This, Just This.

320px-Cetus_constellation_map.svgAround the age of seven I decided I wanted to be an astronomer. As time went on my choice refined. I wanted to work on the discovery of extra-solar planets, that is planets around stars other than the Sun (something that had yet to occur when I was in my teens).

Things never worked out that way, and one factor in that was that, at the time I was making decisions about whether to pursue a career in physics, progress was slow. It didn’t seem to me that I would get to make many discoveries, at least for a long time. I’m not sure if this was because that was the true opinion of those at the cutting edge of the field, or if the developments about to occur were simply not communicated to aspiring undergrads.

I’m in two minds if I regret my career choices, but today I saw something I really, really wish I could have been part of.

With hundreds upon hundreds of extrasolar planets now discovered why is this interesting? Well for a start, a five planetary system is something a little special. I’m also especially excited about planets orbiting nearby stars. I know we will not be visiting them in my lifetime, or for centuries to come, but the closer an object is the better the prospects for finding out more than its mass and orbital period. And there’s Australian involvement. Had I stuck with physics, this is the team I would have aspired to join.

Even if you’re a bit “meh” on those points, almost everyone would agree that a planet with a mass not that much larger than Earth’s in the Goldilocks zone – the area where liquid water and therefore life could exist – is a pretty big deal. The fact that this is a star very similar to our sun probably adds to the prospects that there could be life there. Even the fact that the planetary combination is not confirmed is nice in an odd way: exciting opportunities for further research!

Exciting as all this is, there is another reason why my heart literally (in an accurate use of that  overused word) skipped a beat when I read this account. The star in question is Tau Ceti. That won’t mean a lot to most people. Even avid readers of Ursula Le Guin may not recognise it, since the location of one of her books is only alluded to, rather than stated outright, in the text.

Nevertheless, the fact remains that Tau Ceti is where Le Guin chose to set The Dispossessed. For me this is not merely my favourite work by my favourite author; quite simply I never have to think when asked to name may favourite book – after this there is daylight. After inheriting money from the estate of my grandmother I seriously contemplated buying hundreds of copies and giving them out to people randomly in the street like bibles.

It is particularly appropriate that Tau Ceti is blessed with planets of reasonably comparable mass when the plot of the book rests on the existence of twin planets with similar sizes, even if in a configuration very different from what we have detected.

Of course, I know there are no peoples with a common ancestry to humans living on any of these five planets. No really, I do, but somehow this discovery makes me feel that Shevek, the society from which he comes, and the marvellous physics he invents are just a little closer than they were yesterday.

Hopefully, when the holidays are over I’ll get to interview Professor Chris Tinney, but as I go to bed tonight my heart is just a little bit fuller than usual.

Sidenote: In the process of writing this I discovered just how many other science fiction stories have been set around Tau Ceti – not surprisingly given its status as one of the closest sun-like stars. I hadn’t realised, or had forgotten, its place in Isaac Asimov’s Caves of Steel series, the first two of which I also greatly enjoyed.

About Stephen Luntz

I am a science journalist, specialising in Australian and New Zealand research across all fields of science. My book, Forensics, Fossils and Fruitbats: A Field Guide to Australian Scientists is out now through CSIRO Publishing. I am also a professional returning officer for non-government organisations. I'm very politically active, but generally try to restrict this blog to scientific matters.
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