Chasing planet Goo-Goo-Ga-Ga 420 light years away
Chasing planet Goo-Goo-Ga-Ga 420 light years awayEllis Henican
May 29, 2004, 6:44 PM EDT
The confusion doesn't start and stop with WMDs in Iraq. All kinds of things we thought we knew are turning out to be wrong.
The latest rattling development? It comes from Way, Way Up There, where America's top astronomers have discovered a planet that is too young to exist.
Only it does.
This cosmic toddler � I'm calling it Goo-Goo-Ga-Ga � showed up suddenly on the viewing screen of NASA's Spitzer Space Telescope. And just as suddenly, all our genius astronomers were bug-eyed and scratching their heads.
"Huh?" they were heard to say, almost in unison.
Up until now, scientists were certain that it takes millions and millions of years after a star is born for a genuine planet to start circling around it.
But here they could see this pesky, baby planet, barely a million years old, spinning like a maniac around a star known as CoKu Tau 4 in the constellation Taurus, 420 light years from Earth.
What the heck was that doing up there?
No one could say for certain � except, there it was!
And now, these highly respected astronomers are in the embarrassing position of needing to rethink their entire theory of planetary formation.
That's right, their entire theory of planetary formation.
Now, in the field of astronomy, planetary formation is not what you would call a minor, side detail. Planetary formation is one of the key issues in all of astronomy. We live on a planet, after all. People are understandably interested in how it got here. And if the astronomers can't tell us, who can?
Really, people could soon start asking: "Don't these astronomers know anything?"
Here's an analogy from another corner of the scientific world. Imagine how the geographers would feel if they all woke up one morning and discovered � yikes! � the world really is flat!
That whole Columbus-thing? Ah, never mind!
Calling all globe-trotters! It's back to the drawing board!
That's more or less how self-reflective astronomers are feeling this Memorial Day weekend � or, as some of them may soon be calling this particular phase in the development of their field, "The Weekend We All Looked like Idiots."
If the astronomers can't figure out the basics of planetary formation right, why should anyone believe them on anything, up to and including the Earth rotating around the Sun? Maybe they owe Aristotle an apology too.
Honestly, there's no telling where all this rethinking could lead.
Will wacko radio host Art Bell get a Nobel prize for flying saucers in the Nevada desert? Will the scientific world take another look at Erich von D�niken and his "Chariots of the Gods?"
Anything is possible, I guess.
At week's end, you certainly got a sense of intellectual panic � mixed with some genuine excitement � as the big-deal astronomers tried to explain the perplexing details to the nation's science press.
They fell back on some admittedly unscientific cliches.
"It knocked our socks off!" admitted Edward Churchwell of the University of Wisconsin, who is also principal investigator for GLIMPSE, the Galactic Legacy Infrared Mid-Plane Survey Extraordinaire. That, I am told, is a serious enterprise, despite the goofy name.
Obviously, Churchwell and his fellow glimpsers had gotten quite an eyeful. "We were really excited," he declared.
Compared to many of his colleagues, astronomer Dan Watson of the University of Rochester was pretty open about the major astronomical reassessment on the horizon now.
"The object is only a million years old," Watson said of Goo-Goo. "That probably makes it the youngest planet that we've ever seen, and young enough that it really causes problems for the major theories of planetary formation."
"I expect Spitzer will discover many more of these important objects, each one a unique laboratory," said Anne Kinney, director of the Astronomy and Physics Division of the Office of Space Science at NASA Headquarters in Washington. She was speaking, of course, about the powerful NASA telescope, not the New York State attorney general, although both of them do have far-and-wide ambitions they have only begun to achieve.
So what's next for Goo-Goo?
What's next for the shaken field of astronomy?
And what's next for those of us asking, "How on Earth did we get here?"
I'll get back to you on that, as soon as those weapons of mass destruction turn up.
Copyright � 2004, Newsday, Inc.Christopher W. AshcraftNorthwest Creation Network