Thursday, September 30, 2010

Hyping Astronomy

Astronomers from the Carnegie Institution and the University of California, Santa Cruz, have discovered and earth-sized planet called Gilese 581. It's 20 light-years away, which makes it an unlikely traveling destination, but this is exciting news nonetheless.

The abstract is enthusiastic yet cautions, saying that:

"The estimated equilibrium temperature of GJ 581g is 228 K, placing it squarely in the middle of the habitable zone of the star and offering a very compelling case for a potentially habitable planet around a very nearby star."

The press release is about the same, emphasizing the potential habitability of the planet, how hard it was to locate it and explains a bit about radial velocity. It more-or-less follows the rules I mentioned in a previous post.

The news, however, say: "Odds of life on nearby planet '100 percent,' astronomer says." (Fox News and others).

What went wrong? Where did the over-hyping come from? Unfortunately, Prof. Steven Vogt, one of the discoverers, told AP that "We don't have any direct way to sense that there's life there, my own personal opinion is that it is hard to imagine that life has not taken a foothold there."

He also said: "Personally, given the ubiquity and propensity of life to flourish wherever it can, I would say that the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent. I have almost no doubt about it."

It went downhill from there.

So, we have a scientist hyping his findings, and media all-to-ready to hype it. The results are false (or at least unverified) headlines.

(video: Steven Vogt talking to AP)

Hat tip:
Yoav Landsman (Hebrew)

Vogt, S. S., Butler, P. R., Rivera, E. J., Haghighipour, N., Henry, G. W., & Williamson, M. H. (2010). The Lick-Carnegie Exoplanet Survey: A 3.1 M_Earth Planet in the Habitable Zone of the Nearby M3V Star Gliese 581 Arxiv : 1009.5733v1

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