beginnings. He was just a nut, some loony youngster trying to do something only a fool would devote their time to. Well who looks stupid now?

    The whole thing kind of underscores the nature of our collective quest to gain understanding of who we are in the cosmos. Those people who devote their lives to helping answer the biggest of questions are looked on like oddballs on some idiotic quest. What’s the point of spending our tax money on this stuff, most people ask? So you found some planets. I could’ve told you they were out there. We gotta pay for these fighter jets and build new churches. That’s the important stuff, needs them dollars today.

    It is an embarrassment, how unable we are to muster resources toward figuring out the big questions. All cynicism aside, maybe it’s just a problem of inadequate education about the wonder of the universe, or the inherent difficultly in succinctly communicating how this immediately affects us all, here today….  maybe it’s time I made a SETI donation.

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