When you’ve seen one planet….

Rumours have been circulating for several days and now we have confirmation. The most exciting news in the history of the Universe! Planets exist

Well, actually, we knew that. We live on one. And anyway, the International Astronomical Union recently stipulated that planets could only be things orbiting the Sun.  Don’t ask me why. So the new things have to be called exoplanets. And over 300 hundred of these were known before today anyway.  A rose by any other name would smell as sweet, so we won’t worry about the taxonomy. But what’s the big deal?

2008111311What is different about the most recent observations, reported in today’s issue of Science, is that they involve direct detection (i.e. imaging) of exoplanets, not indirect inferences made by studying stellar wobbles. An example is shown here: the three red dots are the exoplanetary objects orbiting around the star HR 8799.

 Quite interesting.

But is every new detection of an exoplanet going to be hyped like this from now until doomsday? Or until the public gets thoroughly bored?  Might it not be better to wait until there’s a sufficiently large and unbiased sample that exoplaneticists can quit their stamp collecting and start doing some real science?

At least in cosmology nobody ever exaggerates the importance of their discoveries.


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20 Responses to “When you’ve seen one planet….”

  1. I know what you mean. I know many astronomers who like myself have serious “exoplanet fatigue”. Another brown dwarf, another instrument to look at x-thousand M-dwarfs. Meh. But these images are pretty cool, if only from a technological point of view. The Hubble image seems to be getting most of the attention in the media, I presume thanks to NASA’s smooth PR machine, but IMO the ground-based image is far more impressive. Some clever observing and data analysis went into that. I’m a little bit jealous really.

  2. Anton Garrett Says:

    “Cosmologists are often in error but never in doubt” – Lev Landau, Soviet physicist. (Some way to go before they are as bad as economists though.)

  3. More importantly, have they cleared their orbits? ;)

  4. IIRC the IAU planet definition only applies to our solar system. For anywhere else, call it what you like.

    Exoplanet hype levels are as far as I can see pretty reasonable. Especially in this case. First optical picture of an exoplanet, first picture of a multiple system where the planets move.

    And the public really do love thinking about aliens.

    Cosmology has accelerated the universe and filled it full of stuff that’s dark. Hype overload is reached (for the moment anyway).

  5. Anton Garrett Says:

    Hi Malte,

    The accelerating universe is a *fact* (unless our understanding of what we are testing is in far worse shape than we realise). Dark energy is a best guess explanation but no cosmologist would regard it as more than provisional. It is popularisers who drop the caveats that have led to some of the cynicism.

    But there is real trouble in “quantum cosmology”, that is, theories of what goes on so close to the Big Bang that both quantum theory *and* general relativity make big differences. Unhappily the two theories do not go well together, and the parameter range is so far from testability that the speculations of theoreticians tell us little other than their own (often wacky) metaphysics. I call quantum cosmology the next generation of science fiction and I regard a more responsible approach as to admit that we are stumped and concentrate on improving our understanding of quantum theory and general relativity separately, until a more viable unification hoves into view. I support polemical critics of superstring theory who have “come out” in recent years.


  6. Michael Merrifield Says:

    Perhaps the cosmologists should desist from any more speculation and publications until they have amassed observations of a sufficiently large and unbiassed sample of universes that they can start doing real science…

  7. Anton Garrett Says:

    *Some* speculation is a necessary and healthy part of the interplay between experiment and theory, and cosmology is an exciting field today as a result of radical improvements in detector technology. (Disclaimer: I’m not a cosmologist.) Cosmology is in much better health than particle physics, which is physics’ other “big spender”. Particle people merely bleat for bigger machines whenever they run out of good ideas (and at CERN they’ve managed to get one). My complaint about cosmology is specifically against *quantum* cosmology. OK, it is not the fault of theoreticians that experimenters cannot recreate Big Bang conditions (whatever CERN’s publicity department says), but it IS their fault that they resort to crazy ideas rather than hang a sign saying “still thinking – come back later” on their doors.

    As for many-universes hypotheses, they can and should be rephrased using more sober metaphysics. Then it becomes clear whether or not they relate to testable hypotheses, which is what counts.


  8. Some years back a star formation pundit of my acquaintance got so fed up with overblown cosmology press releases that he decided to compete. Returning from the JCMT having made a fairly mundane CO map of his favourite molecular cloud, he issued a press release claiming that he had discovered enough carbon to make all the world’s pencils. It worked. Extensive coverage ensued.

  9. We should remember that a lot of the hype reported in the media about science is generated not by researchers themselves, but instead by university publicity offices and by the high-profile journals. Universities want to get their names noticed to attract student applications, while Science and Nature want to increase the profile of their publications.
    (I discovered all this to my embarrassment some years ago, as some people reading this may remember.)

  10. Michael Merrifield Says:

    Actually, Anton, my dig was at Prof Coles for having a go at the exoplanet folk for putting out press releases every time they find a new planet: the cosmologists keep publicly claiming to have understood everything without ever discovering any new universes at all. They certainly don’t have a big enough sample to do proper science with yet.

    As for describing cosmology as the “big spender,” I am not sure that’s true: I suspect that, for example. high-energy astronomy has probably cost more in recent years than cosmology. It’s getting quite tricky to tell, though, as the cosmologists have finally figured out that measuring the Hubble constant to another significant figure really isn’t very interesting, so have tried to rebadge other areas of astronomy such as galaxy formation as cosmology, too, to justify their existence, In fact, sooner or later they will probably decide that exoplanets are cosmology, too, at which point all the hype will be immediately justified…

    And, yes, we still have the negatives, Bryn.

  11. Anton Garrett Says:


    I understand, and I’ll leave any reply about publicity aspects to Peter. I regard the two Big Spenders within physics as particle physics and astrophysics. In discussions about funding I think it is not worthwhile to distinguish astronomy from cosmology under the astrophysics umbrella.


  12. telescoper Says:

    I would have thought that my closing cough was sufficient indication of the intended irony of my remark about the PR excess in cosmology. But for the benefit of those who have spent too much time in America to know what irony is, cosmology is at least as guilty of hyperbole as any field…

    Disoveries like these explonanets get people interested in astronomy (and science generally), but I worry that if the public gets saturated with non-stories then it might get even more cynical about scientists than it is now.

    And on the other point I was tempted to quote “all science is cosmology”, but I think that was by Karl Popper and am not sure I want him on my side.

  13. telescoper Says:


    I remember a similar thing happened when it was announced that alcohol had been discovered in space; that certainly got my attention.


  14. Mike Merrifield Says:

    I must admit, my personal recent favourite is

    “We have provided a detailed blueprint for Fermi to find dark matter,” said Professor Carlos Frenk of Durham University. “It shows where to look and what to look for. This is a blueprint for solving one of the greatest mysteries in science, which is what the universe is made of. The search for dark matter has dominated cosmology for decades. It may soon come to an end. I think within a year, or two years maximum. Now we’ve told them what to look for, all they need to do is to just go and do it.

  15. Anton Garrett Says:

    Re irony: I recently watched the feature length cartoon “Team America – World Police” by the creators of South Park. It showed me that Americans CAN satirise themselves very effectively, whatever we think on this side of the pond.


  16. Mike Merrifield Says:

    I would have thought that my closing cough was sufficient indication of the intended irony of my remark about the PR excess in cosmology.

    I am afraid that a mild dose of self-conscious self-deprecation doesn’t quite balance the scales, Peter. You gave the exoplanet community a hard time for putting out a press release every time they find a planet. Actually, they don’t — I certainly haven’t seen any “another planet found” news stories in quite some time. The only things that hit the press are when they have some new angle such as the first direct image of an exoplanet, which is, after all, pretty cool. The argument that they should shut up until they have a large unbiassed sample seems rather silly: cosmologists will never have a large unbiassed sample of universes, but they still discover interesting things and sometimes even make worthwhile press announcements about them.

  17. telescoper Says:

    It’s a blog. I don’t do balanced.

  18. Mike Merrifield Says:

    No — that’s what the comments are for. So I commented.

  19. Mike Merrifield Says:

    By the way, did you know that an anagram of “I am Peter Coles” is “a polemic steer?”

  20. [...] and Stamp Collecting Musing over the comments posted on my (slightly ironic) blog item about exoplanetary ennui, I remembered a piece I wrote for the Times Literary Supplement last [...]

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