Thursday, 31 March 2011

The New Age of Discovery

By Patrick Redmond

When I was a child, like many other people before and since I’m sure, I used to look at the stars and wonder what it was like on the planets that circled them. I was naive and untutored in the ways of astronomy having acquired most of my knowledge in that area from Star Trek, Blake’s 7 and Dr Who. It was obvious to me from these limited but entertaining sources of information that the universe was teaming with planets, many of which were capable of bearing life.
Well I’m still pretty much untutored but I read a bit more science with a little less fiction and I came to realise that such planets were not so common after all. In fact until fairly recently planets outside of our own system were unproven objects of desire for those astronomers who nonetheless worked diligently honing the techniques and gathering the data that might one day provide the evidence for those extra solar planetary systems.
I spoke to astronomer Ray Jayawardhana about his book, Strange New Worlds: The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond our Solar System for our podcast. The book relates a tale of exploration covering vast distances, taking us to places so unlike what we know that it stretches the imagination. As the tools and methods for planet detection and analysis have improved we’ve accelerated in only fifteen years from a few individual confirmations to hundreds of definite with over a thousand more potential. Ray and the other astronomers in the field must feel like they’re in the scientific equivalent of a gold rush as they line up to point their telescopes at the heavens and stake their claim on territories that no foot will ever tread.
This is a happening field and Ray sensibly doesn’t try to catalogue the planets, which to be honest have pretty dull names and would make poor reading.  Instead he introduces some of the important people that contributed to this story. He also describes the history of the discipline and provides an explanation of the methods so that we have a context in which we can place the latest announcement of a planet orbiting a star many light years away from us. It tells us how they can know so much about something that isn’t even a twinkle to the naked eye and hints that in the future we may know even more. Ray’s book is an informative and enjoyable read that doesn’t shy away from the science but can still be understood by a relative novice such as myself.
There is inevitably the question of whether we can or will find life out there? But in looking outwards to the planets beyond our star we’re forced to turn our attention back on ourselves. If we’re considering life in alien environments what is it we’re looking for? To inform and guide our search we have a comparative sample planet of one, our own. Do we therefore base the search for life on the presumption that any life bearing planet must have physical characteristics similar to ours and that the life on there will follow Earth like models? Or do we need to think hard about what we mean by life and in what forms we might possibly encounter it?
Listen to the podcast and if you want to know more about this incredibly fast developing and interesting subject then it would be well worth you reading his book.

Listen to the Podcast here

Patrick Redmond (@paddyrex) was Born in Stoke and moved the vast distance to live in Birmingham. He is one of the organisers of Birmingham Skeptics in the Pub and presents the Birmingham Skeptics podcast.

1 comment:

Andy said...

Another great podcast, Paddy. Amazing the rate at which these new planets are being located. Some seriously accurate spectroscopy needed to detect Doppler shift in star's wobble due to a planetary orbit.

PS. Very good choice of title ;-)