Shock, Awe And Science

Feb 17, 2015
Originally published on February 17, 2015 2:38 pm

Imagine you walked outside one morning and there was a 30,000-pound cat sitting in your front yard. Imagine that, on the way to work, you walked past a mushroom the size of a house. Imagine that, in the midst of all the mundane, day-to-day things you take for granted, something utterly new — and utterly unexpected — plopped itself into your reality.

Almost every day, something a long those lines is happening in laboratories and observatories around the world. It's the shock of the new — and it's one the greatest gifts science has to offers us.

A few years ago, I was sitting in one of our astronomy group's regular Monday lunches. This is a time when a visiting scientist comes to spend the day with us and gives a talk on his or her current research. But at this lunch, we weren't talking about the visitor's work. Instead, we were buzzing over something quite remarkable and quite unexpected that my University of Rochester colleague, Eric Mamajek, had just stumbled into.

Mamajek and his collaborator had been scanning stars looking for orbiting planets — so-called "exoplanets." Their method was to look for "transits" — a brief, slight dimming of the starlight as the alien world passes between its sun and Earth. These transits represent our best opportunity to learn about distant worlds because so much information gets encoded in the exact way the host star's light is blocked by its orbiting child.

But in the little corner of the cosmos Mamajek was studying — a star called J1407 — something unexpected had happened. The light from the star dimmed significantly before they ever saw an exoplanet. Along with this long, broad shutdown of the starlight, they also saw short, sharp "chirps" as the light dimmed a bit extra then returned, then dimmed again.

"What do you think is happening?" I asked Mamajek. A smile spread across his face, "I think we're seeing rings."


All of the giant planets in our own solar system host ring systems with, of course, Saturn winning the award for most spectacular. But rings around an alien world orbiting a star more than a million billion miles away? Now, that was cool. Just 20 years ago or so, we didn't even know if any other planets existed out there in the universe, and now, Mamajek had just discovered "exo-rings."

And, just recently, the news has gotten better — and weirder. Mamajek and his team sharpened the analysis of their data to discover that the planet orbiting star J1407 (imaginatively called J1407b) was hosting nothing less than a cosmic bling fest. The alien ring system turns out to span tens of millions of miles, making it more than 200 times the size of Saturn's beauties. If these rings were circling around Saturn, they'd be visible from Earth. In fact, the rings would appear more than 20 times larger in our sky than the moon and you could see them during the day (they would reflect that much sunlight).

And the flickering starlight Mamajek observed? That gets pretty amazing, as well, because it's telling us that the exo-rings have exo-gaps. The flicker occurs as the star peaks out through the gaps between the rings. We know the gaps in Saturns' rings are created by moons orbiting within the ring system — and the same principle must hold for the new giant planet. In other words, Mamajek's data implies the existence of exo-moons too! And just to keep things maximially weird, from the data it appears that these exo-moons making the exo-gaps in the exo-rings may be the size of Earth or Mars. Everything in this newly discovered solar system is big, big, big. "It's kind of a super-Saturn," says Mamajek.

So, why does any of this matter?

Well, here is the thing. Mamajek and his collaborators weren't looking for rings when they started their project. But there, hiding in the data, was evidence for something that had never been seen before — something fundamentally new.

But why does that matter?

People often think that science reveals a world without meaning. But the moral of this story is that science, as a practice, fills our lives with meaning. As I wrote about last week, there is so much of the world that is hidden from us. Even worse, we barely notice the daily "miracles" happening right in front of our eyes — the graceful arc of a snow drift, the curl of steam rising from a street vent. The world is playing itself out in front of us every day of our lives, but it's hard for us to remember that we are supposed to be awed by it all. (It is, after all, going to disappear in some form when we die).

Mamajek's super-psycho-ring-system-on-steroids reminds us that there is a whole lot of "new" out there in the cosmos. In that way, the details of his discovery can, if we let them, give us a moment of pause, of delight and of recollection. As Mamajek himself put it: "It reminds us that there is a beautiful universe out there waiting to be explored, and our telescopes are providing us with the tiniest hints of what lies out there." Most importantly, the giant rings of J1407b can remind us that everything is, in fact, all new to us all the time.

P.S.: When I showed this post to Eric Mamajek, he noted: "Snow drifts ceased being graceful a few weeks ago!"

Adam Frank is a co-founder of the 13.7 blog, an astrophysics professor at the University of Rochester, a book author and a self-described "evangelist of science." You can keep up with more of what Adam is thinking on Facebook and Twitter: @adamfrank4.

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