Planets are common - duh!

Posted by Daniel Pendick
on Friday, June 01, 2007

Honolulu is a planet-hunter's paradise this week.

If you've read Dave Eicher's blog posts from Hawaii, you already know an army of astronomers is basking in the balmy heat of Honolulu at the annual meeting of the American Astronomical Society (AAS). And if you've read a newspaper, scanned news sites on the web, or watched national TV news this week, you know researchers at AAS reported the discovery of an additional 28 exoplanets , bringing the grand total to 236.

Part of my daily routine is to cruise astronomy news on the web. This includes sampling what astronomy enthusiasts are blogging on. Here's a typical snippet, from a Reuters news service story posted May 29: "Planet-seekers who have spotted 28 new planets orbiting other stars in the past year say Earth's solar system is far from unique and there could be billions of habitable planets." [Reuters, May 29.]

Then the Reuters story quotes Geoff Marcy, a Berkeley astronomer who leads the most prolific planet-hunting team in the world, with over 120 nabbed to date: "We are beginning to see that our home is not a rarity in the universe."

I know what he means when he says that, but it still stuck in my head as a little off. We are beginning to realize that the solar system — ours, I mean — is not unique?

With no disrespect to Marcy and all the other hard-working planet hunters who have revealed the strange and wonderful universe of exoplanets, when I hear someone surprised that our solar system isn't the only one among the billions of stars in the billions of galaxies of the cosmos, I can't help but think: duh!

Perhaps it would have been more accurate to say that we are finally amassing strong evidence for what astronomers — and generations of science-fiction fans — assumed all along: Planetary systems should form around many stars, and therefore the universe should be teeming with planets.

Another thing about this week's exoplanet news coverage stuck in my head. It's the proposition that finding so many exoplanets — 28 in the past year found by Marcy's group alone — is somehow proof that exoplanets are common. Exoplanets are indeed becoming so common that the only news lead that grabs attention is of the "biggest, weirdest, coldest, hottest, fastest" variety.

But doesn't the pace of discovery simply reflect the sheer number of exoplanet search projects operating right now? Cast a bigger net, catch more fish.

That all said, it's still a wonderful thing to watch this exoplanet bonanza unfold and to have the pleasure of writing about an area of science so many people are understandably fascinated by.

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