New Worlds

Members of our solar system that were little more than points of light for decades or centuries have now become familiar family members, seen up close and personal by spacecraft. Here are introductions to three worlds that are no longer mere names in a catalog. Even the names of members in this trio may be unfamiliar to some. They’re worth getting to know.

Aliens Among Us

Some SETI researchers are looking for intelligent design on Earth – by aliens! Paul Davies has written seriously about the possibility of “alien bioengineering” that could be detected in DNA. NASA’s tax-supported Astrobiology Institute gave the idea good press, apparently unaware that most SETI researchers and astrobiologists vociferously reject the theory of intelligent design.

It’s Still a Rare Earth

Now that hundreds of extrasolar planets are known, how do they compare to ours? The Kepler spacecraft has found a varied assortment of all sizes and distances away from their parent stars. Only a few reside in their star’s habitable zones. But that’s only the first of many requirements for life. Two recent studies indicate that Earth remains a rare bird in the celestial aviary.

Trouble in Cosmologyland

Underneath the veneer of certainty portrayed by TV documentaries about the universe are deep questions and controversies. Some of these briefly appear on publicly-available news stories, only to be covered by new coats of certainty. Are the new veneers fixing the problems or, instead, whitewashing serious weaknesses in current cosmological understanding? Here are some quick looks under the veneer.

Science Without an Object: Astrobiology, Alien Science

Can science exist without an observable object? In recent years we have seen serious scientists ponder alternate universes and parallel universes, dark matter, dark energy and other imponderable entities. String theory has yet to rest on observable data, and physicists at CERN are getting worried about not finding the hypothetical Higgs boson. Sooner or later, these theories need to detect their subjects or lose credibility in the science club. Perhaps nowhere else has the disconnect between hype and observation reached the absurd limits of astrobiology and alien science.

Freakish Star Stuns Astronomers

Astronomers have detected a star that should not exist. Current theory cannot explain the composition of a star in the constellation Leo. This “freakish star,” moreover, is probably not unique. What is it, exactly, that modern star formation theory does explain?

Lucky in the Sky with Diamonds

There are treasures all around us we do not perceive. Sometimes we speak figuratively about sparkling gems that are, if we realized it, literally real, right there under our noses. Children sing, “Twinkle, twinkle little star, how I wonder what you are, up above the world so high, like a diamond in the sky” without knowing that there really are diamond stars up there, with diamond planets, so magnificent and huge they are unfathomable in value. These are actual discoveries that have been announced by scientists this week.

8.7 Million Species Is Not a Scientific Fact

Human beings love to classify things. We pigeonhole items into bins of our own making, for whatever the reason, to give us a feeling of having things organized and understood. Do our pigeonholes reflect categories that are “out there” in nature, or are they constructs of our own minds? Science reporters are announcing in bold print that there are “8.7 million species on Earth,” but a look at the fine print shows the error bars to be so enormous, there is more error than data. What does this imply about the scientific validity of human classification schemes?

SETI Blurs Line with Hollywood

Down again, up again; the SETI Institute got a reprieve for its Allen Telescope Array from actress Jodie Foster, star of the Sagan SETI saga Contact. And just in time; NASA needs contact to protect earth from aliens who might invade to punish us for global warming.

Earth Uniqueness Up; SETI Down

Our earth seems special – maybe because it is. Some astronomers are seriously considering that life might be rare or unique on our rare (or unique) planet. If so, hopes for finding sentient aliens on the celestial radio dial drop accordingly. The 50th anniversary of the first SETI search came, unfortunately for search enthusiasts, came at a time when funding is harder to get.

Planetary Eruptions

Eruptions can come in two types: literal and figurative. Some planetary bodies are literally erupting. Others are causing figurative eruptions in theories. Here are some recent news stories about planets, moons, comets and other objects circling our sun and other stars. There hasn’t been much news from Mercury or Venus this month, so we’ll start on the home planet and work outward.

Water, Water Everywhere in Space

The largest mass of water has been found surrounding a black hole in a quasar 12 billion light-years away. says the cloud harbors “140 trillion times more water than all of Earth’s oceans combined.” The discovery not only that “water has been prevalent in the universe for nearly its entire existence,” but that it “was present only some 1.6 billion years after the beginning of the universe.” Alberto Bolatto, of the University of Maryland, said, "This discovery pushes the detection of water one billion years closer to the Big Bang than any previous find.” In other cosmology news:

Cosmology Could Be Way Off

The “lumpiness problem” in cosmology refuses to go away. This old conundrum about why the universe is lumpy with stars and galaxies has been around for decades. The big bang predicts no such lumps. Since the late 1990s, tiny differences in temperature measured in the cosmic background radiation held hope of being the seeds of lump formation, provided theories added copious fudge factors like dark matter, dark energy and inflation. A new survey finds more clumps than expected, casting doubt on whether the fudge factors are wrong, the hot big bang is wrong, or relativity is wrong. Words can hardly express the gravity of the situation when gravity itself – an icon of scientific verity – is called into question.

Spiral Galaxy Upset

In 1964, C. C. Lin and Frank Shu looked at the galaxy’s curvaceous arms and said, “You are my density.”  The density-wave theory of spiral arm formation was married to galactic astronomy for nearly a half century.  Now, however, we are back to the future, where theories do not always fulfill their destiny.  An upstart […]

Upsets in Space

Three different astronomy teams have announced findings that upset long-held beliefs.  What does this portend about the confidence we can have in other theories? Galaxy growth: direct challenge:  “Galaxies are thought to develop by the gravitational attraction between and merger of smaller ‘sub-galaxies’, a process that standard cosmological ideas suggest should be ongoing,” announced the […]
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