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Jewish World Review Oct. 25, 2001 / 8 Mar-Cheshvan 5762

Bill Tammeus

Bill Tammeus
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Newly found planets show the cosmos is still strange

http://www.jewishworldreview.com -- ASTRONOMERS -- those scientists with one eye on the sky and one on the source of their next government grant -- have found yet more planets wandering around yet more stars in the cosmos. (At last word there was still only one cosmos, but you might want to check CNN tonight for an update.)

This so-called extra-solar planet-discovery business (can you write a sentence with three consecutive hyphenated terms in it?) first struck pay dirt in 1995. (Well, maybe pay gas, since a lot of these planets seem to be pretty much balls of gas.) The latest announcement adds eight more planets to the growing list, which now totals 74.

If, like me, you view such discoveries as good news, you still have to acknowledge the downside of all this: We now have 74 more planets of real estate to fight over. And don't tell me that if humans ever manage to land on any of these planets they won't, sooner or later, fight over them. As a current whiskey ad campaign says so stupidly: "It's what men do."

An international crew of astronomers has been working on all this (finding planets, not drinking whiskey or starting wars). British scientists - in partnership with some colleagues in the United States and Belgium -- turned up the eight new planets using a big telescope in New South Wales, Australia. As far as I know, by the way, none of the planets is already infiltrated by the al-Qaida terrorist network, though these days you can't be too sure.

One of the more intriguing things to me about these discoveries is that they seem to have caused various participants in the search to speak in lockstep with one another. In fact, it's downright eerie.

For instance, when the Particle Physics and Astronomy Research Council in England sent out a press release about the discoveries, it quoted its chief executive, Ian Halliday, this way: "Most of the planets we have found so far have looked like extremely distant relatives to any planet in our own solar system --- very little likeness at all. But these latest discoveries are almost like second cousins, and in the future we could find Earth's brothers and sisters."

Well, that was a helpful way of explaining things. But listen to another participating astronomer, Steve Vogt of the Lick Observatory at the University of California at Santa Cruz, who was quoted in a news release sent out by the National Science Foundation: "Most of the planetary systems we've found have looked like very distant relatives of the solar system - no family likeness at all. Now we are starting to see something like second cousins. In a few years' time we could be finding brothers and sisters."

Seems to me we've already found brothers --- twins, one in Britain, one in the United States, who speak with only one mind.

I hope just reading about these new planets won't turn the rest of us into sound-alike speakers who at first hardly resemble each other at all but later seem like second cousins and eventually like brothers and sisters. I prefer oral diversity, just as I prefer solar system diversity.

By the way, if you haven't spent your life studying the cosmos, you may feel out of the loop even on our own solar system. But now you have help. There's a new model of our solar system on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. It's a permanent outdoor display done on a one-10 billionth scale, meaning it stretches several blocks and not several bazillion light years.

If you go there and ponder the scale of things, you'll find that we live in a teeny-weeny corner of the vast cosmos. This is a good lesson to learn - in case you're ever tempted to order pizza from one of the newly found planets.


Comment on JWR contributor Bill Tammeus' column by clicking here.


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Reprinted by permission, The Kansas City Star, Copyright 2001. All rights reserved