A Bit More Detail

Assorted Personal Notations, Essays, and Other Jottings

[BRIEF NOTE] On Kepler-163f, first rocky planet found in a circumstellar habitable zone

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This NASA press release regarding the discovery of exoplanet Kepler-186f, the most potentially Earth-like planet so far discovered, was very widely circulated earlier today. And for good reason.

Using NASA’s Kepler Space Telescope, astronomers have discovered the first Earth-size planet orbiting a star in the “habitable zone” — the range of distance from a star where liquid water might pool on the surface of an orbiting planet. The discovery of Kepler-186f confirms that planets the size of Earth exist in the habitable zone of stars other than our sun.

While planets have previously been found in the habitable zone, they are all at least 40 percent larger in size than Earth and understanding their makeup is challenging. Kepler-186f is more reminiscent of Earth.

[. . .]

Although the size of Kepler-186f is known, its mass and composition are not. Previous research, however, suggests that a planet the size of Kepler-186f is likely to be rocky.

“We know of just one planet where life exists — Earth. When we search for life outside our solar system we focus on finding planets with characteristics that mimic that of Earth,” said Elisa Quintana, research scientist at the SETI Institute at NASA’s Ames Research Center in Moffett Field, Calif., and lead author of the paper published today in the journal Science. “Finding a habitable zone planet comparable to Earth in size is a major step forward.”

[. . .]

Kepler-186f orbits its star once every 130-days and receives one-third the energy from its star that Earth gets from the sun, placing it nearer the outer edge of the habitable zone. On the surface of Kepler-186f, the brightness of its star at high noon is only as bright as our sun appears to us about an hour before sunset.

“Being in the habitable zone does not mean we know this planet is habitable. The temperature on the planet is strongly dependent on what kind of atmosphere the planet has,” said Thomas Barclay, research scientist at the Bay Area Environmental Research Institute at Ames, and co-author of the paper. “Kepler-186f can be thought of as an Earth-cousin rather than an Earth-twin. It has many properties that resemble Earth.”

The discovery paper, “An Earth-Sized Planet in the Habitable Zone of a Cool Star”, is unfortunately gated, but data seems to be consistent. The planet’s star, Kepler-186, a relatively bright red dwarf a bit less than half the mass of our sun, is not very different Lalande 21185, a nearby star itself often suspected of hosting planets.

The Planetary Habitability Laboratory’s press release notes that the world is likely not very Earth-like, in that if it had an Earth-like atmosphere it would be very cold.

Kepler-186f has a similar size to Earth and it is most likely a rocky world. It orbits the M-dwarf star Kepler-186 along with four other inner planets, which are as old as the Solar System (>4 Gyr), in the constellation Cygnus 500 light years away. Kepler-186f receives less stellar flux (~32%) than presently does Mars (~43%). It could have a temperate climate if it has an atmosphere much denser than Earth. Even Earth probably experienced at least one episode of global glaciation with just a slightly lower stellar flux than today, 650 million years ago. However, early Mars had running surface liquid water with a similar stellar flux as Kepler-186f.

Kepler-186f was added to the Habitable Exoplanets Catalog with a low Earth Similarity Index (ESI) of 0.64 due to its potential colder climate. Still, it could be a more Earth-like world if it is experiencing a much higher greenhouse effect than Earth. Nevertheless, Kepler-186f is also the best candidate now of a rocky world in the habitable zone compared to the other known potentially habitable worlds.

Still, this is a remarkable discovery, and an evocative one too. I can imagine a world of cold glacial seas, one side permanently under its reddish sun and the other locked away. What else might be there? Examining the world’s atmosphere for potential signs of life–free oxygen, perhaps–is a must for the next generation of exoplanet researchers.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 18, 2014 at 12:15 am

[PHOTO] Looking west across University at Queen West

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Looking west across University at Queen West

Campbell House, built in 1822 and transported to its current location in 1972, is dwarfed by the Canada Life Building (built 1929-1931) to right and by the much more recent 180 Queen West to left.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 17, 2014 at 11:05 am

[LINK] “Generation Z”

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Seen on my blogroll, science fiction writer Charlie Stross argues that dystopian young adult fiction is so popular because young adults in developed countries are plausibly expecting dystopia in their own futures.

So: low or stagnant income, the services my generation depended on and took for granted will no longer exist or be private monopolies, you either take on a crushing debt burden or consign yourself to unskilled labour for life, the cost of housing is an unsuperable barrier. To that you can add childcare costs: it’s estimated that the cost of day care for one infant is around 70-80% of the average female wage. One ray of hope for Generation Y is rising life expectancy—but by the same token the retirement age is rising, because there’s no way that working for 40 years can cover the costs of education and housing debt and a pension or annuity that will support you for another 25-30 years. Generation Y will probably work until they become too infirm, some time in their late 70s to early 80s, then experience the final 3-5 year period of decline in poor health and poverty if this goes on (because of course we’re talking about the state of the nation between 2060 and 2080).

If you follow this blog you already know my views on how we have created a security panopticon surveillance state the like of which would have given the East German Stasi wet dreams. Generation Y have come of age in this state; to the Millennial generation, East Germany probably looks like a near-utopia. (You have a 90% chance of your phone conversations not being bugged, and the state will pay for your education, housing, and healthcare! What’s not to like?)

There has been a boom market in dystopian young adult fiction over the past decade. There is a reason for this. Play and recreation is an important training mechanism in young mammals by which they practice or rehearse activities that will fit them for later adult life experiences. (It’s also fun, but bear with me while I discuss the more ploddingly puritan angle for a moment.) Could it be that the popularity of YA dystopias reflects the fact that our youngest generation of readers expect to live out their lives in dystopia? (The alternative explanations hold that (a) high school in the age of helicopter parenting, fingerprint readers in the library, and CCTV in the corridors is an authoritarian dystopia anyway, and YA dys-fic helps kids understand their environment; and (b) that worse, their parents (who influence their reading) think this.)

What is to be done? There’s some discussion in the comments about potential individual and societal strategies, for what it’s worth.

Written by Randy McDonald

April 17, 2014 at 3:57 am

[LINK] On the affair of John Waters and homophobia

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Some days ago, Joe. My. God. linked to an interview in the Irish Independent with journalist John Waters. Waters, recently the subject of wide criticism across Ireland and the world for homophobic statements, is unhappy that people aren’t happy with his bigoted statements and are saying so.

“I was walking down the street and a guy on a bicycle shouted ‘you f***ing homophobe’ at me before cycling on. I was in a coffee shop on another occasion and a woman waddled over to me with a pram and told me I should be ashamed of myself before walking off. They are cowards, they shout something and keep walking, they don’t want to engage.

“I was frightened almost in a metaphysical way, that people could be so full of hatred. That, in accusing me of hatred, they could manifest a hatred infinitely greater than anything I could possibly imagine.”

[. . .]

Describing the lowest point, he said it was the realisation that no one would speak out in his defence.

“You have a certain hope that somebody, somewhere knows you for who you are, you kind of have some kind of naive hope that one of these people are going to stand up and say ‘hang on, this is wrong, this is not this guy’ and that moment never came.”

[. . .]

In a passionate interview, Waters also defended previous statements he made on gay marriage and adoption which have landed him in hot water.

Questioning gay adoption, he drew parallels with two brothers taking paternal responsibility of a child.

“If two brothers who love each other in a particular way decide ‘we would like to adopt a child’ this society would regard that as an absurdity, they would laugh them out of court.

“Yet if two men who are involved in a sexual relationship go forward to adopt a child we are told now, that should be okay? I find that really hard to understand, intellectually. Why is it that it is okay but it is not okay for two brothers or two straight men? I think that’s a legitimate point.”

He went on to describe as ‘satirical’ the fight to introduce gay marriage, when the core of the traditional family unit remains so broken.

“There is something fundamentally wrong to go off then and to come up with a peripheral issue, which gay marriage is in my view, and to deal with that first, when the raw bloody core of our family law and our family life in this country . . . that is satire. It is a mockery of reality to actually deal with something so peripheral and marginal, when there is such a wound at the heart of our culture. So I make no apologies for calling it a satire. It is satirical.”

He defended his use of the word ‘buggery’, questioning why anyone would take offence to the term.

“People are selectively finding things offensive to suit themselves. But what is so offensive about the word buggery? I mean it’s a phenomenon, it’s a word to describe a physical function. My definition is anal penetration by men. It is very clear what it means. It is a term to describe a physical function, end of story. Why is it offensive? If the act is not offensive to people, why should the word to describe it be offensive?”

Written by Randy McDonald

April 16, 2014 at 8:02 pm

[BLOG] Some Wednesday links

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  • 3 Quarks Daily asks whether parenthood is morally respectable.
  • blogTO has vintage photos of Toronto’s neighbourhood of Corktown.
  • Centauri Dreams notes that a small moon may be condensing out of Saturn’s Ring A.
  • The Dragon’s Gaze notes evidence that close-orbiting “hot Jupiters” influence their stars.
  • The Dragon’s Tales notes continuing progress in teasing out evidence of Neandertal ancestry from current populations.
  • Joe. My. God. notes that some Muslim cab drivers in Cleveland refuse to drive cabs with signs advertising the upc9oming Gay Games.
  • Lawyers, Guns and Money takes on the minor scandal of Ayaan Hirsi Ali’s non-receipt of a symbolic degree from Brandeis University.
  • Marginal Revolution’s Tyler Cowen seems unduly skeptical about Norway’s program of buying books by local authors for libraries, so as to subsidize literary production.
  • New APPS Blog contrasts the open citizenship of the Roman Republic with the closed citizenship of the Greek city-states, with Carthage being somewhere in between.
  • Towleroad explores continuing controversy around the use of Truvada as an alternative to condoms in HIV/AIDS prevention.
  • Transit Toronto notes the closing of several streets, notably Church Street, in downtown Toronto on the occasion of former Canadian finance minister Jim Flaherty’s funeral.
  • Window on Eurasia notes that contemporary Russians like their country’s open egress to the world and wouldn’t be pleased by transit restrictions, and observes that ethnic Russians in Estonia seem to be mobilizing against Russian annexation.

[PHOTO] Canada Life Building, April 2014

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I took this photo of the Canada Life Building, looking west from the other side of University Avenue, late on Monday. The quality of the light interacting with the stonework was such that I couldn’t resist.

Canada Life Building, April 2014

Written by Randy McDonald

April 16, 2014 at 2:17 pm

[BLOG] Some Monday links

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  • blogTO shares a visual history of the Toronto Islands. (I really will have to get there this year.)
  • At Broadside Blog, Caitlin Kelly draws lessons from the experience of a journalist who literally overworked himself to death. When should people note their limits?
  • The Dragon’s Gaze notes that close-orbiting hot Neptune GJ 436b, even with its comet-like tail produced by heating from its sun, isn’t going to lose its atmosphere.
  • Eastern Approaches notes that Poland’s Donald Tusk is presiding over new military spending inspired by the Ukrainian crisis.
  • The Financial Times‘ The World blog and Eastern Approaches both deal with the international consequences of ongoing Russian involvement in eastern Ukraine, the former calling for broad sanctions.
  • Marginal Revolution wonders if the Russian-majority city of Narva in northeastern Estonia will be the next target of Russia.
  • The Power and the Money’s Noel Maurer discusses the implication of Russian gas price increases for Ukraine.
  • Torontoist notes the impact of CBC’s announced job cuts.
  • Towleroad links to a teaser for the new HBO movie version of The Lonely Heart and reports on Barbra Streisand’s explanation as to why she couldn’t get the movie made.
  • Une heure de peine’s Denis Colombi writes (in French) about the sociology of working hours in France and among the French.
  • Window on Eurasia argues that rising xenophobia in Russia is alienating many non-Russians and reports on one Russia who argues that there isn’t a necessary conflict between liberalism and imperialism.
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