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Short and Bad

April 16, 1999
The Big News this week is that the intrepid astronomers Marcy, Butler and Fischer at San Francisco State University have found another set of extrasolar planets, but this time they have found three planets orbiting a single star. This is the first time we have seen a normal star like the Sun orbited by more than one planet, so this makes it seem likely that solar systems like our own aren't as rare as once thought.

What is rare sometimes is to find a news story that makes three mistakes in as many lines of copy. On the Yahoo California headlines website is this gem:

New Galaxy Mirrors Milky Way - (SAN FRANCISCO) -- A group of scientists have discovered a galaxy they say could be the Milky Way's twin, fueling speculation about the existence of intelligent life elsewhere in the universe. San Francisco State University astronomers say the newly-discovered galaxy, with three large planets orbiting a star known as Upsilon Andromedae, is 44-light-years away from Earth. However, none of Upsilon Andromedae's planets are even remotely like Earth, and would not be hospitable to human life.
What a peculiar headline! First, the astronomers did not discover another galaxy at all, but three planets around another star. Then they go on to say that not only is this nonexistent galaxy a twin of our own, but also only 44 light years away!

This is Bad because they mean solar system, not galaxy. A solar system is a star with planets orbiting it, a galaxy is a collection of billions or even trillions of stars. There's a bit of a difference! It's like calling a hair follicle a human being. The blurb does give the correct distance to Upsilon Andromedae as 44 light years, which is well within our own Milky Way. That's funny too: galaxies are big; the Milky Way is a hundred thousand light years across. If another galaxy were only 44 light years away, we'd be in serious trouble.

Even more odd, they say in the first line that the ``galaxy'' fuels speculation about intelligent alien life, but in the last line says the planets are not remotely like Earth, and inhospitable. Which is it? Why should these completely uninhabitable planets fuel speculation for alien life?

To be fair, this discovery does support the idea of life evolving elsewhere, simply because it shows that multiple planet systems (like our own) exist elsewhere in the Galaxy. That's all. This discovery is interesting in that regard, but hardly anything concrete.

Anyway, that confused and bizarre headline makes me wonder if whoever wrote it actually read it. It's a sure bet they don't read this website!

For information about the real science behind this story, you can go right to the horse's mouth at the San Francisco State University's Extrasolar Planet Search website, run by Geoff Marcy himself.

For a much better rendition of this story by the press, try the ABC News website, which has links to more info.

My thanks to Andrew Lloyd for sending this weirdness along to me.

©2008 Phil Plait. All Rights Reserved.

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