October 22, 2017

Review: Strange New Worlds by Ray Jayawardhana.

It’s weird to stop and think that we now live in a time that we know of the existence 573 new exoplanets, and by the time this cyber-ink goes to press, that rolling number will become obsolete. “In my day,” (my halcyon youth of the 70’s) Eight-tracks where still cool and astronomers guessed that exoplanets had to be common, but no one had as of yet found definitive evidence that this was indeed the case.

Enter this week’s review, Strange New Worlds, The Search for Alien Planets and Life Beyond Our Solar System by Ray Jayawardhana. Mr. Jayawardhana is a professor of astrophysics at the University of Toronto Canada and has been on the frontlines of exoplanet discovery over the past two decades. Far from merely re-hashing the story to date, Strange New Worlds offers us an up-to-date snapshot, with the most recent in exoplanet news right up to such 2009-10 discoveries as HAT-7-P thrown in. Along the way, Mr. Jayawardhana explores how exoplanet science went from a field where promising scientific careers went to die up to the first ground breaking discovery of pulsar orbiting planet PSR-1257-12b in 1992 and then emerged into the rich cutting field of exoplanet discovery that now graces cyber front pages, at least on days that Beyonce and Justin Bieber aren’t trending topics.

Hard to believe that in our lifetimes, one of the key factors of the Drake Equation (fp: “What fraction of those stars have planets?”) Now has some hard observational data to back it up. But beyond just acronyms and numerical names, Strange New Worlds delves into the stories, the people and processes that make science the fascinating and human tale that it is. Did you know that Otto Struve correctly deduced the prevalence of “Hot Jupiters” in a paper written in 1952? Or that such stars as 70 Ophiuchi and Barnard’s star where the center of spurious exoplanet claims over the centuries and the center of much heated debate? This is only a taste of the true tales of exoplanet history that lie within… one of the funnier quips relates how Greg Laughlin and Debra Fischer named target stars after Heavy Metal bands to keep track of their relative metallicity (to an astronomer, there’s hydrogen, helium, and metals) rating them from names like Skid Row (low metallicity) to Slayer (very metallic). A song for the power-chording astronomer’s soul!

Strange New Worlds also regales us with the role that amateur astronomers have played in the hunt for exoplanets, highlighting the role that New Zealand astronomer Jennie McCormick played in the discovery of gravitational lensing planet OGLE-2005-BLG-071 with her Meade LX200 telescope. Assets like Super-WASP feature off-the-shelf tech that is available for backyard astronomers; today, calls have even recently gone out for backyard astronomers for collaboration to discover such exotic beasties as exoplanets orbiting white dwarf stars.

Nowadays, the discoveries are coming in fast and furious, as records for the smallest, fastest, hottest, etc. are routinely broken. We’re almost running out of “Wow” factor categories to pigeon-hole these exotic new worlds, but the exoplanets getting added to the growing menagerie manage to amaze us still; tales of rogue worlds, Exo-Moons, Super-Earths, and carbon-rich crystalline diamond planets in the form of the recent discovery orbiting pulsar PSR J1719-1438 are daily fare.

Certainly, the next big factor to be nailed down may well be “how many of those planets are suitable for life, and how many have it?” Strange New Worlds presents a tantalizing possibility; that we may, within our lifetimes be able to point to a star and say, “A planet there has signs of life.” Spectral signatures such as chlorophyll and free methane or O2 May give us our first hints; but how tantalizing would a few squiggles on a chart be, when what we really want to see are pictures of those plants climbing up into an alien sky!

Still, spacecraft such as Kepler, Darwin and the embattled James Webb space telescope may point us towards that Holy Grail of Planetary Science; an exoplanetary Earth. Tests conducted by the Galileo and Deep Impact spacecraft have revealed that variations due to continents, oceans, vegetation, and weather are all detectable on our own Earth, even when shrunken down to a pixel point. Earth is a place where things are happening, and if the history laid out in Strange New Worlds plays out to its logical conclusion, we may just be approaching the point where for the first time, we’ll be able to pencil in one more factor on the Drake Equation and know just how rare or common we are in our universe.


  1. [...] chief difficultly in seeing exoplanets directly lies in the fact that they are located near their bright parent star, which swamps the [...]

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