Why you should ignore those new planets at Trappist 1

This illustration shows the possible surface of Trappist 1, one of the newly discovered planets in the Trappist-1 system. Scientists using the Spitzer Space Telescope and ground-based telescopes have discovered that there are seven Earth-size planets in the system. (NASA |JPL-Caltech)

Last week, my editor at the Old Farmer’s Almanac asked if I wanted to do a blog about the NASA announcement of a string of newfound exoplanets, all Earth-sized. Up to three million people read that blog, and I have a sense that the public loves that story. But I said no. That’s because there’s a big gulf between the public’s “take” and my own.

To the public, exoplanets are exciting if they’re similar to Earth. And finding life somewhere out there would be the coolest possible thing. I see it differently. Item One: Very few really seem to care about extraterrestrial “life” per se. Influenced by decades of sci-fi, they care about finding intelligent life that could communicate with us. Or else scary life. Or perhaps adorable life, such as extraterrestrial puppies or kittens. But ET versions of moss? Lichens? Bacteria? They’d shrug.


I saw this firsthand. A few decades ago, NASA director Dan Goldin, surrounded by a science team, announced they’d found ironclad evidence of Martian life. He said that a Martian meteorite named ALH84001, which had crashed into Antarctica 16,000 years ago, contained fossilized life.

Did people call their friends and go, “Turn on the news! They found life on Mars”? Did people talk about this at the office water cooler the next day? No. There was a collective yawn. (Turned out it was a false alarm, but that’s not the point.) A New York Times editorial last week captured the “vibe” when it wondered, “Is there any body out there?” But, if experts are right, and pond scum is more likely than any alien “bodies,” would that count as “anybody?”

And what about earthly life? Human activities are bringing 200 species to extinction every day – every day! They’re gone for keeps! How many are up in arms about it? So, are scientists really correct when they assume widespread fascination about plant life or micro-organisms on a distant planet? I doubt it, even if us science nerds will love it. We want to know, for example, if alien life exhibits the same molecular chirality as all Earthly life – whether their proteins and sugars all curve around in a strictly right- or left-handed fashion, the way ours do – indicating a common origin. Stuff like that.

Item Two: We’ve known for decades that there are a billion Earth-sized planets in our galaxy. We’ve already found and catalogued thousands – even an exoplanet orbiting the nearest star. Thus, finding a bunch of them around a tiny star a whopping 40 light years away is more of the same. It’s information, but it’s only marginally revelatory. Personally, I mostly love that these newfound planets orbit in simple 3:5-type resonances with each other. They’re linked, the way our own Pluto and Neptune are, with their 2:3 orbital periods (meaning, Pluto circles the Sun exactly twice while Neptune orbits three times).

Now let’s say we study their atmospheres and find that one has oxygen, which would only take a few years to discover. That means that life is likely. That would indeed be interesting. We’d of course want to learn more. Unfortunately, we cannot learn anything more without sending a probe. Our fastest current rockets would need over a thousand years to get there. Let’s say we find a way to do it in just two centuries (even then it would face a high chance of failure).

Meantime, what happens when there’s a lack of knowledge about a hot, popular topic? The crazies come out: the psychics claiming they’ve been contacted; the pseudoscientific essays; the publicity-seekers. Always happens. We’ll have centuries of claims and speculation.

So visualize the situation if we learn that there’s life, but we know nothing more, as years and decades go by. Does this sound gratifying – or frustrating?

It’s science, and it’s interesting; but I’m trying to find a happy ending here. Good thing I passed on that blog. I’m sounding curmudgeonly.

There are 2 comments

  1. Bill Davis


    I’m a fan of yours. I try to read your Almanac column weekly. Have been doing so for 16 years. This business with the discovery of new planets around a star 40 light years away interests me in a way you don’t discuss but could. Could you explain how they come to the conclusion that there are seven stars around that star, that they are rocky, and how they are able to determine orbital periods? To me this is the amazing part of the story.

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