Monday, March 5, 2012

How We Know: GJ 1214 b, a Planet 40 Lightyears from Earth, Has Water

In December 2009, astronomers noticed a star they had been observing, known as GJ 1214 (there are billions of stars in our galaxy; they can't all have imaginative names) gave off a little less light about once every 38 hours.  This was a telltale sign that a planet was orbiting, and it was exactly what these astronomers were looking for.

Artist's impression of GJ 1214 b passing its star, by ESO/L. Cal├žada.

These astronomers were working on the MEarth Project, looking at thousands of red dwarf stars, named for their color and size. (Yes, astronomers call a star many times larger than Jupiter a "dwarf."  You should see what they call "giants.")  GJ 1214 is one of these red dwarfs, and its only known planet earned the name GJ 1214 b (the star itself would be considered GJ 1214 a, if you were wondering).

By 2009, planet-hunting had become a science (ha ha).  Get a powerful telescope (the more, the merrier), aim at a patch of sky, feed the data into a computer program, and wait.  The computer will scan the images, looking for changes in brightness in all the stars in view.  When a planet gets in between its star and us, it blocks some of the light, and the stars brightness dips.  Since a planet has a regular orbit, it will cause these dips on a regular schedule.  Anyone out in space looking at our star from the right angle will see it dip a bit once every year as we pass by.  They'd see a much bigger dip every 12 years as Jupiter passes by, since it blocks much more light.

But even though we're getting the process down, the number of planets we know of is still only about 760, much fewer than the 160 billion we estimate are out there orbiting other stars, not to mention the trillions we think are free-floating throughout the galaxy.

Cartoonish view of planets in the galaxy, by ESO/M. Kornmesser.

With only 760 confirmations (so far), we can take a closer look at each, and really try to find out as much as possible about them.

But what can we learn from a dip of starlight?  You might be surprised.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

On Evolution, one species "evolving from" another, and "living fossils"

Humans did not evolve from chimpanzees.

Humans did evolve from apes.

Both sentences are true, and there's an important distinction here.  While it's also true that chimpanzees are humanity's closest living relative on the tree of life, the creatures we evolved from were not chimpanzees, but rather a separate, extinct species that gave rise to us both.  Yes, these ancient apes were perhaps closer to chimps than to us by most standards of measurement, but that doesn't make them chimps.

These apes gave rise not just to chimps and ourselves, but also to a host of other species in the Homo genus:  homo habilus, homo erectus, and homo neanderthalensis.  And they were preceded by other species in the Australopithecus genus, of which Lucy is the most famous example.

None of these ancestors of ours were simply replaced by the next in line.  Life is not like that.  Species fight to stay alive and produce a new generation, but all of these species in our close family tree failed to do so, once.  And once is all it takes.

It sounds odd that none of our close relatives survived to the present day.  After all, many were more intelligent than the other apes alive today.  Some made tools, Neanderthals even had the beginnings of symbolic and spiritual culture.  So what happened?

Well, some of these species possibly all changed very gradually over time, as new genes developed from random mutations, and the beneficial ones spread through the population.  Some species probably split off into several populations, some staying in the trees, and others spending more time on the ground.  Selective pressures altered the populations in different ways, and then at some point one population or the other died out.  Perhaps driven to starvation when the other group became more successful at acquiring food.

Actually, it shouldn't seem too surprising that we are the only surviving members of our genus.  The vast, vast majority of all species that have existed on earth are extinct.  Long ago, even the human species was nearly wiped out.  When you compare the gene pool of everyone in the world, it's clear we came from a very small population far back in our past, perhaps a few thousand individuals.

Let's go back to the chimps.  Because chimpanzees are probably more similar to our shared relatives than we are, it isn't fair to call them "less evolved."  They've survived just as well as we have in these past few million years, with completely different adaptations than our hairless bodies and bulbous brains.

As another example, think of the coelacanth, that fossil fish with four lobed fins that might one day have evolved into legs.  Fossils of this fish were known before a living one was discovered by Western science in the 20th century (apparently locals had been eating them for generations), and so the fish was dubbed the "living fossil."  But let's give the fish some credit.  The oceans have not stayed exactly the same for the millions of years from when its fossilized ancestor swam with the ichthyosaurs to today.  To say the coelacanth is unevolved would be unfair and untrue.  Adaptations to body chemistry, foraging habits, breeding habits, and possible migration patterns could all have taken place (the continents have been steadily shifting position during this species' time on Earth, for instance) without major changes to the shape of its body.

So this is a toast to all those "under-evolved" species:  to the chimpanzees who do not need huge brains to find good food to eat, to the coelacanths who do not need legs to find a mate, to all the amphibians who will reproduce just fine as long as there is freshwater to be found, I say, if it ain't broke, don't fix it.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

My life-long love affair with the night

Most people who know me well know that I am a night owl.  I have trouble falling asleep before midnight, even when I have to get up at 5 the next morning to get to the airport.

I won't try to explain why I prefer to stay up late, but I would like to take some time to talk about the night, and the night sky.

I started thinking about this subject on a plane trip, coming home to Albuquerque from a family visit in New York City.  It was close to midnight on New Year's Eve, and outside the sky was dark.  The ground, however, was lit up everywhere you looked.  Even the least populated areas had lights glittering somewhere, from roads or cars, or the houses that dotted the landscape.

We had just taken off from the Washington-Dulles airport, and were still fairly close to the ground, when I noticed the lights that lit up the roads below us reflected as a soft glow from the road itself.  But the lights themselves were pinpricks of light, meaning they were also shining directly up into the sky!

This light, besides being completely wasted, doesn't just shoot off harmlessly into space.  Just as our atmosphere scatters sunlight during the day, turning the whole sky a bright blue, it also scatters artificial light, and enough of it can cause "skyglow," blocking the light from stars and the Milky Way, and turning a gorgeous night sky into a bland grey wash.