Pictures of an Exoplanet

I just read an article about a 17 year old intern at NASA who discovered an exoplanet orbiting a binary star. Now, that is a fine thing, and I certainly don’t want to take anything away from New York High School student Wolf Cukier. I’m sure he’s justifiably pleased with himself and his friends and family are reveling in his 15 minutes of fame. I hope he has a long and distinguished career as an astronomer, if that’s what he chooses to do.
My beef, as usual is with the institution of journalism, and the many ways the story is misleading. First, the process of exoplanet discovery is largely automated. If the light of a star dims periodically, there’s something orbiting it. We have discovered thousands. Young Wolf just happened to be on shift when that one passed and, credit where it’s due, was sufficiently alert to spot it.
And it is an interesting discovery. Once upon a time not that long ago, it was thought that binary stars couldn’t have planets, because the competing gravitation of their stars would pull them apart. It’s still unknown if planets in such systems could harbor life. They almost certainly will have extreme fluctuations in climate.
But, really, we don’t know much about this new planet except the distance from its sun to ours (1,300 light years), it’s size (about 7 times larger than Earth), and probably its distance from its own sun and period of rotation.
And yet the article consists of a series of very large pictures of this planet, with a sentence or two between each one. To the newspapers credit, they didn’t lie. They did include, one sentence before the last one, the factoid that these aren’t actual photographs, just a totally made up artist’s rendition. Done by a computer, which says something very cool about computers, but it’s a bit of a misrepresentation as far as the planet goes.
And that could be very misleading to people who don’t know much about space, and they are exactly the ones who the article should be informing.
Yay, scientists, you’re doing a great job. Boo, journalists. You suck.

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