kottke.org posts about olivermorton

More extrasolar planetary newsJun 11 2009

Oliver Morton fills us in on the current happenings in the search for planets outside of our solar system. A friend of his clued him in on a technique that could be used to not only discover planets but to determine if those planets show signs of supporting Earth-like life.

When they are passing in front of their stars, their atmospheres are backlit in a way that can make spectroscopic analysis of the different chemicals in their atmospheres comparatively easy: the wavelengths of light absorbed by the various chemicals will show up, in a tiny way, in the spectrum of the starlight. And this is what makes it possible to imagine looking at them for signs of life.

What scientists would look for are planets with unstable atmospheres, which James Lovelock said was an indication of life.

After the extragalactic planet post this morning, Sam Arbesman sent me a link to systemic, a blog dedicated to the search for extrasolar planets written by Greg Laughlin, one of the scientists involved in the effort. Here are two relevant posts. In Forward, Laughlin says we're very close to finding a nearby Earth-like planet:

Detailed Monte-Carlo simulations indicate that there's a 98% probability that TESS will locate a potentially habitable transiting terrestrial planet orbiting a red dwarf lying closer than 50 parsecs. When this planet is found, JWST (which will launch near the end of TESS's two year mission) can take its spectrum and obtain resolved measurements of molecular absorption in the atmosphere.

In Too cheap to meter, Laughlin presents a formula for the land value of such a discovery that depends on how far away the planet is, the age of the star it orbits, and the star's visual magnitude.

Applying the formula to an exact Earth-analog orbiting Alpha Cen B, the value is boosted to 6.4 billion dollars, which seems to be the right order of magnitude. And applying the formula to Earth (using the Sun's apparent visual magnitude) one arrives at a figure close to 5 quadrillion dollars, which is roughly the economic value of Earth (~100x the Earth's current yearly GDP)...

Eating the SunNov 28 2008

Steven Johnson really likes a book called Eating the Sun: How Plants Power the Planet by Oliver Morton; he calls it his favorite book (so far) of 2008. From a Publishers Weekly review:

The cycle of photosynthesis is the cycle of life, says science journalist Morton (Mapping Mars). Green leaves trap sunlight and use it to absorb carbon dioxide from the air and emit life-giving oxygen in its place. Indeed, plants likely created Earth's life-friendly oxygen- and nitrogen-rich biosphere. In the first part, Morton, chief news and features editor of the leading science journal, Nature, traces scientists' quest to understand how photosynthesis works at the molecular level. In part two, Morton addresses evidence of how plants may have kick-started the complex life cycle on Earth. The book's final part considers photosynthesis in relation to global warming, for, he says, the Earth's plant-based balance of carbon dioxide and oxygen is broken: in burning vast amounts of fossil fuels, we are emitting more carbon dioxide than the plants can absorb. But Morton also explores the possibility that our understanding of photosynthesis might be harnessed to regain that balance.

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