THEY’LL COME EQUIPPED with pocket protectors and a yen to talk quasars—all 3,400 of them, lighting upon the Washington State Convention Center like a meteor shower for the American Astronomical Society’s annual nerd-ference.
The Emerald City hosts the national melding of the stargazing kind every four years. And for five days, starting January 9, astronomers will debate academic papers that sound like a list of rejected band names (“Evolved Stars, Cataclysmic Variables, Novae, Wolf-Rayet Phenomena”) or a sci-fi film for mature audiences (“Stellar Winds, Jets, and Ejecta”).
But the hottest topic this year will likely be the existence (or nonexistence) of a certain celestial body—known as Gliese 581g to astronomers, or “that new planet vaguely mentioned in the newspaper last year” to the rest of us.
A team of California telescope jockeys reported the potentially life-sustaining planet in September 2010. They claimed that the Earth-size rock orbits a star 20.5 light-years from where you’re sitting. The orb’s size and relative distance from its sun would make it the only known planet besides our own with the potential to sustain life.
Not so fast, said University of Washington astronomer and renowned planet hunter Eric Agol. “I think this is possibly an example of scientists being eager to publish results to be the first to make an exciting claim,” explained Agol, who will be presenting a paper of his own at the convention titled, “Discovery and Characterization of Extrasolar Planets.”
The problem, according to Agol and other skeptics—most notably a team of Swiss scientists who’ve punched holes in the California astronomers’ cheese—is that Gliese 581g hasn’t been seen so much as inferred. The discovery of worlds that far away doesn’t involve imaging or other visual observation. Instead scientists look at the planet’s effect on its parent star. The star’s light will wobble due to the planet’s gravity. Or scientists will note periodic dimming, presumably caused by the planet blocking light each time it passes between Earth and the star.
Will there be fierce planetary debate come convention time? You bet. In fact, Agol confessed, he relishes it. “Running into astronomers between talks and talking to them in the hallways is my favorite part.”