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Potentially Habitable Planet Discovered!

Update: Our discovery prediction paper is officially out, so please use this version.

A team of scientists discovered a planet in the Gliese 581 system that appears to be potentially habitable! This planet Gliese 581 g is part of a large multi-planet star system less than 21 light-years away. Courtesy of the press release:

The planet is tidally locked to the star, meaning that one side is always facing the star and basking in perpetual daylight, while the side facing away from the star is in perpetual darkness. One effect of this is to stabilize the planet’s surface climates, according to Vogt. The most habitable zone on the planet’s surface would be the line between shadow and light (known as the “terminator”), with surface temperatures decreasing toward the dark side and increasing toward the light side.

“Any emerging life forms would have a wide range of stable climates to choose from and to evolve around, depending on their longitude,” Vogt said.

The researchers estimate that the average surface temperature of the planet is between -24 and 10 degrees Fahrenheit (-31 to -12 degrees Celsius). Actual temperatures would range from blazing hot on the side facing the star to freezing cold on the dark side.

If Gliese 581g has a rocky composition similar to the Earth’s, its diameter would be about 1.2 to 1.4 times that of the Earth. The surface gravity would be about the same or slightly higher than Earth’s, so that a person could easily walk upright on the planet, Vogt said.

It’s like a science fiction story! And our prediction for discovering such a planet by May 2011 appears to be accurate, and even a bit conservative. The next step is to examine the planet’s atmosphere for the presence of oxygen.

What an exciting time to be alive.

Is Peter Parker Immoral if He’s Not Spider-Man?

Christopher Robichaud, a philosopher, answers the following question: Does Peter Park Have a Moral Responsibility to Be Spider-Man?

Walking down that path, I think that Peter is morally permitted to choose a career in science and a relationship with Mary Jane over a career as the wallcrawler. Most of us take seriously the importance of having the freedom to choose among various life pursuits. Given my argumentative inclinations, I might have made a great prosecutor and spent decades putting away guilty parties, perhaps some who otherwise would have walked and caused more harm. I chose education instead, as a professional philosopher. I like to think I’m doing good, but let’s suppose it’s not as much good as I would have done as a prosecutor. Am I doing something wrong by remaining a philosopher, then? It sure doesn’t seem so. Just as we think there is moral importance to bringing about good, we also think there is moral value to having the choice as far as what good we want to bring about, and how much sacrifice we’re willing to make in order to bring about that good.

Of course, having superpowers and not using them (or at least not using them as a superhero) may not be immoral, but it’s certainly less exciting. Except when Iron Man decides to dance:

Iron Man Dance from Kirby Ferguson on Vimeo.

A final question: is being a supervillain (that is, a villain with superpowers, or one who fits superheroes) more immoral than being a regular villain?

Why Bother Predicting Future Discoveries?

Big Questions Online recently asked me Why Bother Predicting Future Discoveries? I gave a multi-part answer, but the most important part (from my perspective) is at the end:

But ultimately, these predictions are important because they provide testable cases for how well we understand the process of scientific discovery. If we can quantify the path of discovery well enough, then we should be able to predict its future path, and not simply characterize the shape of past discovery. By making such predictions, we, as scientists, are making the sorts of testable predictions that are important for developing models and mathematical theories of how science is done. The predictions then are the way that the science of science, or scientometrics, can move forward. And understanding how science is done can help us better move toward continuing progress in increasing our knowledge.

Any other reasons to predict future discoveries?

The Me-Sized Universe

I have an essay in the Ideas section of the Boston Globe this weekend, entitled The Me-Sized Universe, about how to bridge the gap between the scale of the universe and the scale within which humans exist. It’s an exploration of some fun facts about the cosmos that are within our grasp and that don’t threaten to overwhelm us too much.

Drinking while Delivering the Parliamentary Budget

While there is no eating or drinking in the House of Commons, the Chancellor of the Exchequer is allowed to drink alcohol while delivering the budget:

Previous Chancellors have chosen whisky (Kenneth Clarke), gin and tonic (Geoffrey Howe), brandy and water (Benjamin Disraeli), sherry and beaten egg (Gladstone) and spritzer (Nigel Lawson). Gordon Brown chose to drink mineral water.