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Kepler – after the storm

If you’ve any interest in astronomy and space at all  – and I’m guessing you do, because, well, you’re here, reading an astronomy blog (unless you were lured here accidentally after Googling for Dr Who or Katherine Jenkins, in which case, sorry! Go Home! 🙂  ) – then you’re probably aware that there’s been something of a “situation” this past week, involving one of the Kepler mission’s scientists and the Kepler data.

To cut a very long story short, one of the Co-Investigators of the Kepler mission, Dimitar Sasselov, gave a public lecture last week – which has been available to watch online – in which he appeared to claim, both on an illustrative Powerpoint slide, and in his commentary itself, that Kepler had found “hundreds of Earth-like planets”…

Great news, eh?!?!?! FINALLY! The Holy Grail of science had been found, picked up and held up to the Sun – !

Actually, er, no. Not quite.

The problem is, to a scientist like Dimitar, “Earth-like” simply and quite innocently refers to size and composition; it’s scientist shorthand for “small and rocky”, nothing more. But this element of the lecture was, inevitably, picked up by the mass media, and by many space enthusiasts and bloggers too. They ran with it, and, adding two and two to get fifty, some wrote breathlessly excited articles and posts suggesting Dimitar was saying – maybe even without permission from his bosses – that Kepler had proof that “out there” is teeming with planets just like our own, i.e. with life.

Before they knew it the Kepler team were being besieged, accused of selfishly keeping details of the most sensational science story ever to themselves. Subsequent attempts by Kepler scientists and NASA to clarify the situation seem to have poured petrol on the fire, and things are getting a bit nasty now, with certain high profile bloggers making personal attacks on Kepler team members and the project itself. 

As Sam used to say at the start of every “Quantum Leap”… Oh Boy…

You can’t help but feel sorry for poor Dimitar. He gave a great lecture, a fascinating lecture, but it all went wrong when he referred to “Earth-like worlds”. Let’s be absolutely clear: he wasn’t suggesting for a moment that Kepler had found worlds exactly like our own – i.e. warm, wet and covered with life – he was just referring to the physical dimensions and composition of some of the planetary candidates Kepler has detected. But that’s a distinction only immediately obvious to planetary scientists like himself. The media picked up on the key-phrase “Earth-like” and that was it; Kepler had found copies of Earth out there in space, fact, a Kepler scientist had said so. In public. End of story. 


This whole mess is a very human one, a simple misunderstanding, a simple bad choice of words, and as such it is totally understandable, and totally forgiveable – but, to be brutally honest, and I say this as a fervent and passionate supporter of the Kepler mission and its scientists, it was totally avoidable.

How? Simple. No, actually it’s slap-across-the-face-obvious simple. Some who love nothing better than slagging off NASA at any opportunity, commentators, picking up their flaming cyber-torches and pitchforks, are calling for Dimitar to be banned from speaking in public again after his “gaffe”, which is stupid and little more than grandstanding on their part. No-one was too surprised. It was expected, actually. Sad, but expected.

But they’re partly right: something should be banned, should be banned right now, immediately – the stupid, incredibly misleading bloody term “Earth-like”. There should be no debate, no discussion, no argument. It confuses the public, whips the media up into a frenzy, and makes scientists who use it look and sound like bloody idiots.

In case this confuses you, too, here’s your handy, free, Cumbrian Sky cut-out-and-keep guide showing the difference between “Earth-Sized” and “Earth-Like”…

No Kepler scientist should ever, EVER use the term “Earth-like” again.

Because, let’s be honest here, while scientists might hear a world described as being “Earth-like” and know that refers to its size, and its maybe its orbit too, most people “out there” reading or hearing a planet described as being “Earth-like” will conjure up an image in their mind of a world boasting crystal blue skies and roaring oceans, with fluffy, bleary-eyed kittens stretching in their sleep in butterfly-filled meadows. To non-scientists, “Earth-like” means “just like Earth”, in EVERY way, because saying anything is “like” something else instantly suggests to most people that the two things are EXACTLY alike. And this is exactly why the use of the term “Earth-like” should be banned, right now, today, by Kepler and NASA. The term should be kept in a safe and only broken out when we find a world that truly is “Earth-like”, i.e. in terms of size, orbit, and habitability.

As the Kepler team have said time and time again, Kepler wasn’t designed to find proof of such a world, it literally CAN’T find proof that any of its candidate planets are really “Earth-like” in the true sense. That amazing discovery will have to wait for another time, another mission – perhaps another generation. But it will come, one day, that’s for sure. And when it does, it will be made by people inspired by Kepler’s mission, and using Kepler data, which is why I am such a huge supporter of the Kepler team, and proud to say so.

But does this matter, really? Isn’t this all just a storm in a cosmic teacup?

Well, yes, I think it does matter..

I think it matters because “Is there Life Out There?” is the biggest question in the whole of science, it’s the greatest mystery known to Mankind. It nags away at us like an aching tooth. We look up at the sky on a clear and starry night and can’t stop ourselves from thinking “Are We Alone?”. Kepler won’t answer that question, it can’t, but its data and results will ultimately help others to answer it, and the people working on it know that, and are determined to do their best.

I think it matters because this is one of the defining moments in our species’ history. We are standing on the threshold of a bold, shining new age, an age when we can go outside on a clear night, stand in our gardens, or a park, or on top of a hill, gaze up at a star-spattered sky and know, for a fact, that that star has planets the same size as Earth going around it. We’re possibly just months or even weeks away from NASA announcing that they have absolutely definitely honest-Injun found worlds the same size as Earth whirling around some of the distant suns that burn in our sky.  That’s an amazing thing, a brain-meltingly fantastic thing! And the only discovery more amazing, more brain-meltingly fantastic – short of the detection of an actual alien radio transmission – will be the discovery of a truly “Earth-like world”, with its own oceans and rivers, snow-capped mountains, and continents… and signs of life on its surface.

Contrary to what many people seem to think, Kepler isn’t scanning the sky looking for aliens, or even planets where aliens live. But there’s a grain of truth in that misconception. Kepler might actually be taking Mankind’s first, faltering baby steps towards making our long-awaited First Contact… 

Because, if and when we eventually build a real “Enterprise”, she will almost certainly fly away from Earth with her nose pointed towards Kepler’s crazy-paving field of view, and will travel, at top speed – however slow that is! – to the “strange, new worlds” orbiting the dust mote stars within it.

Yes, I believe Kepler really is that important. I truly believe that, in centuries’ time, when the first starships leave Earth, they will in all probability head for extrasolar planets found by Kepler. When they eventually slide into orbit around those faraway fairytale worlds, their crews will look down on the planets’ mountains, canyons and seas and realize they’re only there because of Kepler.

That’s a helluva responsibility, isn’t it? Which is why the Kepler team deserve support, encouragement and understanding now, instead of sniping, condemnation and nasty, snide attacks. Yes, the “Dimitar Thing” was a mess, a horrible mess brought about by the somewhat sloppy use of unexplained scientific language, but it’s no reason to attack the Kepler team or its mission, and those attacks should stop. Now.

The Kepler team and NASA have moved to try and explain this, with blog posts and  press releases etc, and the flames do appear to be dying down somewhat today. I really hope the damage limitation exercise works, and the Kepler team can all get back to crunching their data. But I also hope they’ve learned a lesson from this, namely that the press see scientists as fresh, juicy meat now. Scientists involved in “big science” (Kepler, LHC, etc) are like the gazelles in one of those nature documentaries, all milling about peacefully, happily chomping on their grass, totally unaware that there are lions, leopards and hyenas watching them from the undergrowth, just waiting for one of them to wander away from the others by saying something dramatic or off-message and then they’ll be on them, and take them down in a cloud of dust and flurry of limbs. So I hope the Kepler team take a good deep breath after this. I hope this brings them together and makes them stronger, makes them work more closely together and look out for each other. Most of all, I hope it makes them be more careful, and keep an eye on the undergrowth, because the predators definitely have their scent now.

The bottom line here is that, having dodged a bullet, the Kepler team have to go away now and re-think how they’re going to communicate the aims and eventual successes of their mission, too. They have to get this right from now on, they have to handle their data properly, and release their discoveries and findings clearly and without spin or confusion. That would ensure there are no more misunderstandings, and it’s essential, because the alternative is for the media and the public to start thinking of the Kepler mission as an orbiting LHC, i.e. a hugely expensive plaything for a bunch of geeky scientists.

Nothing could be further from the truth, of course, but it’s not an exaggeration to say that the public are getting rather sick and weary of scientists making exciting, bold claims, only to have to backtrack and take back what they said, so this has to be done right. There’ll be no second chance with this. The Kepler team, in looking for planets the same size as Earth, are writing the pages of history – and there’ll be no chance of going back, rubbing out what they wrote and starting again.

Because, in a thousand years’ time, when kids are going to school on worlds found by Kepler, worlds orbiting some of those alien suns we see shining like specks of diamond dust between Vega and Deneb, their teachers will tell them, proudly, and with respect and not a little awe, how their beautiful Homeworlds were discovered – by an amazing machine called Kepler, and by an amazing team of amazing men and women who panned its data and found nuggets of wonder glistening and glinting amidst all the dirt and slurry.

For those kids’ sakes, and for our own, so that our pioneering generation is thought of with respect and awe by the people of the deep future, and not embarrassment or even anger, we should make absolutely damn sure there are no more media feeding frenzies like this due to the well-intentioned but badly misjudged use of a term, or word.

And they can do that by ensuring that the language of Kepler – at least, the language used in public – is easy to understand by everyone: they should junk terms like “Super Jupiter”, which are ridiculously imprecise and vague and have no real meaning to the public. They just confuse everyone. And everyone talking/lecturing about Kepler data in public must *absolutely* not make any bold claims or statements re Earth analog planets that could be misinterpreted. It’s Back to basics time, guys, because the whole world is watching you, desperate to hear The Biggest News Ever. Because, make no mistake, the discovery of a genuine “Earth like planet” will revolutionise our view of the universe and our place in it. Mankind will only be at this point in its history once, THIS once; it shouldn’t be ruined or corrupted by an over-dramatic Powerpoint slide or sloppy use of language. History would, rightly, never forgive us.

So, Kepler guys and girls, please, PLEASE let’s drop “Earth-like” and go straight for the does-what-it-says-on-the-tin “Earth-sized” instead. Simple.

And by the way, if you start messing about with terms like “Hot Earth”, I will personally get on a plane, travel to Kepler HQ, line you all up and give you all a Benny Hill slap about the head with a rolled up copy of SKY & TELESCOPE, because people reading or hearing the term “Hot Earth” will think of a cuddly, Earth-sized jungle planet, or a so-humid-your-shirt-clings-to-your-back rainforest planet inhabited by sweaty Ewoks.

So, chins ups, Kepler team. The storm has passed, I think. You’re doing a fantastic job, and there are legions of supporters out here on your side. We know you’re not hoarding data. We know you’re not arrogant, or having fun with our money. We know you’re dedicated to pushing back the frontiers of science, and expanding our horizons. So, while others snipe and sneer, ignore them. Those that can, do; those that can’t, well, they attack those that can. Remember: you’re our Enterprise, our starship of the imagination exploring the Great Dark on our behalf. So, turn your eyes to the stars again. Magical worlds await discovery there…!

Note: the original version of this post appeared on the “Beyond The Cradle” blog