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More weird worlds

[Before we get started, I want to reassure everyone that I'm going to be OK despite the fact that the college football national championship is, for some odd reason, being played this year without the participation of the Florida Gators. This oversight is appalling, but I'm taking solace in the fact that Tebow threw for about 975 yards in his final game against some previously unknown Big East team, and that, although his throwing motion is problematic -- what with the wind-up delivery that makes him look like Sandy Koufax in the pocket -- he will still be drafted, surely, by the Jaguars to boost the fan base. Also I'm taking huge solace in the miracle shot the other day by the instantly legendary Chandler Parsons.]

[FYI, I'm heading back to AstroWorld this morning and if any of the talks get tedious I'm going to read this compendium of Top Science Stories of 2009 put together by the Knight Science Tracker.]

[Also, great piece at Politics Daily about the psychos who posted nasty comments on a Deborah Howell obituary. Right on.]

So then, here's my dispatch from the AAS meeting (essentially a rewrite of the web story from yesterday):

By Joel Achenbach

In their search for a planet that looks like Earth -- comfortably bathed in sunshine in a pleasant solar system where life would be easy come easy go -- astronomers keep turning up the strangest things.

They've found a planet with the density of Styrofoam.

They've found two planets with surfaces hotter than molten lava.

They've found two inexplicable planet-sized objects that for some reason are hotter than the stars they orbit. Scientists have never seen anything like this before.

"Does anyone know what they are?" asked Harvard-Smithsonian astronomer David Latham, standing onstage in a ballroom of astronomers Monday at the Washington Marriott Wardman Park.

About 3,300 astronomers and students are in Washington for the annual winter meeting of the American Astronomical Society, where sessions range from why stars explode to how astronomers can find a job. The gathering's first day was dominated by news from Kepler, a new space telescope NASA launched in March on a mission to find Earth-like planets.

The very early results are tantalizing. Astronomers said they found five new planets, all much bigger than Earth. An additional 100 or so signals are being analyzed that might indicate planets. The new telescope has also revealed that the sun is not anomalously calm by galactic standards, which boosts the odds that other solar systems would be habitable.

William J. Borucki, Kepler's lead scientist, spent decades lobbying NASA to fund the mission. For much of Monday, he played his cards close to the vest, revealing only the five planets that popped up in the first six weeks of observations. Eight more months of data are still being analyzed, with the candidate planets being scrutinized by ground-based telescopes.

"There's a lot of real interesting stuff. That's all we can say now," said Simon "Pete" Worden, director of NASA's Ames Research Center. If an Earth-like planet were found, he noted, the president and Congress would be brought into the loop prior to a public announcement.

Latham, part of the Kepler team, teased, "You ain't seen nothin' yet."

A race is going on between American and European scientists to find the first "Earth" -- a planet that is about its size and simultaneously in the "habitable zone" of a star. In the habitable zone, a planet would be in the Goldilocks position, neither too hot nor too cold, and just right for water to be liquid at the surface.

Click here to keep reading.

By Joel Achenbach  |  January 5, 2010; 8:48 AM ET
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Next: Gobs and gobs of galaxies


This is good news, after yesterday's scare.

Posted by: Yoki | January 5, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse


Posted by: bobsewell | January 5, 2010 9:27 AM | Report abuse

Nicely written planetology. Nice Kepler. I hope the Teabag Congress that's supposedly going to be elected in November won't zero NASA's budget.

Posted by: DaveoftheCoonties | January 5, 2010 9:48 AM | Report abuse

I wonder if the Boodle can secure the rights to all Mobius Donut franchises on any 'habitable' planets the astronomers find.

Posted by: MsJS | January 5, 2010 10:09 AM | Report abuse

Thanks for the link to the Knight Science Tracker. Strange, but I was at one of the sites on the list yesterday, Alan Boyle's top science stories of the decade at I was browsing several decades of top stories, the 1980s having caught my attention, as well as the past decade, of course.

What caught my attention in the science news of the past decade was number 47 on Boyle's list, soft tissue found in an ancient T.rex. If a reader uses the links that Boyle provides, the links take one right to articles that mention Mary Schweitzer and John Asara, both proteges of Jack Horner of the Museum of the Rockies, whose book that was published last year, "How to Build a Dinosaur: Extinction Doesn't Have to Last Forever" is the one that I'm currently reading. What a fascinating personal story Schweitzer, now in North Carolina, has. Horner writes about both Schweitzer and Asara in his newest book.

I want to mention that I was bemoaning the fact that I didn't have a 2010 teaching desk calendar yesterday, as my husband trotted off to work with two for his desktop, one about wines-for-the-day and the other a new English word-for-the-day, leaving the Spanish phrase-for-the-day at home. Feliz Ano Nuevo, BTW.

I had picked out a Christian Lander "Stuff White People Like"--since I'd missed Lander at the Texas Book Festival on Oct. 31, but found it too wordy and not calendar-ish enough, so returned it for a pretty-picture Sierra Club desktop calendar instead.

But moments after feeling sorry for myself yesterday morning, I discovered that I had a wonderful 2010 calendar, of sorts, in hand, something I purchased fairly quickly on New Year's Eve at our close-by Half Price Books.


Posted by: laloomis | January 5, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Re-posting from last Boodle:

Rashomon, thanks for pointing out the high southern declination of Pyxidis. In general, all the constellations that have classical-style names that you've never heard in classical mythology are in the southern hemisphere. They were named in the last half-millennium by Europeans (not sure when they got official designations), so you have southern-hemisphere constellations with names like Microscopium (the Microscope!), Telescopium (the Telescope!), and Centaurus (100 Ford Tauruses!).

According to Wikipedia, many of the southern-hemisphere constellation names were conferred in 1763 in a barely-posthumous star catalog by Nicolas Louis de Lacaille. Centaurus was ancient Greek -- actually, it's Ptolemaic, so I suppose it was Hellenized Egypt.

Posted by: ScienceTim | January 5, 2010 9:28 AM | Report abuse

Posted by: ScienceTim | January 5, 2010 10:12 AM | Report abuse

Speaking of weird worlds: Check out Dana Milbank’s protest.

Posted by: MsJS | January 5, 2010 10:23 AM | Report abuse

I forgot to mention a response to the tongue-in-cheek question of what does the 'T' stand for in 'T Pyx': I'm afraid the answer is quite boring and trivial. The bright stars in a constellation are designated by Greek letters in alphabetical order of decreasing brightness and, when the Greek alpha-beta runs out, by the English alphabet in order of still-decreasing brightness. Or is it the Latin alphabet? Eventually, one is reduced to doubled-English letters (I don't know WHAT that comes from) or to using numbers (like 51 Vir). Modern star-catalogs, which tend towards cataloging stars that are invisible to the naked eye, use even less-intelligible systems, like simply numbering the objects in order of discovery (leading to object names like COROT-7b), or designations that describe approximate location on the sky (like IRC+10216).

Posted by: ScienceTim | January 5, 2010 10:26 AM | Report abuse

Its freezing here. Having atained D**n Yankee status by virtue of living SOTMDL for the past quarer century, my blood has thinned. any semblance of subcutaneous insulatory adipose tissue is gone. I'm FMBO and I don't even have one to speak of. I need to talk to the super at the Canadian field office about this.

Posted by: -jack- | January 5, 2010 10:29 AM | Report abuse

SCC: attained.

Fla. panthers area resilient lot:

Posted by: -jack- | January 5, 2010 10:37 AM | Report abuse

SCC redeux: are a

my fingers are defective.

Posted by: -jack- | January 5, 2010 10:39 AM | Report abuse

My husband cooked the most fantastic gourmet meal for me on New Year's Day, and as he was ducking into HEB for last-minute ingredients, I instinctively headed for the science section at Half Price Books, where I discovered Tennessean Micheal Sims' first book, the 1997 "Darwin's Orchestra."

In the few minutes I had to browse, I was looking at Sims' book's content, not format. As I spent time with the book only yesterday, I noticed that there is a story for each day of the year. For example, the story of Darwin's Orchestra is Oct. 10.

What initially grabbed my attention was how prescient Sims is. For May 14, there is a story about the origins of the camel in North America, predating my interest in the subject by less than decade. His first sentence in the Introduction (Why Thoreau Would Not Like This Book) talks about the fire Thoreau started in the Concord woods, the tale expanded in the entry for April 30, and predating by more than a decade John Pipkin's 2009 book "Woodsburner."

The entry for today is titled "Mr. Ed's Pedigree," and dicusses human and animal sounds and communication. And as Boyle points out on his list at, the FOXP2 gene, that plays a key role in human speech, was discovered in 2002, the gene possibly in the genome of Neaderthals as well.

Yesterday? On January 4, 1939, Walt Disney inked the deal to buy the film rights for Igor Stravinsky's "Rite of Spring," to be used as the musical backdrop for the animation of Genesis and Evolution in Fantasia. Paleontologists Barnum Brown who discovered the T. rex in the Hell Creek Formation in Montana, along with Julian Huxley and Roy Chapman Andrews worked with Disney artists on these segments, much as Montana paleontologist Horner advised for the film Jurassic Park.

Sims' entry for Jan. 4 ends with this graf:

Originally, Disney intended to proceed with the story of evolution through "The Age of Mammals and the First Men" to "Fire and the Triumph of Man." However, fundamentalist Christian learned of the plan and threatened to cause an uproar. Disney scrapped the proposed section on human evolution and ended his evolutionary saga with the death of the dinosaurs."

Square this bit of Disney moviemaking with the headline from the Dec. 29, 2009 Los Angeles Times, headlined "California Science Center is sued for canceling a film promoting intelligent design.":,0,6400745.story

Posted by: laloomis | January 5, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

In the last boodle Mudge remarked about the 38 below temp reading in International Falls today. That is precisely why I am planning my escape.

Posted by: frostbitten1 | January 5, 2010 10:41 AM | Report abuse

*faxin' jack one of those newfangled type-via-brainwaves headsets* :-)

Posted by: Scottynuke | January 5, 2010 10:43 AM | Report abuse

Re: My post in the previous kit, the article about Hume was by Shales, not Kurtz. Is it Friday yet?

Posted by: ebtnut | January 5, 2010 10:44 AM | Report abuse

One more thing--interesting (interesting in how one Oklahoma university handled a similar situation--they caved) graf that concludes the LATimes article:

"Darwin's Dilemma" was screened in September at the University of Oklahoma's Sam Noble Oklahoma Museum of Natural History -- sponsored not by the museum but by a student organization that rented its auditorium. West, the Discovery Institute official, noted approvingly that officials of the Oklahoma museum "came under a lot of pressure" from Darwinists opposed to the screening, "but their response was to do more free speech, and open the museum for a counter-lecture" opposing intelligent design.

Posted by: laloomis | January 5, 2010 10:50 AM | Report abuse

Predictably, the part of Joel's article about NASA saying they would hide awesome news from the public makes steam come from my ears.

Posted by: Jumper1 | January 5, 2010 10:55 AM | Report abuse

Sad grafs from the NYT's obit about Howell:

The men who doubted her learned that “I could chase stories as hard, I could be as stubborn, I could be as aggressive as they were,” she said in a 1993 interview for the Washington Press Club Foundation’s oral history project on women in journalism [the one I linked to on Saturday]. “If the guy reporters accepted you, you know, you went down to the bar with them and you drank, you became one of the boys.”

[Sad because this is pretty much what helped to contribute to Molly Ivins struggle with alcoholism, the impression I got from listening to Ivins' biographer Bill Minutaglio."

After becoming city editor of The Star, she discovered that she was paid less than any of the male editors working under her. “I blew up,” she told the oral history project. “I went in and pasted myself all over the managing editor’s office, then went and did the same thing to the editor, and I said they’d better do something about it, because in about 24 hours I was going to call my lawyer. I actually didn’t mean it; I never did that kind of thing.”

On to my day...

Posted by: laloomis | January 5, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

I read your article Joel, and I'm somewhat perplexed by this paragraph:

"They've found two inexplicable planet-sized objects that for some reason are hotter than the stars they orbit. Scientists have never seen anything like this before."

Followed a little later by this one:

"'Right now, we're still taking the inventory of the universe. That inventory is largely complete with regard to stars. It is in its infancy with regard to planets, said Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astronomer at the American Museum of Natural History."

Now, I like Dr. deGrasse Tyson and I am no professional astronomer, but I read his quote and thought, "Huh? Really?" I realize we have a pretty good grip on most stars in the galaxies we can observe as they pertain to the Hertzsprung-Russell diagram, stellar categorization, the Main Sequence and all that, but - for example - are those two hot little objects really in a stellar or astronomical inventory somewhere (OK, maybe they are now)?

I wish I had Dr. deGrasse Tyson's confidence that we humans really know stars and stellar objects and phenomena well enough to call the inventory complete. Seems to me that it's a big, big 'verse, and that maybe there's a lot going on that we can't see from here (i.e. stars and galaxies over some Horizon of spacetime expansion).

I also reiterate my suggestion from yesterday that Styrofoam Planets (and Plutoids/trans Neptunian objects) are available at Michael's - $10 for a stellar system's worth.


Posted by: -bc- | January 5, 2010 10:57 AM | Report abuse

Jumper, there's constant tension between science-by-press-release, which pleases funding agencies and justifies federal budgets, and science-by-refereed-publication, which arrives slowly but dots the i's and crosses the t's as best as possible. Nobody on Kepler wants to make an announcement and then come back a month or two later to dramatically revise the result on the basis of further evidence that they already knew they were going to collect at the time of the initial press release. It's not secretiveness so much as discipline and scientific rigor. If you have something, you know it almost immediately, but it may take a couple months to know what you have.

Posted by: ScienceTim | January 5, 2010 11:05 AM | Report abuse

To *Tim's point - think of all the discomfort caused when astonomers discuss Near Earth Objects and possible co-spatial events twixt them and this here planet we're on.

And later when more information is gathered and processed, it typically turns out the chances of an actual orbital intersection turn out to be quite remote.

Measure twice, panic once, I always say.


Posted by: -bc- | January 5, 2010 11:23 AM | Report abuse

Just think what to Boodle would bee if we bothred to measure twice, comment once...


Posted by: Scottynuke | January 5, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

thanks, scotty. Measure twice, panic once. *L* if I had a nickle for every time...

Posted by: -jack- | January 5, 2010 11:27 AM | Report abuse

SCC: nickel. 'scuse me.

Posted by: -jack- | January 5, 2010 11:29 AM | Report abuse

Two SCCs are in order:

Chris Organ at Harvard is Horner's protege, not John Asara. Asara is at Harvard Medical. Asara, Schweitzer and Organ, along with several other authors, followed up their initial papers by analyzing the sequence data of T. rex and mastodon collagen.



The title of Shelley Emling's book about Mary Anning is titled "The Fossil Hunter." On Christmas Day, I mistakenly posted the title as "The Fossilist."

Posted by: laloomis | January 5, 2010 11:49 AM | Report abuse

Yesterday's xled cookie bake-a-thon is now set for this afternoon.

No need to panic even once. Niece3 is very good at measuring ingredients, oven temps, and baking times.

Check out the Boodle table later in the day.

Posted by: MsJS | January 5, 2010 11:54 AM | Report abuse

Now I see the comment, frostbitten.

To Mudge: remember, it's -38 at night. It warms up considerably in the day to a balmy -20, -10 or so.

You want real crazy cold, Alaska's your baby.

The upside to this kind of winter night: Not much chance of drunken revellers blaring music at 3 AM. Also, possibly not of bears scattering garbage, but you never know.

Still, I think most folks up here would agree with you that they could do without those major cold snaps.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | January 5, 2010 12:10 PM | Report abuse

But then, I'm biased.

I was sweating in -32 F on Sunday. That's -35.5 C in metric.

There are people who would say it's insane to live where you must sweat in 100 F and 80% humidity (or as close to 100% as allowed by Yellojkt).

You can always dress warm, you can't dress cool enough for 100 F, unless you get a space age cool suit or else strip your skin and flesh off your bones.

Posted by: Wilbrod_Gnome | January 5, 2010 12:16 PM | Report abuse

I'm looking forward to the cookie-thon, MsJS.

Posted by: Ivansmom | January 5, 2010 12:17 PM | Report abuse

New Kit. More large gassy bodies.

Posted by: yellojkt | January 5, 2010 12:46 PM | Report abuse

hey... what happened to the Gobs boodle?

Posted by: -TBG- | January 5, 2010 8:16 PM | Report abuse

Did the supernova explode already? Wait, this one works...

Posted by: seasea1 | January 5, 2010 9:23 PM | Report abuse

Glad it is not just me (I hate having to figure out WHY things don't work -- that was my job, I'm retired now!) and it seems only the comments are erased.

Posted by: nellie4 | January 5, 2010 9:48 PM | Report abuse

Now the gobs kit is gone!

Posted by: nellie4 | January 5, 2010 9:49 PM | Report abuse

I emailed Joel - they're aware there is a problem and trying to fix it. I assume "they" are the crack IT staff. Looks like someone is getting in, as I see the number of comments is increasing, but...

Posted by: seasea1 | January 5, 2010 10:27 PM | Report abuse

The Gobs kit is back but the boodle is still missing. You'll notice that the link back to this kit is gone, too. Something has gotten subtly malformed in the interior anatomy of the blog...
And I was all ready to explain the star name T Pyx (long story short: it's a variable-star name). See you when the boodle is functional again... if anybody sees this...

Posted by: woofin | January 5, 2010 10:33 PM | Report abuse

The Gobs Boodle is working for me guarantee...

Posted by: seasea1 | January 5, 2010 10:43 PM | Report abuse

It's the YoYo Boodle

Gobs go up, Gobs go down

Posted by: omnigood | January 5, 2010 11:22 PM | Report abuse

*breaking out emergency candles*

Posted by: engelmann | January 6, 2010 12:07 PM | Report abuse

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