Ghost in the search for a ‘super-Earth’

Even though I receive the dead-tree-pulp Washington Post at my office on Capitol Hill, one of the first things I hit each day in my home email is the digital, push-edition of “washingtonpost.com: Today’s Headlines & Columnists.” I want see that line-up (along with the push versions of The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and others) before I leave my wifi zone and board that commuter train.

Thus, my eyebrows arched high this morning when I hit this early entry in the Post email. I rushed straight to the story, which was in the list of the day’s “On Faith” stories:

On Faith

New ‘super-Earth’ that is 36 light-years away might hold water, astronomers say

Wow, I thought, somebody did a great job of catching a science story that, for millions of readers, will also raise religious questions about intelligent life, creation, God, etc. The top of the report stated:

Astronomers on Monday announced the discovery of 50 new planets circling stars beyond the sun, including one “super-Earth” that is the right distance from its star to possibly have water.

“If we are really, really lucky, this planet could be a habitat” like Earth, said Lisa Kaltenegger of the Max Planck Institute for Astronomy in Heidelberg, Germany.

The planet, dubbed HD85512b, circles an orange star somewhat smaller and cooler than our sun about 36 light-years away. The star, HD85512, is visible in the southern sky in the constellation Vela. The newly found planet circles this star every 59 days, putting it at the edge of the “habitable zone” where water could exist if atmospheric conditions were right.

I read on urgently, waiting for the story to raise one of the many relevant religious questions about this issue. I mean, does anyone remember this little dust up a few years ago (search for Vatican, planets, aliens)? Has anyone else out there read “Perelandra”?

But the religion questions never showed up in this otherwise interesting report. Instead, I kept being poked with more and more information that only hinted at the ultimate issues:

… (A) new telescope to begin construction next year, the European Extremely Large Telescope, will be up to the task, said Markus Kissler-Patig of the European Southern Observatory. It will be “technically capable of finding life around the nearest stars,” he said, by analyzing the atmosphere of exoplanets. The new super-Earth is a “prime target” for the new telescope.

Since 1995, astronomers have found more than 600 planets beyond Earth, according to a catalog. In the accelerating race to bag and tag planets outside our solar system, HD85512b marks the second super-Earth found at the right distance from its star to possibly hold water, considered a vital ingredient for life.

In the end, I was disappointed. Just another haunted story.

So I clicked back to the washingtonpost.com email and, yes, I immediately had to laugh out loud. You see, I hit this news category:

Politics

New ‘super-Earth’ that is 36 light-years away might hold water, astronomers say

And later there was this:

Sports

New ‘super-Earth’ that is 36 light-years away might hold water, astronomers say

Now, I realize that “politics” is certainly a powerful religion here in Washington, D.C. I also know that “sports” is a religion for millions of people, too (all over America and certainly in soccer lands). But I don’t think that’s what this glitch is all about. I think the computers were rebelling again. Can’t live with ‘em, can’t live without ‘em. Right?

Still, I do think that the “super-Earth” story, for millions of Americans, will have strong religious implications. Should the Post science-beat crew have gone there? How about the “On Faith” section itself?

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About tmatt

Terry Mattingly directs the Washington Journalism Center at the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities. He writes a weekly column for the Universal Syndicate.

  • http://www.ecben.net Will

    What is the difference between a “super-Earth” and an “earthlike planet” or “terrestroid planet” (or “M-Class planet” for Roddenberry worshippers)?

  • Don Neuendorf

    It qualifies as a sports story because of the huge implications of a year that is only 59 days long. How can the HD85512bians schedule a proper sports season, when each season of the year lasts only 15 days???

  • R9

    Will: a super-earth is a planet with a mass between one and ten times that of earth.

    I had a look around the Washington Post site and this piece is now in the Science section where it belongs! I don’t believe any religious input is necessary, altho I’m sure interesting questions are raised that could be discussed elsewhere.

  • R9

    By which I mean, by all means discuss the religious implications over at On Faith, I just don’t think an astronomy report needs to go involving priests or theologians.

  • Matt

    Terry, what kind of religion angle are you looking for? Even the actual discovery of life elsewhere would not really contribute to the intelligent design question, as atheists would conclude that life is easily created and/or transferred while theists would conclude that God created life in more than one place.

  • tmatt

    MATT:

    Interesting. I wrote “intelligent life” and you read “intelligent design.”

  • Dave

    I hate to be the party-pooper, but a planet in a 59-day orbit will be tidally locked with one face always toward its sun, or in some gravitational-resonance rotation like Mercury with very long days and very long nights. This is not the environment in which life developed on Earth.

  • Jerry

    Still, I do think that the “super-Earth” story, for millions of Americans, will have strong religious implications. Should the Post science-beat crew have gone there? How about the “On Faith” section itself?

    The religious implications of intelligent life on other planets is a rich field inspiring theologians, philosophers and science fiction writers to specuate and pontificate.

    It would be nice to have a nod to this rich field in stories like this one in the “On Faith” section.

  • http://Www.Pastortrey.com George Rhodes

    I have my doubts than any data they have is little than a passing fantasy from the halls of Star Trek ala “M-Class” planets. What these science hold onto as theory seems to be nothing more than hypothetical guesswork. Should that even be classified as faith? Maybe the Washington Post should re-think what is meant by faith. I was thinking they could have a section called fabrication.

  • R9

    George, do you think our star is the only one in the galaxy to have planets? What’s so unbelievable here?

  • Mike O.

    I’ll agree with most of the people who’ve commented so far. This article doesn’t need speculation on the study’s religious implications. It’s a straight news story reporting findings. If someone then wants to then write on article with a religious article, then by all means. Clearly many people would be interested in reading that (me included).

    Besides, how much spectualation is too much or not enough when it’s side-by-side with scientific facts and figures? Is the Max Planck Institute supposed to determine if this planet falls within Xenu’s Galactic Confederacy? Can the author put in a chart showing the distance between this planet and Jotunheim and determine if the super-Earth is inhabited by frost giants?

  • Dave

    George: We have a few pieces of other Solar System bodies, in the form of meteors. They are of consistent, varied composition, as thought sedimented parent bodies had collided. Our ideas about the interior of planets like ours (much lighter than Jupiter, heavier than the Moon) are based in part on reconstruction of meteor parent bodies (of being which we suspect the Asteroids).

    So when we get a hint of a reasonable planet mass, in the kind of space around its sun where inner planets formed here, it’s plasible to posit a geological para-Earth. The hidden faith in the MSM and the scientists they cover alike is that one can go thence to biological para-Earths.

  • Mark

    Perelandra, not Perlandra, in case anyone wishes to look for it. A wonderful book I have enjoyed many times.

  • http://www.tmatt.net tmatt

    MARK:

    Thanks! Corrected the typo.

  • http://!)! Passing By

    A wonderful book I have enjoyed many times.

    As have I, but only when reading it between the other two books in the series.

  • Marie

    Should the article have a faith angle? If it is in the On Faith section then Yes. After all that is what the section is about. If it is in the Science section then No. In this section a faith angle would only be necessary if there was already a significant religious buzz about the discovery. The journalist needn’t speculate on whether or not people of faith would be interested only report if they actually are.

  • http://www.magdalenesegg.blogspot.com Rev. Michael Church

    I know it was just a cpmputer glitch, but I love the idea that the different sections — Faith, Politics, Sports, Entertainment — have finally just said “the heck with it” and merged. I forward to reading more about new planets in the crossword.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    The hidden faith in the MSM and the scientists they cover alike is that one can go thence to biological para-Earths.

    Is postulating the possibility of something a “faith”, then?

  • Dave

    Is postulating the possibility of something a “faith”, then?

    I aver that these folks go beyond postulation. Under the influence of a decades-long stream of optimistic speculation, they seek for life as though they already knew it was there. The first experiment we did on Mars was to check for life, rather than characterize the geology of the surface. The widely publicized work on the Alan Hills meterorites, supposedly of martian-surface origin, was to see if it contained fossil microbes. Just the term super-Earths has a barely hidden bio-bias.

    I’m not saying it’s wrong, just that it’s there.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    R9 wrote:

    By which I mean, by all means discuss the religious implications over at On Faith, I just don’t think an astronomy report needs to go involving priests or theologians.

    It doesn’t need to involve priests or theologians. Just answer these questions: Why are stories about “other Earths” so popular? What motivates the scientists searching for these planets? Why do projects like SETI inspire millions of people to volunteer their home computers to aid the research?

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Dave –

    Under the influence of a decades-long stream of optimistic speculation, they seek for life as though they already knew it was there. The first experiment we did on Mars was to check for life, rather than characterize the geology of the surface.

    Life is a rather important influence on geology, actually. I aver that you overestimate the confidence of those looking. Optimism is different from “faith”. For example, it’s worth noting that it’s scientists who’ve insisted on unequivocal evidence in the cases of, say, putative Martian microfossils.

  • Dan

    News articles about the search for life on other planets almost always reflect, without questioning, the metaphysical assumptions of the scientists who are quoted. These scientists almost always assume that the appearance of life is a completely natural phenomenon that will occur if the appropriate natural conditions are present. This assumption is presented by the scientists and the journalists who quote them as a scientific fact when, in fact, it is not; it is a metaphysical assumption. Although there have been some highly speculative efforts to explain in naturalistic terms how life first arose on earth, there is nothing close to a convincing or commonly accepted scientific explanation of the matter. It is thus not known whether there is a natural explanation for the initial creation of life or, if instead, the initial creation of life is a creation by God ex nihilo. The issue of how God’s role, if any, in the matter intersects with nature’s role, if any, in the matter is not a scientific question. The scientists who are quoted in these articles, and the journalists who quote them, do not seem to understand this.

  • R9

    Questioning the philosophy of science is really more a subject for bloggers with time to kill than astronomy reports.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    These scientists almost always assume that the appearance of life is a completely natural phenomenon that will occur if the appropriate natural conditions are present.

    I think you’re reading in more than is there. So far as I can see, the scientists see exoplanets as an excellent way to test the hypothesis that life can/will arise in the right conditions.

  • http://www.mikehickerson.com Mike Hickerson

    R9 said,

    Questioning the philosophy of science is really more a subject for bloggers with time to kill than astronomy reports.

    Is this in response to my comment? I’m not sure what you mean by “questioning the philosophy of science.” I love science reporting – I grew up on Discover magazine and Popular Science, and listen regularly to NPR’s Science Friday. I also have yet to meet a scientist (and I meet a lot of them in my line of work) who isn’t thrilled to tell you why they love their specialty. Those basic “why do you do what you do” types of questions also help non-scientists connect to the often-esoteric interests of scientists.

  • R9

    No, it’s in response to Dan and his stuff about metaphysical assumptions.

    Your suggestion I don’t have a problem with!


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