Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Dial M for "Mass Appeal"
The Kepler telescope has found a crapload of planets out there. Scientists will have to do all sorts of astoundingly complex and exceedingly dull calculations to make sure the data they’ve received indicate actual planets instead of... well, they don’t say what. Is it static? Faulty electronics? Did the telescope drive under some high-tension wires? Most likely it’s just the standard admonition from smarty-types to the rest of us not to immediately get our hopes up the moment the first numbers are in.
We’re looking at over a thousand potential planets out there, in only a small fraction of the sky. Pretty neat stuff. Fifty-four of those are zipping around their respective stars in roughly the habitable zone. That means they may have liquid water, a precursor for “life as we know it.”
But what if they have liquid water and no life? Or what if their gravities are just too strong, or their sun too hot, or their summers too short to give life that little kick in the pants it needs to get itself started. Or the oceans could all be delightfully warm and predator-free, making it extremely unlikely anything would ever bother to crawl out and grow legs, arms, fingers, and eventually a manufacturing industry that can produce iPods.
How do the astronomers classify all of these potential options? I’m sure they do, somehow, since nothing bugs a scientist more than something that can’t be properly charted and lumped in with a hundred of similar relatives. Yet it’s obvious whatever structure they are using doesn’t work that well, since that pesky little fellow Pluto keeps jumping back and forth from one column to another.
I would like to suggest that when they begin to label and classify the newfound planets, they embrace a tried-and-true method. It’s detailed, thorough, covers every eventuality, and best of all, already has a veritable horde of knowledgeable experts more than willing to answer any and all questions. This system, of course, is the Star Trek Planet Classification guide.
We all know planets that can support life are class M. But are our astronomers aware that many other crucial classifications also exist alongside the ol’ mainstay M? From class A (a small, young planet with an undeveloped core) to class Z (hostile and cruel worlds with bizarre anomalies and a penchant for human lethality) there is no stone left unturned here. Is there any doubt that Star Trek would be diligent in its application of the scientific principle? What better way to make certain the imaginations of the public are captured than to use these classic terms, so memorable, basic and yet specific?
Is there any doubt that “class M” is a whole lot easier to remember than “within the habitable zone and likely possessed of liquid water?”
(For those interested in more details on this planetary windfall, here is the link: