You probably heard about the discovery of Gilese 581g this week, a rocky planet that appears to be the most Earth-like body ever found. It could be the right temperature. It could have water. Everywhere on Earth with the right temperature and liquid water has life. Put those three facts together and you've got... LIFE! Extraterrestrial life, that is.
It was certainly an exciting milestone in the study of exoplanets, but Lee Billings at SEED explains that science fiction hopes might have gotten a little bit ahead of the science itself.
In contrast, with only three to four times the mass of Earth, Gliese 581g is probably mostly made of rock, and is at the proper distance from its star to have lakes, seas, even oceans of water upon its surface. If confirmed by follow-up observations, Gliese 581g will be the most promising potentially habitable planet discovered so far. From Roswell saucer-heads to eminences of the astronomical community, the newly discovered planet is the stuff that dreams are made of--at least until something better comes along.
If all this was fuel for a wildfire of speculation, then a statement from Vogt was the spark that lit the blaze. At a press conference organized by the National Science Foundation, Vogt was careful to note that he was an astronomer, not a biologist, but then said he thought that "the chances for life on this planet are 100 percent." Another leader of the discovery team, Paul Butler of the Carnegie Institution in Washington, quickly backpedaled onto firmer ground, reiterating that solid data indicates "the planet is the right distance from the star to have water and the right mass to hold an atmosphere." Nevertheless, Vogt's "100 percent" quote has caught fire around the world, leaping from the understory of news articles into the canopy of blog postings, with Twitter updates and Facebook groups forming a self-feeding firestorm. Some researchers bask in the sudden heat and light, throwing on the occasional log; others run for buckets and hoses.
In all likelihood, a sizable chunk of people now believe that Gliese 581g is a place quite like Earth, and that astronomers will soon confirm life's presence there, if they have not already. Unfortunately, this belief is almost entirely wrong. On the bright side, the truth is much more interesting, though it may now be only a candle in a conflagration.