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

Scientists are already searching for subtle changes in tau Bootis' spectral lines. Baliunas' astronomers hope to determine whether the star is moving back and forth, or swelling and shrinking. The various teams will tally their results this month, and meet July 17 to draft a paper asserting that there is, or is not, a planet out there.

In the meantime, the two sides are indulging in pre-showdown posturing.
Gray "was in a funny mood when he wrote his paper. I'm going to try to avoid amateur psychology here. But he was in a mood where he thought he had a 'gotcha' -- we all have had moments like that in our lives -- and there is no question in my mind that he wrote this as a gotcha paper," says Marcy of his Canadian colleague.

Gray counters by saying that planet-searching "seems to be an area that inspires the popular imagination, and I think some of these scientists have been swept up in that. You're seeing some slightly aberrant behavior."

The Passion
Gray's criticism fails to acknowledge a clear reality: Aberrant behavior is required to produce cutting-edge science.

Talk to Xiaopei Pan long enough, and he'll describe spending the Christmas and New Year's holidays in the cold of the Mount Palomar interferometer. He'll mention taking his family halfway around the world to get a better look at faint, faraway stars. He'll cackle at the thought of "erasing" planets.

After about an hour of conversation, Paul Butler will describe the 40-minute John Coltrane saxophone solo he sometimes plays on his stereo for his friends, to test them, to see if they understand the excitement of hearing someone chart new territory in his chosen field.

He'll tenderly, admiringly describe his ex-wife, then segue into an explanation of why the demands of his planet-searching weren't compatible with the kind of life she wanted to lead. He'll note that he is moving to Sydney in September to search for planets on a telescope there and lament that the move will probably mean he'll have to break up with his girlfriend.

"It's kind of hard to have any sort of settled or stable personal or home life," says Butler of his quest to be the first to identify planets around Southern Hemisphere stars. "But it's very simple. The southern stars haven't been done. Other big telescopes are coming on-line in the south now, but it'll be two or three years before they can make observations, and there is a perfectly wonderful facility in Australia that can do it right now."

"I just physically cannot bring myself to wait three more years to get started. I'm just going to go wherever I can go right now to get these stars under survey."

Butler exudes the same sort of passion that consumes an Olympic athlete, or an avant-garde musician: irrational, traumatic, irresistible. It's a passion that makes this zone of doubt so painful and contentious. But that passion is perhaps the main reason science has advanced through the 20th century like a meteor: Scientists have sat up nights, crazy to become the first to know.

And when someone says they might not be first, that they might be wrong, it is upsetting. Michel Mayor, the Swiss scientist who discovered 51 Pegasi's planetary wobble, recalls feeling horrified when he first learned of David Gray's paper -- the one that may erase his planet.

"You are disturbed, your brain is working rapidly," says Mayor. "After this short period of emotional reaction, we say, 'We have to be quiet, we have to be cool. We have to think about what the facts are.' "

Essential facts surrounding Butler and Marcy's mysterious stars are almost within reach.

Results are already beginning to come in for Baliunas' paper. A Harvard group working in Arizona released calculations in June that they believe lend credence to the theory that 51 Pegasi and tau Bootis indeed host planets.

"We'll definitely be including their results as part of our paper," Baliunas says.

Scientists also expect to quickly resolve the mystery surrounding Xiaopei Pan's challenge.

Shri Kulkarni says modifications made during the past few months to the Mount Palomar interferometer telescopes have significantly increased their precision. The Caltech-JPL team plans to train the newly refined instrument on the supposedly planet-bearing stars and make a more reliable determination about whether or not the Butler-Marcy planets are real.

"We will be able to say something in a few months," Kulkarni says.
If the new research makes some of the planets disappear, Marcy, Butler, NASA (which is basing an ever-greater portion of its funding appeals on the quest for life in outer space), and starry-eyed science writers will be deeply disappointed.

So will the many astrophysical theorists who, delighted by Marcy and Butler's discoveries, have fashioned a slew of new theories to describe a universe of huge, superhot, fast-orbiting planets.

"At first I was amazed: If you have a Jupiter-sized planet so close to the sun ... how could it hang on to its atmosphere if it was that hot?" says Mary Barsony an astrophysicist at UC Riverside. "But then we did a back-of-the-envelope calculation. ... We figured out that it really can hold on to its atmosphere."

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help
©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.