Planet Wars

Last year, two Bay Area astronomers said they had discovered planets outside our solar system and became instant media celebrities. Now, Paul Butler and Geoff Marcy face prominent scientific challengers who contend some of the new planets are nothing but

It is far too early to tell whether there is any substance to Pan's claims that some of the Marcy-Butler planets should be erased. Given that his own research partners challenge his results, he will be hard pressed to win over the jury of independent scholars that Nature uses to judge whether papers should be published.

But Pan says his partners' assertion that the Palomar interferometer is too primitive for reliable research is specious on its face. Pan has published papers describing other binary star systems he has observed with the Palomar instrument -- without raising anyone's hackles.

"You see this? This is a binary star," Pan says, holding a paper with graphs, waves, and plots on it. "I see other binary star, and no one minds. It's not controversial.

"I make a planet disappear, and everyone gets angry."
Pan's claims have not drawn unanimous scientific scorn.
Wesley Traub, a physicist at the Smithsonian Astrophysical Observatory, works on an array of interferometer telescopes in Arizona; they are designed to look at infrared light emitted from stars. Traub worked with Pan at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics and is familiar with work done on the Palomar interferometer. While he can't specifically vouch for Pan's claim to have found binary companions to the famed planet stars, he's taking the results seriously enough to do his own observations on those stars.

"Pan has measured quite a number of binary stars very accurately and beautifully, and I have the highest regard for his experimental technique," says Traub. "You can be absolutely sure we will look at it, and other people will.

"Because if true, it's a really amazing discovery."

Interplanetary Heroine
When you first meet Sallie Baliunas, she strikes you as the kind of woman who, if only she were a few years older, might have been a close friend of Bill Clinton's mother. With her matching lime-green sandals and pantsuit, tousled red hair, and easy, gregarious manner, you can imagine meeting Baliunas at a county fair, or a hot-rod auto show. In one way, you wouldn't be far off the mark: She's the owner of a tricked-out '34 Ford three-window coupe, a '70 Corvette, and a '57 Chevy Bel Aire.

In all the other ways, however, you would have missed the target by light-years. Make no mistake about it, unlikely as it may seem, Baliunas is a hero to the cause of science.

She's wanted to be an astronomer since she was 6 years old, when an Air Force recruiter told her little girls couldn't grow up to be astronauts. Her relentlessness has helped her become one of the world's most accomplished astronomers, a much-sought-after expert on sun spots and the magnetic fields of stars. She spends her time jetting between the Mount Wilson Observatory near Pasadena, where she is deputy director of the Mount Wilson Institute, and Cambridge, Mass., where she is senior astrophysicist at the Harvard Smithsonian Center for Astrophysics. She has been a co-researcher at different times with Marcy, Butler, Gray, and countless other prominent researchers.

These seemingly disparate elements of her character -- the approachable everywoman and the jet-setting astrophysicist -- have made her an ideal diplomat in the zone of doubt surrounding extrasolar planets.

She hopes to corral a group of bickering rival scientists from around the continent and have them collaborate on a joint paper in July. That paper will attempt to prove or disprove David Gray's claim that distant stars billow like bullfrogs, and confirm or cast aside a major claim that the San Francisco planets are ephemeral. Thanks to Baliunas' efforts, the controversy surrounding the Marcy-Butler planets may be one of the shorter-lived in scientific history.

"It occurred to me that perhaps I can play Solomon in this case," Baliunas says. "There was this dispute between what Gray and Marcy and saw, so I sent an e-mail to everybody and said, 'Why don't we take our measurements in unison?' "

By coordinating the research of teams at sites including the University of Texas, Harvard, the University of Western Ontario, and S.F. State, Baliunas' paper will force a choice between the two visions of outer space implied by the work of Marcy, Butler, and Gray -- all of whom say they will contribute to Baliunas' paper.

The first vision imagines millions of solar systems with planets, some of which harbor life; the second, a universe filled with previously unimagined billowing stars that pulse as dramatically as a frog's gullet.

The scientists will first focus on the star tau Bootis, in the constellation Bootes. Fifty-one Pegasi, the original planet-bearing star which Gray says appears to be swelling and contracting, rather than wobbling, won't be visible to the powerful telescopes that scan the northern skies until this fall.

The planets that supposedly orbit tau Bootis and 51 Pegasi would be extremely strange by the standards of our solar system.

The planet envisioned as orbiting 51 Pegasi is relatively large -- half the size of Jupiter -- and searingly close to its star, about one-twentieth the distance between the Earth and the sun. The planet would have a surface temperature of 1,300 degrees Celsius -- about the temperature at which astronomers previously believed planets would boil away. Odder still, the planet appears to spin around its sun once every 4.2 days. Tau Bootis' planet is believed to behave in a similarly dizzy fashion. (The Earth, of course, circles the sun once every year.)

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