June 13, 2010 | David F. Coppedge

Planets Seen Forming! (or Dust Spreading )

Science headline writers were almost beside themselves with joy at the prospect of watching other planetary systems in the process of forming.  Science Daily nearly set a record with a large-print, bold, 22-word headline: “Zooming in on an Infant Solar System: For the First Time, Astronomers Have Observed Solar Systems in the Making in Great Detail.”  PhysOrg, which regurgitated the same press release from University of Arizona, headlined only the first 7 words.  A quick internet search showed this press release reverberating throughout the web, with little modification, usually accompanied by the same artwork.  What on other earths was going on?
    The press release was based on a paper by J. A. Eisner et al published in Astrophysical Journal, available online in an open-access PDF at Los Alamos National Laboratory.1  The title talks about spectra of hydrogen around certain stars – nothing about planets.  The paper itself only makes a brief, data-free, theory-laden statement about planets in the introduction: “Protoplanetary disks play an integral part in the formation of both stars and planets.  Disks provide a reservoir from which stars and planets accrete material, and a knowledge of the structure of inner regions of disks is needed to understand the star/disk interface as well as planet formation in disk ‘terrestrial’ regions.”  That was it.2  Wading through the hype about planets in the press release to get to the data, though, took a strong machete.  The claims were audacious from the first sentence.  Not only did the press release deliver planets; it outfitted them for life:

  • For the first time, astronomers have observed solar systems in the making in great detail.
  • A team led by University of Arizona astronomer Joshua Eisner has observed in unprecedented detail the processes giving rise to stars and planets in nascent solar systems.
  • The solar systems the astronomers chose for this study are still young, probably a few million years old.
  • “These disks will be around for a few million years more,” Eisner said.  “By that time, the first planets, gas giants similar to Jupiter and Saturn, may form, using up a lot of the disk material.”
  • More solid, rocky planets like the Earth, Venus or Mars, won’t be around until much later.
  • “We are going to see if we can make similar measurements of organic molecules and water in protoplanetary disks,” he said.  “Those would be the ones potentially giving rise to planets with the conditions to harbor life.

Surely claims of this magnitude were based on incredibly hard evidence.  Did Eisner and his colleagues actually see any planets?  Actually, no.  They saw dust and hydrogen.  They looked at 15 stars with dust disks around them, and measured things like mass, rotation, and magnetic fields.  They saw some of the dust getting sucked into the stars.  They saw some dust disks getting pushed back by magnetic field lines.  They saw violent process, like hydrogen flung out by magnetic field lines: “the gas is being funneled along the field lines arching out high above and below the disk’s plane,” Eisner said.  “The material then crashes into the star’s polar regions at high velocities.”  The press release explained what happens next: “In this inferno, which releases the energy of millions of Hiroshima-sized atomic bombs every second, some of the arching gas flow is ejected from the disk and spews out far into space as interstellar wind.”  Notice that this environment forms the boundary conditions for the story.
Question: where are the planets?
Answer: in Eisner’s imagination.
“‘But the building blocks for those could be forming now,’” he said, which is why this research is important for our understanding of how solar systems form, including those with potentially habitable planets like Earth.”
    Summing it up, here’s the score.  Observations of planets: zero.  (This includes habitable planets.)
    Uh, what was that headline again?  “Zooming in on an Infant Solar System: For the First Time, Astronomers Have Observed Solar Systems in the Making in Great Detail.
    Incidentally, their work was funded by a Major Research Instrumentation Grant from the National Science Foundation.


1.  Eisner et al, “Spatially and Spectrally Resolved Hydrogen Gas within 0.1 AU of T Tauri and Herbig Ae/Be Stars,” Astrophysical Journal Vol. 718, July 20, 2010 (scheduled); preprint at Los Alamos Natl Laboratory.
2.  The paper talks much about accretion, but it’s apparent both from the paper and the press release that the accretion being spoken of is material getting swept into the star – not material building up planets.  Planet formation (not even mentioned in the technical paper) was not spoken of in terms of data or observations, but only as theoretical possibilities: “gas giants similar to Jupiter and Saturn, may form, using up a lot of the disk material,” and “More solid, rocky planets like the Earth, Venus or Mars, won’t be around until much later, ‘But the building blocks for those could be forming now,’…”

Calling on all skeptics who respect science.  Will you let this pass?  Those of you whose mission is to expose pseudo-science and skewer crackpots, do you ever turn your energies on the likes of these?  They’re not your usual targets, but look at what these people have done.  Don’t be distracted by the fact that they work for major universities, like the University of Michigan, Caltech, Berkeley, and Max Planck.  Don’t be impressed by the fact that they used observations from Keck, one of the finest observatories in the world.  Don’t be intimidated by the fact that they got a major research grant from the NSF.  Who cares?  If someone says a dumb thing, it’s dumb, no matter who says it.
    If you could, in your mind’s eye, transport yourself to the middle ages, and find the King of France funding alchemical or astrological research, and all the esteemed academics of the University of Paris thinking it was a great idea, would you endorse it on those bases alone?  Surely, science must be about more than (1) equipment, (2) prestige, (3) money, (4) consensus, (5) power and authority, (6) publicity, (7) rhetoric, (8) hype, (9) enthusiasm, (10) imagination, (11) some of the above, (12) all of the above.  Presumably, science has at least something to do with truth.  It has something to do with gaining knowledge about the world through rigorous, testable, empirical methods, and applying what is gained logically, consistently, and conservatively – avoiding the exaggerations to which our natures incline us.  Can we agree on that?
    But look what these scientists, intelligent as they are, educated as they are, privileged as they are to work on the world’s greatest telescopes, honored as they are with taxpayer dollars, did in this press release.  They observed spectra of hydrogen around a few T Tauri and Herbig Ae/Be stars.  From these spectra, it was reasonable to infer some violent processes at work: hydrogen being accelerated along magnetic field lines, and dust disks apparently either spiralling all the way in to the star or being compressed outward.  That’s it.  But look at their inferential equation in the press release:
Dust + violence = planets
Planets + time = life
Look at the absurd teaser in the headline.  Look at the suggestive artwork.  If that isn’t pseudo-science, if that isn’t an example of wild swings of speculation way out of bounds beyond what the data can bear, then please, pray tell, what is?  Why is it that the world’s press just laps up this garbage and barfs it back out for the public?  Why is Creation-Evolution Headlines the only site with the guts to call this disgusting?  Look; even Space.com fell for it hook, line and sinker – no critical analysis whatsoever.  Not a hint of questioning.  None of the debate or dispute or controversy that should characterize good science.  The media just fall in lockstep like a bunch of gutless, mindless lemmings.
    If you agree, then do something about it (this is for skeptics).  Write some letters to the editors of news sources that regurgitated this press release uncritically and complain.  Write the University of Arizona and say that this press release was very unscientific.  Tell them it violated your skeptical sensibilities.  Tell them it gives the creationist wackos occasion to mock science.  Tell them it is illogical to extrapolate from hydrogen and dust to earth-like planets and life.  Point out that such talk only encourages the critics of evolution to keep up their rhetoric and grow more bold.  Tell them that if they keep publishing thoughtless press releases like this one, intelligent design is going to continue to grow and proliferate, because evolutionary science is going to continue looking like a lunatic fringe of laughable pseudo-science the way it is being exaggerated beyond all logic.  Further, tell them that when it gets spoon-fed to the public this way, with no critical analysis, the public becomes skeptical that they are being led down the primrose path.  (It might be effective to tack on the quote at the top right of this page.)
    Do it.  Read them the riot act for a change.  Then at least we will know you are consistent.  Then we will at least know you are an honest skeptic.

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Categories: Dumb Ideas

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