Monday, October 03, 2011

Now You See It

So I went on holiday again, this time to St Ives, Cornwall (1950s seaside ambience enhanced by its dinky branch-line, but with C21 food, and a fractal coast walk from Zennor I thoroughly recommend).  And now I'm working on a new draft of the next novel, and at any moment the proofs for In the Mouth of the Whale will arrive. My last chance to go through the text and remove anything unsightly.

Which reminds me about the recent ministorm about whether or not Fomalhaut b, the Jupiter-sized exoplanet imaged by the Hubble Telescope, a few years ago, actually exists. Scientists were able to trace Fomalhaut b's orbit from Hubble Telescope images from 2004 and 2008.  Now, new data seems to show that Fomalhaut b isn't where it should be, at the inner edge of the dust ring (where, supposedly, it is sweeping the edge clean and giving it the sharp profile that suggested the presence of a planet before Fomalhaut b was imaged), but seems to have wandered into the edge of the ring. One astronomer, Ray Jayawardhana, suggests this proves Fomalhaut b is an artifact; another, Paul Kallas, the lead investigator of the team which first identified Fomalhaut b, suggests it's due to use of a different Hubble imaging system, after the one that took the 2004 and 2008 images failed, something sort of backed up by a third astronomer, Christian Marois, who points out that since Fomalhaut b has an orbit with a period of some 800 years, it's highly unlikely that it would throw a substantial deviation so soon after it was discovered.

Jayawardhana and Kallas have a history of rivalry, but that won't determine the existence or otherwise of Fomalhaut b; only more measurements will. How different science would be if scientific truths were determined by force of will; it would be like . . . magic.
I have some small interest in this. Part of In the Mouth of the Whale is set in the inner edge of Fomalhaut's ring of dust; part of it is set on a ringed, Jupiter-sized gas giant just inside that inner edge. If Fomalhaut b turns out not to exist, then I guess I'll have to suggest that another planet just like it does, only we haven't discovered it yet. Meanwhile, as the very good report about the kerfuffle in Nature concludes:

For its part, Fomalhaut b seems to know what it's doing, even if no one else does.


Anonymous Pat said...

I haven't yet seen the suggestion that the recent sighting is another planet, which seems the most obvious explanation.

October 06, 2011 10:48 am  

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