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Far Away Planets Just Like Ours! Sort of… Maybe.

Planets in Milky WayMaybe you’ve seen the curious painting just above here. It was released on January 7, 2013, by the Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. According to the caption that usually accompanies the painting, it  shows the different types of planets in our Milky Way galaxy detected by NASA’s Kepler spacecraft. The caption also says that a new analysis of Kepler data found there are at least 17 billion planets the size of Earth in the Milky Way.

New stories about the Kepler data are happy to suggest there’s a possibility, a strong possibility — there must be !—-other worlds just like ours out there. I mean, out of 17 billion there must be at least one beautiful blue-and-white planet like our earth, right? Old TV viewers may remember Carl Sagan, the brilliant  Cornell astrophysicist and his award winning TV series, Cosmos: A Personal Voyage.  Sagan often spoke of the billions and billions of stars in the cosmos, and if there were “billions and billions” of stars, then there must be only a few billion fewer planets to orbit those suns, and if there are billions of planets then surely there’s one, probably many, like our own.

Popular commentary on the recent Kepler data relies on the same statistical hope that there must be some, surely a few,  certainly at least one, just like our own. And if it’s just like our own, then it must have life, like our Earth does, and — oh, hell, let’s go all the way — there must be somebody on some earth-like planet out there looking at a computer screen, reading a post just like you are now!

The people who gather and present the Kepler data don’t make such claims.  As a matter of fact, a visit to the Kepler web site will be a cold shower for anyone hoping to discover there’s a world like ours out there.  In dull fact, the Kepler site counts 105 confirmed planets and 2740 candidates that might get confirmed someday.  Where did the news about 17 billion planets come from? It came from a press conference, January 7, 2013, at the American Astronomical Society Meeting in Long Beach, California. The first two panelists at the press conference spoke about Kepler:

  • Planet Candidates Observed by Kepler: Two Years of Precision Photometry – Christopher Burke (SETI Institute)
  • At Least One in Six Stars Has an Earth-size Planet – Francois Fressin (Harvard-Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics)

And why now? Maybe — is it possible? — because there are going to be severe cuts to budgets in all sectors of the United States government and even NASA will be on the chopping block. People, tax payers in particular, aren’t especially interested in paying for a space program that scans a bit of the Milky Way looking for a transient dip in starlight, which dip might indicate a planet coming between us and that star, and that’s what Kepler does. But even tax payers are curious about extra terrestial life. So now is a good time to hold a press conference and let the media do the rest.

More Notes


Tim Carmody, in his excellent piece, "How Haiti Became Poor", notes that President Trump's racist policies and vulgar language have sullied the word "shithole" which used to be one of the all-time great swear words. He's right. It's another terrible power this careless President wields.