November 30, 2015 | David F. Coppedge

Tilted Planets Throw Theories Off Kilter

An example of how data can be framed as success or failure, depending on the reporter’s spin.

Tilting A Planet

Theory cannot explain a highly-inclined “hot Jupiter” around a star. At least New Scientist is honest about it. Its coverage leaves the mystery unexplained: “Weirdly tilted planet knocks formation theory out of line,” reporter Joshua Sokol writes. “A freshly discovered off-kilter exoplanet is knocking our best theory on how such beasts form out of line.” He leaves the case of HATS-14b, with its “whopping 76 degrees” inclination compared to its star’s axis, as an anomaly. The very guys who came up with the “tidal theory” to explain planetary alignments are stuck. But then they have another anomaly:

In another new paper, Winn and Gongjie Li of Harvard University address another flaw in the traditional idea. Once the star’s gravity grabs hold of a hot Jupiter’s atmosphere, the same forces that pull a tilted planet into line should cause the planet’s orbit to decay, eventually leading to the star gobbling it up. This means planets aligned this way shouldn’t stick around for long, but that can’t be true because we see them out there.

Winn isn’t sure his theory can fully explain the discrepancy. “I happen to be the one that proposed this whole tidal story,” Winn says. “But I’m not especially wedded to it.”

Tilting Our Moon

Refreshing honesty. But then Nature, Science, and got into storytelling mode about another tilting anomaly—our moon’s inclination—invoking unseen rocks as the agents of tilt. “The Moon’s current orbit is at odds with theories predicting that its early orbit was in Earth’s equatorial plane,” Nature begins, but then quickly spins a yarn. “Simulations now suggest that its orbit was tilted by gravitational interactions with a few large bodies.” How convenient to toss unseen factors into a computer model to make a system work! A paper in Nature conjures up “collisionless encounters” with planetesimals – they left no trace. Maybe the bodies are like ghosts that left behind only a frightened thing on the run. Science is supposed to be about things you can see, detect, or measure.

Science Magazine leapfrogged off that tale right into a whopper: “The findings solve a longstanding mystery and may also explain why Earth’s crust is unexpectedly rich in gold and platinum: When some of these small planets slammed into Earth, they delivered a payload of precious‘s reporters, of course, can’t be expected to know any better than to regurgitate what the big guys at Nature & Science say, drawing in boilerplate about Theia and other mythological creatures capable of doing any miracle required to keep naturalism viable. That’s their job, after all.

Don’t just wag your head. They’ll never hear that. You’ve got to laugh out loud. Be nice to Sokol, though. He tried to be honest. Thank Fraser Cain at Universe Today, too; he agrees we need our moon for habitability, even though he is a Darwin addict. “It looks like the moon is important after all,” the copy on PhysOrg says. “Important to the geology of Earth, and important to the evolution of life itself.” Perhaps this implies that Darwin’s theory is moonstruck.


(Visited 126 times, 1 visits today)


  • lux113 says:

    “This means planets aligned this way shouldn’t stick around for long ”

    Hmm, looks like they may have stumbled onto a solution to the problem.

    Maybe, just maybe, the planets haven’t been there long at all. Maybe, just maybe they were all put into place relatively recently — and like spinning plates it will all come undone in due time.

    It seems to me there’s a whole HOST of issues with a solar system, cosmos that has been carrying on the way it is currently for billions of years. Many parts that would go off the rails in far less time — lucky there’s a way to solve all those messy equations.

  • Fitimtari says:

    The funny thing is that on evolutionary principles, there shouldn’t even necessarily be a problem in accepting that this star and its hot Jupiter really are quite young. We’re constantly told that this or that gas cloud is a “star nursery”, i.e. stars are still forming, and have been forming continually for billions of years. (Therefore, on evolutionary principles, some stars out there are indeed 6,000 years old!) So why couldn’t this particular exosystem be one of those.

Leave a Reply