Goldilocks in space: Interview with Lee Billings about the hunt for aliens and habitable planets

Are we alone in the Universe? Last year, journalist Lee Billings wrote an excellent series of guest posts for BoingBoing about the quest to answer that question. One of those posts — Incredible Journey: Can we reach the stars without breaking the bank? — was recently reprinted in The Best Science Writing Online 2012.

As part of the publication of that anthology, journalist Steve Silberman interviewed Lee about space, the final frontier, and the voyages of starships (both the ones that already exist and the ones we imagine and hope for).

Silberman: Several times a year now, we hear about the discovery of a new exoplanet in the “Goldilocks zone” that could “potentially support life.” For example, soon after he helped discover Gliese 581g, astronomer Steven Vogt sparked a storm of media hype by claiming that “the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent.” Even setting aside the fact that the excitement of discovering a planet in the habitable zone understandably seems to have gone to Vogt’s head at that press conference, why are such calculations of the probability of life harder to perform accurately than they seem?

Billings: The question of habitability is a second-order consideration when it comes to Gliese 581g, and that fact in itself reveals where so much of this uncertainty comes from. As of right now, the most interesting thing about the “discovery” of Gliese 581g is that not everyone is convinced the planet actually exists. That’s basically because this particular detection is very much indirect — the planet’s existence is being inferred from periodic meter-per-second shifts in the position of its host star. The period of that shift corresponds to the planet’s orbit as it whips from one side of the star to the other; the meter-per-second magnitude of the shift places a lower limit on the planet’s mass, but can’t pin down the mass exactly. So that’s all this detection gives you — an orbit and a minimum mass. That’s not a lot to go on in determining what a planet’s environment might actually be like, is it?

Read the full interview at Steve Silberman's Neurotribes blog

Buy the anthology The Best Science Writing Online 2012, featuring amazing stories from all around the Internets

Boing Boing featured in anthology of best science writing on the Web

I am very pleased to announce that two BoingBoing posts made it into The Open Laboratory 2012, an anthology of the best science writing on the Internet.

The first was written by Lee Billings, an excellent guest blogger we hosted back in February. Lee wrote a lot of great posts about Kepler and the hunt for exoplanets and deserves huge kudos. Incredible Journey: Can We Reach the Stars Without Breaking the Bank? is the one that will be in the anthology.

Today, the fastest humans on Earth and in history are three elderly Americans, all of whom Usain Bolt could demolish in a footrace. They're the astronauts of Apollo 10, who in 1969 re-entered the Earth's atmosphere at a velocity of 39,897 kph upon their return from the Moon. At that speed you could get from New York to Los Angeles in less than six minutes. Seven years after Apollo 10, we hurled a probe called Helios II into an orbit that sends it swinging blisteringly deep into the Sun's gravity well. At its point of closest approach, the probe travels at almost 253,000 kph—the fastest speed yet attained by a manmade object. The fastest outgoing object, Voyager I, launched the year after Helios II. It's now almost 17 billion kilometers away, and travels another 17 kilometers further away each and every second. If it were headed toward Alpha Centauri (it's not), it wouldn't arrive for more than 70,000 years. Even then, it wouldn't be able to slow down. Of the nearest 500 stars scattered like sand around our own, most would require hundreds of thousands of years (or more) to reach with current technology.

Our second post is one of mine: Nuclear Energy 101: Inside the Black Box of Nuclear Power Plants. It's from our Fukushima coverage, and was published on March 12, a day after the nuclear reactors in Fukushima were damaged by an earthquake and tsunami.

For the vast majority of people, nuclear power is a black box technology. Radioactive stuff goes in. Electricity (and nuclear waste) comes out. Somewhere in there, we're aware that explosions and meltdowns can happen. Ninety-nine percent of the time, that set of information is enough to get by on. But, then, an emergency like this happens and, suddenly, keeping up-to-date on the news feels like you've walked in on the middle of a movie. Nobody pauses to catch you up on all the stuff you missed. As I write this, it's still not clear how bad, or how big, the problems at the Fukushima Daiichi power plant will be. I don't know enough to speculate on that. I'm not sure anyone does. But I can give you a clearer picture of what's inside the black box. That way, whatever happens at Fukushima, you'll understand why it's happening, and what it means.

Thanks to Open Laboratory editors Bora Zivkovic and Jennifer Ouellette. BoingBoing is honored to be included, and we're doubly happy to see the fine work of our guest bloggers recognized!

You can read all the posts that were selected. In fact, you should read them. They represent some truly wonderful work by journalists, scientists, and bloggers. Here's a link to the full list.