Comparative Exoplanetology

Why do we need to spend any more effort on extra-solar planets?
We found some, they’re there. Lumps of rocks, gasballs. We’re done, right?

M4Ac

This, loosely paraphrased, was a serious question I got last week.
The context was a question of why I was spending serious effort on exoplanet research, rather than focusing exclusively on other subfields.
I’ve heard similar comments from physicists, some particle physicists are notoriously focused in their consideration of what counts as “real physics”, but this came from an astronomer; and one that I know does stars, inside the galaxy, sometimes, not just extragalactic.

Well, why indeed?

In 1922, Edwin Hubble, using a new state of the art observing facility, discovered that the “nebulae” were galaxies, like the Milky Way, but of various types, and external to The Galaxy.
By 1929 he had shown they were distant, receding from us, in general and that they showed some interesting unexplained correlations.
Then he stopped and astronomy shrugged.

NOT!

Astronomers have spent 80+ years doing quantitative statistical analysis of galactic populations; classifying them into different types, getting their luminosity functions, by type, age and environment; looking at their internal structure, individually and as a class; looked for anomalies, peculiar galaxies, colliding galaxies, groups of galaxies, clusters of galaxies, ultra-luminous galaxies, low surface brightness galaxies, dwarf galaxies, young galaxies, star forming galaxies and active galaxies.
Study of galaxies has revealed their formation process, formation of structure in the universe, the origin of the universe, the presence of dark matter and the existence of dark energy.

The details are the interesting part, that is where we learn science.

It boggles the mind that there are scientists who can seriously hear of a major set of discoveries, shrug and be, like, whatever.
Existence of extrasolar planets does not make galaxies less interesting, it does not lead us to abandon the study of stars, it means we need to do even more studying of all of it to understand the universe.

We live on a planet.
We are surrounded by planets.
It behooves us to understand them in some detail,
and as with so many other phenomena, more data is really helpful.

Grr.

Comments

  1. #1 Ben
    June 25, 2012

    You can always find at least one astronomer willing to crap on any field that isn’t theirs. There are people who think cosmology is BS, galaxy evolution is a bunch of faint fuzzies, stellar populations are boring, etc etc.

    Seriously, are you worried about this? Exoplanets are hot. Nearly every department wants to hire in exoplanets. At the same time the field does need to move beyond finding them and into understanding, with well understood statistical surveys. I work in a department with a lot of planet people, so I know this is happening, but there are people who don’t. This is a combination of thickheadedness like your acquaintance, and poor communication of what is actually new in exoplanet studies. People are still coasting a little on the idea that every new paper about exoplanets is interesting simply because it is about planets, and it is time to move beyond that.

  2. #2 lyle
    June 25, 2012

    At its core its a resource allocation question. Assuming as it likely the case that the pie for all of science is fixed, (given todays financial environment, and no Bill Gates type to fund the research independently), the fear is that more study of exoplanets means less resources for their specialty. I have never seen a report suggesting which areas of a discipline to cut to keep others healthy, due to political realities. Of course the real way to work is to put in birth control for research scientists, strip the slave labor down to 2-3 students per professor per career. .

  3. #3 Steinn Sigurðsson
    June 26, 2012

    I am now actually worried about this.
    The question was posed in a fairly formal context, and it reflected casual comments I had heard from multiple sources.

    It is to some extent a reflection of the competition for resources, people would, for example, happily not have 10m class telescopes or HST/Spitzer/JWST time go to exoplanets at all.

    But, it emerges as very blinkered view that ignores the history of the development of our field – where the combination of population studies and followup on outliers is what drives progress in our understanding of fundamental physical processes.

  4. #4 5371
    June 26, 2012

    People like this would be laughed out of the court of public opinion – so I think you found the right way to deal with them.

  5. #5 Eli Rabett
    http://rabett.blogspot.com
    June 26, 2012

    Perhaps Eli can explain. At the time the NASA exobiology program started the Bunny was closely associated with someone who played an important role is setting it up and he knows many people who hopped on the band wagen. Suffice it to say that much of the research, although it is good research has bugger all to do with life on other planets, although the proposals all (they have to) depart from that point.

    The thing that really sticks in peoples craw tho is how the manned space flight crew glommed onto exobio to justify a joy ride to Mars. That sucked the wind out of a lot of other stuff.

    So yeah, exobiology is a program looking for a mission.

  6. #6 E Kite
    Pasadena
    July 2, 2012

    I have also heard this from faculty in my (geo) department. Next time, tongue in cheek, I will answer with a 2 x 2 whiteboard matrix:

    Stable habitable climates are common AND origin of life is uncommon: Build starships.

    Stable habitable climates are vanishingly rare: Terraform Mars.

    Stable habitable climates AND origin of life are both common: Build starships. Build weapons systems too, to be safe (per http://www.nickbostrom.com/extraterrestrial.pdf)

    Which corner do we live in? We’ll never know without more data.

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