Expolanet Spectacular


Swine flu turned five today. And so maybe it’s strange that I want to talk about extrasolar planets, but that’s what I’m going to do. And while I’m at it, I think it’s important that I outline some of my credentials.

I picked up the January issue of Nature a few weeks ago and this was the cover story.

I am not a scientist by trade. I have a master’s degree in English and undergraduate degrees in Philosophy and English. I have what you might call a vested interest in science and the things it teaches us about the world. Apart from its cool factor, it has an utterly irresistible draw for me. I can’t help myself.

So as I was reading the article in Nature I was struck by how curious the language is. This is a journal for scientists, which, as I’ve stated, I am not. It is written by scientists and for scientists and so it uses a unique dialect of the English language that is known only to scientists. I read it about as well as I read German, which is to say that I can get the gist of just about anything that I read, but the finer details, oftentimes the deeper ramifications, the subtleties often elude me.

So what did I get out of reading the article in the magazine? That scientists had discovered a planet the size of Jupiter, but far more massive that had an eccentric elliptical orbit that brought it incredibly close to its sun so that it rapidly heated up and then slowly cooled off again as it traveled away. It’s an interesting thing to think of and it would be even more interesting to see it in action. Nay, it would be fucking awesome. But I have wondered since I read the article if there’s something I might have missed.

Lo and behold, I came across this in BBC’s science section. As it turns out, I grasped it pretty well. The BBC article, however, has the subtleties spelled out in language that laymen can understand. For instance, it points out that as this planet, HD 80606b, passes close to its star, it is closer than Mercury is to ours. It currently holds the record for most eccentric orbit of all discovered extra-solar planets.

What does this mean? Is this knowledge useful? This is the question that so much of this whole science thing hinges on. It has a cool-factor. That much is obvious. We are literally seeing planets in other solar system these days. That’s intense! And this is where that irresistible draw comes in. I can’t help myself. I consume this knowledge with the appetite of a brown bear in the springtime.

It’s interesting because I also have a subscription to Scientific American, which is a fantastic publication. The thing about Scientific American is that it is for the layman. Scientists don’t necessarily read it. It’s for people like us, enthusiasts who like science, but don’t have PhDs in the sciences.

And just for record, all you people who feel the same way, you are the people that I write for. You are not alone.