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16 new super-Earths – but what do they prove?

artist's conception of a super Earth

From “Astronomers Find 50 New Exoplanets: Richest Haul of Planets So Far Includes 16 New Super-Earths” (ScienceDaily, Sep. 12, 2011), we learn:

The HARPS team, led by Michel Mayor (University of Geneva, Switzerland), have announced the discovery of more than 50 new exoplanets orbiting nearby stars, including sixteen super-Earths [2]. This is the largest number of such planets ever announced at one time [3]. The new findings are being presented at a conference on Extreme Solar Systems where 350 exoplanet experts are meeting in Wyoming, USA.

“Super-Earths” are “potentially rocky worlds that are more massive than our planet,”as opposed to gas giants like Neptune.

Curious how the term suggests much more than that.

“The harvest of discoveries from HARPS has exceeded all expectations and includes an exceptionally rich population of super-Earths and Neptune-type planets hosted by stars very similar to our Sun. And even better — the new results show that the pace of discovery is accelerating,” says Mayor.

“In the coming ten to twenty years we should have the first list of potentially habitable planets in the Sun’s neighbourhood. Making such a list is essential before future experiments can search for possible spectroscopic signatures of life in the exoplanet atmospheres,” concludes Michel Mayor, who discovered the first-ever exoplanet around a normal star in 1995.

The thought seems to be that we’ll surely find a planet like Earth, but the reasoning process may be flawed.

Biology isn’t physics. What we think should exist may not happen to. Suppose we set out to find a native North American monkey. It makes sense. Many places on the continent are warm enough for monkeys. After a thorough search, we conclude that there just isn’t one. The same could be true of the coveted “planet that hosts life.” If solar systems can get on fine without any such thing (and they surely can), they may not exist. If we are not prepared to address that, it’s our problem, not the solar systems’.

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16 Responses to 16 new super-Earths – but what do they prove?

  1. The Yahoo! News article repeatedly called them “alien planets.” Is every planet besides earth an alien planet? I suppose you could call them “extraterrestrial” which is about the same, but what could be more redundant than saying we found a planet that isn’t earth?
    Or is that just supposed to conjure up images giant crabs, Yodas, and blue women?

  2. What a loaded statement:

    “In the coming ten to twenty years we should have the first list of potentially habitable planets in the Sun’s neighbourhood.

    Perhaps Dr. Ross can help them on their definition of ‘potentially habitable planet’ so that they may have a better grasp what a ‘potentially habitable planet’ actually is:

    Does the Probability for ETI = 1?
    Excerpt; On the Reasons To Believe website we document that the probability a randomly selected planet would possess all the characteristics intelligent life requires is less than 10^-304. A recent update that will be published with my next book, Hidden Purposes: Why the Universe Is the Way It Is, puts that probability at 10^-1054.
    http://www.reasons.org/does-probability-eti-1

    Linked from “Appendix C” in Why the Universe Is the Way It Is
    Probability for occurrence of all 816 parameters ? 10^-1333
    dependency factors estimate ? 10^324
    longevity requirements estimate ? 10^45
    Probability for occurrence of all 816 parameters ? 10^-1054
    Maximum possible number of life support bodies in observable universe ? 10^22

    Thus, less than 1 chance in 10^1032 exists that even one such life-support body would occur anywhere in the universe without invoking divine miracles.
    http://www.reasons.org/files/c....._part3.pdf

    Hugh Ross – Evidence For Intelligent Design Is Everywhere (10^-1054) – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4347236

    Hugh Ross’s Four Main Research Papers on this topic
    https://docs.google.com/document/pub?id=1Sl5SCBtcO6xMjwgrkKysBYIOJzjZEcXX68qZ9rwh85s

    further notes:

    Privileged Planet – Observability Correlation – Gonzalez and Richards – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/5424431

    The very conditions that make Earth hospitable to intelligent life also make it well suited to viewing and analyzing the universe as a whole.
    - Jay Richards

    Compositions of Extrasolar Planets – July 2010
    Excerpt: ,,,the presumption that extrasolar terrestrial planets will consistently manifest Earth-like chemical compositions is incorrect. Instead, the simulations revealed “a wide variety of resulting planetary compositions.
    http://www.reasons.org/composi.....ar-planets

    Elemental Evidence of Earth’s Divine Design – Hugh Ross PhD. – April 2010
    Table: Earth’s Anomalous Abundances – Page 8
    The twenty-five elements listed below must exist on Earth in specific abundances for advanced life and/or support of civilization to be possible. For each listed element the number indicates how much more or less abundant it is, by mass, in Earth’s crust, relative to magnesium’s abundance, as compared to its average abundance in the rest of the Milky Way Galaxy, also relative to the element magnesium. Asterisks denote “vital poisons,” essential elements that if too abundant would be toxic to advanced life, but if too scarce would fail to provide the quantities of nutrients essential for advanced life. The water measure compares the amount of water in and on Earth relative to the minimum amount the best planet formation models would predict for a planet the mass of Earth orbiting a star identical to the Sun at the same distance from the Sun.

    carbon* 1,200 times less
    nitrogen* 2,400 times less
    fluorine* 50 times more
    sodium* 20 times more
    aluminum 40 times more
    phosphorus* 4 times more
    sulfur* 60 times less
    potassium* 90 times more
    calcium 20 times more
    titanium 65 times more
    vanadium* 9 times more
    chromium* 5 times less
    nickel* 20 times less
    cobalt* 5 times less
    selenium* 30 times less
    yttrium 50 times more
    zirconium 130 times more
    niobium 170 times more
    molybdenum* 5 times more
    tin* 3 times more
    iodine* 3 times more
    gold 5 times less
    lead 170 times more
    uranium 16,000 times more
    thorium 23,000 times more
    water 250 times less
    http://www.reasons.org/files/e.....010-02.pdf

    etc.. etc.. etc..

  3. Yes, ScottAndrews.Sometimes it’s hard to decide how much of it is science and how much wishful thinking.

  4. A few more nifty buzzwords thrown in: (it really gives me a lift.)

    Exoplanet. A planet outside of our solar system. Again, this almost certainly applies to any new planet found. But it sounds way cooler. Would you rather be a “planet expert” or an “exoplanet expert?”

    Extreme Solar Systems. From the website for the first conference,

    The main scientific themes of the meeting include the detection and characterization of earth-like planets (using all presently available and future techniques), planets in extreme environments (dense star clusters, binaries), planets around evolved stars (giants, white dwarfs, pulsars), and the habitability of extreme planets.

    They study the habitability of binary star systems. I’m at a loss for words.

    Spectroscopic signatures of life.

    In the coming ten to twenty years we should have the first list of potentially habitable planets in the Sun’s neighbourhood. Making such a list is essential before future experiments can search for possible spectroscopic signatures of life in the exoplanet atmospheres

    Having a list of planets to search is good. Finding life on another planet so you know what the spectroscopic signature you’re searching for even looks like is better.

  5. In order to give a little bit more clarity to the extreme fine tuning that goes into making a ‘privileged planet’ that can support advanced life:

    The Privileged Planet – video
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=XV5zkifLSbc

    Here are a few facts that may make this ‘fine-tuning’ more evident. Most people are aware that the gas giants, Jupiter, Saturn, etc.. are necessary to protect the earth from bombardment of comets and asteroids:,,,

    our solar system is nearly as haphazard as some materialists would have us believe:

    Thank God for Jupiter – July 2010
    Excerpt: The July 16, 1994 and July 19, 2009 collision events on Jupiter demonstrate just how crucial a role the planet plays in protecting life on Earth. Without Jupiter’s gravitational shield our planet would be pummeled by frequent life-exterminating events. Yet Jupiter by itself is not an adequate shield. The best protection is achieved via a specific arrangement of several gas giant planets. The most massive gas giant must be nearest to the life support planet and the second most massive gas giant the next nearest, followed by smaller, more distant gas giants. Together Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, and Neptune provide Earth with this ideal shield.
    http://www.reasons.org/thank-god-jupiter

    ,,,But few people are aware that even diminutive Mercury must have the precise orbit that it has, or life would not be possible on earth;

    Of Gaps, Fine-Tuning and Newton’s Solar System – Cornelius Hunter – July 2011
    Excerpt: The new results indicate that the solar system could become unstable if diminutive Mercury, the inner most planet, enters into a dance with Jupiter, the fifth planet from the Sun and the largest of all. The resulting upheaval could leave several planets in rubble, including our own. Using Newton’s model of gravity, the chances of such a catastrophe were estimated to be greater than 50/50 over the next 5 billion years. But interestingly, accounting for Albert Einstein’s minor adjustments (according to his theory of relativity), reduces the chances to just 1%.
    http://darwins-god.blogspot.co.....solar.html

    further notes:

    New Definition Could Further Limit Habitable Zones Around Distant Suns: – June 2009
    … liquid water is essential for life, but a planet also must have plate tectonics to pull excess carbon from its atmosphere and confine it in rocks to prevent runaway greenhouse warming. Tectonics, or the movement of the plates that make up a planet’s surface, typically is driven by radioactive decay in the planet’s core, but a star’s gravity can cause tides in the planet, which creates more energy to drive plate tectonics…. Barnes added, “The bottom line is that tidal forcing is an important factor that we are going to have to consider when looking for habitable planets.”
    http://www.sciencedaily.com/re.....124831.htm

    Here is a little video on Guillermo Gonzalez, who probably deserves more credit than anyone for bringing the privileged planet principle to everyone’s attention and who suffered persecution at the hands of atheists for doing so:

    Guillermo Gonzalez & Stephen Meyer on Coral Ridge – video (Part 1)
    http://www.coralridge.org/medi.....=CRH1118_F

    Guillermo Gonzalez & Stephen Meyer on Coral Ridge – video (Part 2)
    http://www.coralridge.org/medi.....=CRH1119_F

  6. The search for exoplanets is an extremely interesting area of research, based on real, observational science. Further, the search for life on other planets is a perfectly legitimate scientific enterprise. We should be careful not to confuse the issues and think that finding other habitable planets, or life on other planets, has any direct relevance to the evolution/ID debate. Substantively, it is identical to all the discoveries in the past 50 years about life in remote and inhospitable regions of our fair planet, which were unexpected.

    I for one would be extremely excited if life, even primitive life, were found outside our solar system. What an incredible piece of knowledge that would be! Such a discovery would not change in any way the considerations that support ID.

    Gonzalez and Richards deserve ample credit for bringing some sanity to the science and beating back the silly notion that if life exists here it must be ubiquitous in the universe. However, let’s be very careful to not to mistakenly conclude that “rare” life means “no” life. Even if life was designed by an intelligent being, there is no reason (other than philosophical/religious reasons) to think that such life would be limited to our planet.

  7. Eric,

    I don’t mean to denigrate those who search for other planets or life on them, even if I don’t personally see the benefit. It’s not my time (maybe my taxes.)

    The relevance (as I see it) is in how carried away the media gets with reporting this stuff and inflating its significance. Alien planets? Really? “Richest Haul of Planets So Far?” What does “rich” mean in this context? Doesn’t “haul” have the connotation of collecting or retrieving, as opposed to cataloging? Yes, I’m splitting hairs. But they’re making this sound like more than it is.

    It’s like OOL. Every new experiment makes it sound like they’re getting closer to finding how all those “building blocks” got stacked up. But they don’t know if they’re getting closer because they don’t know if it’s even there at all, and there’s good reason to think it isn’t.

    It gets people to click links, but I hope they can tell the reality from the hype.

  8. Eric you state:

    The search for exoplanets is an extremely interesting area of research, based on real, observational science.

    Perhaps, but people looking for life ‘out there somewhere’ shall have a far more fruitful time finding ‘life’ out there somewhere if they turned their sights a bit higher than the just the stars and planets of this universe:

    SETI – Search For Extraterrestrial Intelligence Finds God – Almost – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4007753/

    of ‘higher dimensional’ interest;

    Please compare the similarity of the optical effect, noted at the 3:22 minute mark of the following video, when the 3-Dimensional world ‘folds and collapses’ into a tunnel shape around the direction of travel as an observer moves towards the ‘higher dimension’ of the speed of light, with the ‘light at the end of the tunnel’ reported in very many Near Death Experiences:

    Traveling At The Speed Of Light – Optical Effects – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/5733303/

    Here is the interactive website (with link to the math) related to the preceding video;

    Seeing Relativity
    http://www.anu.edu.au/Physics/Searle/

    The NDE and the Tunnel – Kevin Williams’ research conclusions
    Excerpt: I started to move toward the light. The way I moved, the physics, was completely different than it is here on Earth. It was something I had never felt before and never felt since. It was a whole different sensation of motion. I obviously wasn’t walking or skipping or crawling. I was not floating. I was flowing. I was flowing toward the light. I was accelerating and I knew I was accelerating, but then again, I didn’t really feel the acceleration. I just knew I was accelerating toward the light. Again, the physics was different – the physics of motion of time, space, travel. It was completely different in that tunnel, than it is here on Earth. I came out into the light and when I came out into the light, I realized that I was in heaven.(Barbara Springer)

    Near Death Experience – The Tunnel Into A Higher Dimension – video
    http://www.vimeo.com/28218975

    Near Death Experience – The Tunnel, The Light, The Life Review – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4200200/

  9. I’m curious – you really don’t see the benefit of searching for other planets or life on them? If we found life elsewhere then it would answer a lot of questions about the universe and our place in it.

    For instance: if we found life on Mars and it was related to us, that would say a great deal (probably that life actually can migrate between worlds). If it was unrelated to use, and arose on Mars indepenedently, then it means that life can be expected to be commonplace in the universe (the chances of the only two places in the universe bearing life being neighbouring planets is almost infinitesimal).

  10. Grunty you state:

    (the chances of the only two places in the universe bearing life being neighbouring planets is almost infinitesimal).

    Though I would say that the chances that microbial life migrated to Venus, Mars, and/or the Moon, from Earth, from a past cataclysmic impact event on Earth that threw chunks of the Earth up into orbit, where those chunks eventually made their way to those places is not beyond reasonable, what i do hold to be unreasonable is that those microbial lifeforms could exist on Mars, Venus, and/or the Moon for any extended period of time, much less could that hypothetical microbial life flourish. For the Moon and Venus this fact is fairly clear to see, since we can readily see that the extremely harsh environments of those places would prohibit life from ‘living’. For Mars this is a bit more difficult to see. But to try to make it a bit more clear. Life does not exist completely independent of of its environment. In fact life, even microbial life is highly dependent on the ecology of its environment. i.e. The right nutrients have to be present, in the right mix, on the surface of any given planet for long periods of time. Yet without a hydrological cycle, and a tectonic cycle, and various other cycles, working in conjunction with each other, any microbial life that happened to flourish in a ‘niche’ on the surface of Mars somewhere would fairly soon, (geological timescale speaking), be at severe imbalance with its ecological niche since it would produce to much of one elemental compound whilst consuming all the ‘nearby’ available resources of necessary ‘life-enabling’ nutrients. Without a precise balance between life and ecological cycles, life, even microbial life, will soon run out of a necessary nutrient that enables life.

    notes: Dr. Ross has a fairly extensive, heavily referenced, list here for the Requirements to sustain bacteria for 90 days or less;

    Section A: Requirements to sustain bacteria for 90 days or less
    http://www.reasons.org/files/c.....3_ver2.pdf

    Here are a few more assorted notes:

    Visible light is also incredibly fine-tuned for life to exist. Though visible light is only a tiny fraction of the total electromagnetic spectrum coming from the sun, it happens to be the “most permitted” portion of the sun’s spectrum allowed to filter through the our atmosphere. All the other bands of electromagnetic radiation, directly surrounding visible light, happen to be harmful to organic molecules, and are almost completely absorbed by the atmosphere. The tiny amount of harmful UV radiation, which is not visible light, allowed to filter through the atmosphere is needed to keep various populations of single cell bacteria from over-populating the world (Ross; reasons.org). The size of light’s wavelengths and the constraints on the size allowable for the protein molecules of organic life, also seem to be tailor-made for each other. This “tailor-made fit” allows photosynthesis, the miracle of sight, and many other things that are necessary for human life. These specific frequencies of light (that enable plants to manufacture food and astronomers to observe the cosmos) represent less than 1 trillionth of a trillionth (10^-24) of the universe’s entire range of electromagnetic emissions. Like water, visible light also appears to be of optimal biological utility (Denton; Nature’s Destiny).

    Fine Tuning Of Universal Constants, Particularly Light for life – Walter Bradley – video
    http://www.metacafe.com/watch/4491552

    Fine Tuning Of Light to the Atmosphere, to Biological Life, and to Water – graphs
    http://docs.google.com/Doc?doc.....aGh4MmdnOQ

    Biosphere 2 – What Went Wrong?
    Excerpt: Other Problems
    Biosphere II’s water systems became polluted with too many nutrients. The crew had to clean their water by running it over mats of algae, which they later dried and stored.

    Also, as a symptom of further atmospheric imbalances, the level of dinitrogen oxide became dangerously high. At these levels, there was a risk of brain damage due to a reduction in the synthesis of vitamin B12.
    http://biology.kenyon.edu/slon.....wrong.html

    The Role of Elements in Life Processes
    http://www.mii.org/periodic/LifeElement.php

    Periodic Table – Interactive web page for each element
    http://www.mii.org/periodic/MiiPeriodicChart.htm

  11. Grunty,

    Those are a lot of ‘ifs.’ Yes, the answers to those questions would be interesting. But one problem is that too many of the answers can ever be ‘no.’ They can never discover that what they’re looking for isn’t there. There are always more planets.

    Maybe this is just my perception, but news stories like this give the impression that they expect to find something, not just that they’re looking for it. And there’s no reason for them to expect that. It’s as if they’re looking for a reason to expect what they expect.

    And I’m very skeptical of anyone who says they can detect life at such distances. But they don’t even make that claim. They are looking for the ‘signature of life.’ They can detect the signature without knowing if there is life, which means they don’t really know if the signature of life really is just that. What’s the point?

  12. Grunty: “If it was unrelated to us, and arose on Mars indepenedently, then it means that life can be expected to be commonplace in the universe (the chances of the only two places in the universe bearing life being neighbouring planets is almost infinitesimal).”

    Perhaps, if by “arose on Mars” you mean that life arose on Mars by purely naturalistic and materialistic means. But of course that would be an unwarranted assumption. If we do find life elsewhere we can be pretty sure that it did not arise by naturalistic and materialistic means any more than life on Earth did.

  13. ScottAndrews:

    Some biological processes produce a chemical signature that is unique to them. If those chemical signatures are found, it will be a very good indication that life has been found. Of course, it won’t be “visual” proof in the sense of being able to collect samples and take pictures of the critters, but it is based on sound inferences. It is a good bit of forensic/detective work.

    I agree that there are some, perhaps including those in the media, who are itching to find life elsewhere because they have a philosophical commitment to the idea that life on Earth is not unique. I think that is the wrong motivation — just as I think a philosophical commitment to the idea that life on earth *is* unique is a faulty motivation to object to the search for extraterrestrial life.

  14. Certainly the answers can be “no” but often a negative result in science tells us a great deal (currently, the failure to find Higgs’ bosons at certain energy regimes, for example – it allows us to eliminate certain aspects of theory and thus better home in on the most likely theoretical framweork).

    Your comment about what scientists expect to find is rather confusing. I don’t think you really understand the scientific process. Experimentally, scientists are trying to gather evidence. That evidence tests their theories. Sometimes the evidence helps to confirm (note: never “prove”) those theories. Sometimes the evidence contradicts them and those theories turn out to be wrong, but that is in itself very revealing and leads to better theories. For instance, no astronomer “expected” to find large gas planets near stars – it was thought impossible – yet those were precisely the first exoplanets found, and it meant revising theories of planetary formation. No we have a much better understanding of how they form.

    Eric Anderson has given the reasons why scinetists search for certain signatures of life, with which I agree.

  15. Eric,

    I won’t go so far as to deny that traces of certain chemicals can be detected in an atmosphere light years away. But I am very, very skeptical. For one thing, has anyone ever tested one of these atmospheres to confirm the findings?

    Also, when IDists state that the odds of life forming spontaneously are so remote as to never happen in the entire universe, the claim is made that life didn’t have to exist in this form, that there could have been many. (Whether that mitigates the problem is another question.)

    If these folks believe that, then which ‘signature of life’ are they looking for? Oxygen and CO2 – the signature of life on earth – or the signature of one of these many unknown possible forms of life?

    If they are looking for oxygen and CO2 then they are assuming certain constraints which would make what they are looking for even more improbable than it already was.

  16. The third page on this following site shows some of the extreme interdependent, ‘life-enabling’, complexity of different types of bacterial life on Earth. ,,,

    Microbial Mat Ecology – Image on page 92 (third page down)
    http://www.dsls.usra.edu/biolo.....nit2.2.pdf

    ,,,Please note, that if even one type of bacteria did not exist in this complex ecological cycle of interdependence, that was illustrated on the third page of the preceding site, then the entire group of different bacteria would soon die out. This essential ecological interdependence, of the most primitive bacteria that we have evidence of on ancient earth, makes the origin of life ‘problem’ for Darwinists that much worse, for now not only do they have to explain how a ‘miracle’ happened once with photosynthetic bacteria, but they must now also explain how all the different bacteria, that photosynthetic bacteria are dependent on, arose just in time to allow photosynthetic bacteria to continue to survive. As well, though not illustrated on the preceding site, please note that the long term tectonic cycle, of the turnover the Earth’s crustal rocks, also plays a important ‘foundational’ role in the overall ecology of the system that must be accounted for as well.

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