February 2008 Science Updates

There’s been so much important news pouring in this month that it’s hard to keep up with it. But despite the flood of information, there’ve been a few especially significant discoveries that I think shouldn’t be overlooked. There are three that I thought deserve special notice:

• On February 13, astronomers announced the discovery of a new solar system that resembles our own more closely than any exoplanetary system that was previously known. The new system, given the unlovely designation of OGLE-2006-BLG-109, is about 5,000 light-years from Earth in the direction of the constellation Scorpius. The home star of this system is about half the mass of the Sun, and thus cooler. It’s orbited by at least two planets, both gas giants, one 0.71 times the mass of Jupiter orbiting at a distance of 2.3 astronomical units (1 AU = 93 million miles), and one that’s 0.27 times Jupiter’s mass and orbiting at a distance of 4.6 AU – both of which now join the nearly 230 exoplanets previously known.

This marvelously specific discovery was made using a new method, called gravitational microlensing. Many exoplanets have been detected by looking for the Doppler shift in a star’s light as an orbiting planet tugs it back and forth. But this method is most sensitive to large Jupiter-like planets in close-in orbits, not the best analogues of our own solar system. The new method relies on a chance alignment of stars from our vantage point, in which the light of the background star is bent and magnified in a telltale way by the gravity of the foreground star. Although not yet sensitive enough to detect terrestrial planets like our Earth, the possibility of such planets in this system hasn’t been ruled out. Since this star is cooler than our Sun, there could be a habitable zone further in than the orbits of the two giant planets.

What I loved best about this discovery is that it was assisted by two amateur New Zealand astronomers, Jennie McCormick and Grant Christie, using 10-inch telescopes in backyard observatories. Even in this age of multibillion-dollar particle accelerators and space telescopes, I find it greatly inspiring that even a non-professional can still contribute to groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

• On to biology: The peerless Carl Zimmer tells us about a new transitional species in the increasingly complete fossil series that documents the evolution of whales. The 25-million-year-old Aetiocetus provides a key piece in what was a vexing puzzle: how did baleen whales evolve from toothed ancestors?

In the paper, the authors report that Aetiocetus had both teeth and baleen, based on the fossil evidence. Its skull had teeth as well as special bone troughs called nutrient foramina, which supply baleen tissue with blood in modern baleen whales and are not present in modern toothed whales.

• And another transitional fossil – this one a step in the evolution of bats. Named Onychonycteris finneyi, it comes from 52-million-year-old rocks of the Green River formation in Wyoming and is nested more deeply in the bat family tree than any bat species previously known. Although it was capable of flight, it also had several primitive characteristics not found in any living bat, including five well-formed claws on each wing, and an unusual, half-gliding/half-fluttering flying style seen in few modern bats. Based on its inner ear, it also lacked the ability to echolocate. Carl Zimmer, again, writes that it reminds him of Archaeopteryx, another electrifying specimen that gave us a glimpse into the progress of evolution over deep time.

About Adam Lee

Adam Lee is an atheist writer and speaker living in New York City. His new novel, Broken Ring, is available in paperback and e-book. Read his full bio, or follow him on Twitter.

  • http://thechapel.wordpress.com the chaplain

    Even in this age of multibillion-dollar particle accelerators and space telescopes, I find it greatly inspiring that even a non-professional can still contribute to groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

    That is inspiring. Western society is so fixed on credentials and professional status that it’s easy to forget that today’s hobbyists and amateurs are far better educated and more intellectually sophisticated than many “professionals” were a century ago.

  • http://inthenuts.blogspot.com King Aardvark

    But why are there PYGMIES + DWARVES?!!

    With that out of the way, glad you’re enjoying Carl Zimmer. My favourite science blogger for a while now. I’ve bought most of his books, though I’ve only read one since I keep loaning them out and haven’t gotten them back yet.

  • 2-D Man

    Just to clear up a point about the first item, 1 AU is also the “radius” of the earth’s orbit.

  • http://www.dougpaulsen.com Doug

    What I loved best about this discovery is that it was assisted by two amateur New Zealand astronomers, Jennie McCormick and Grant Christie, using 10-inch telescopes in backyard observatories. Even in this age of multibillion-dollar particle accelerators and space telescopes, I find it greatly inspiring that even a non-professional can still contribute to groundbreaking scientific discoveries.

    Another feild where this is relatively common is paleontology. But, of course, astronomy is capable of being done from the comforts of your house.

    It is cool that there are still a few sciences in which ametuers can participate without having any formal training.

  • Alex Weaver

    You might want to explain that 1 AU is roughly the distance from the earth to the sun, so that people have a better sense of the scale.

  • Samuel Skinner

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=bov9M2gEgcE
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=eH3GH7Pn_eA

    Since the piece was about astronomy I think the first video is rather apprpriate (The Sun is big, but only compared to Earth). The second is random and rather humorous, but both of them will give you a sense of scale.

  • http://thegreenbelt.blogspot.com The Ridger

    “The Sun is big -”
    “The Sun is so big that, if it were hollow, a million Earths would fit inside, and yet – it is only … a middle-sized star!”

    The Sun is a Mass of Incandescent Gas – They Might Be Giants

  • Robert Madewell

    I hope some of those pesky little YECs are reading about all those non-existant transitional fossils that keep getting discovered. For some reason when I want to debate atheism/theism, the discussion usually deteriorates into an evolution argument. The “no transitional fossil” argument is the most common one I hear. Now I have more transitional fossils to cite.

  • bassmanpete

    The “no transitional fossil” argument is the most common one I hear. Now I have more transitional fossils to cite.

    Yes, the gaps are getting smaller. At this rate, God will soon have nowhere to hide!

  • http://www.dougpaulsen.com Doug

    At this rate, God will soon have nowhere to hide!

    There is always the Grand Canyon. Perhaps he carved it with the flood for that purpose?