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

Theorists will have to start over again if those planets are shown not to exist.

The Bay Area media, which a year ago made Butler and Marcy heroes, have heaped the scientists' challengers with journalism's sincerest form of scorn: They have ignored them.

The journalists shouldn't be so cruel.
Even if all of Marcy and Butler's challengers are correct, and some of their planets disappear, the two San Francisco scientists don't stand to be humiliated the way planet-searchers have in decades past.

Even rivals agree that the measurements taken by Butler and Marcy are exquisite. It is only the interpretation of those measurements that is open to question. And, astronomers agree, it's not likely the Butler-Marcy interpretation will be proved completely wrong.

Even if Gray's theory proves correct, and the supposed planets orbiting 51 Pegasi and tau Bootis prove ephemeral, astronomers say that the existence of other planets will, for now, remain unchallenged.

Several of the wobbling stars discovered by the San Francisco astronomers have long cycles -- 84 days, 116 days, 1,103 days -- a phenomenon that even Gray admits could not be caused by the type of sloshing oscillations he describes for 51 Pegasi and tau Bootis. A planet is the only currently known explanation for those long-period wobbling stars, Gray acknowledges.

Xiaopei Pan says he doesn't expect to erase all of Butler and Marcy's planets, either. The existence of planets is a perfectly logical explanation for wobbling stars -- except when measurements detect a binary stellar companion instead, he says. Pan envisions a day when he and the San Francisco scientists cooperate closely, using their distinct methods to make irrefutable observations of far-off planets. In some cases they'll find planets, in some cases, other phenomena.

Together, Pan envisions, their results will help create a more complete picture of the universe. Didier Queloz, one of the Swiss planet-searchers, agrees. He plans to spend time working with Michael Shao at the JPL next year, says Mayor, Queloz's research partner.

By that time, the zone of doubt surrounding extrasolar planetary research will have neared its end, and astronomers worldwide will have gone back to conducting what historians call "normal science." They'll then do incremental -- instead of revolutionary -- research, perhaps using methods developed by Marcy, Butler, Pan, Kulkarni, and Gray.

And in a decade or so, high school science texts may tell children how many planets science believes exist in the universe. Textbooks may tell them about the Bay Area researchers who developed the revolutionary techniques that made high-precision planet-searching possible. And they may describe those scientists' challengers, who showed that perhaps not everything that appears to be a planet, is.

This is the zigzag course science has traversed through the centuries, bringing humanity ever closer to understanding the universe.

To be sure, not every zig in the process is to the liking of every scientist.

"This David Gray stuff for me is boring. It's just not happening," says Butler, taking a short break at the UC Berkeley workstation where he has spent the day poring over lists of stars, choosing which ones he'll view next.

"It's boooring.

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