History Lessons

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In my Planets and Planetary System Formation class, we have been discussing methods of exoplanet detection. My professor brought up a paper written by Otto Struve. It was published in The Observatory in October 1952 - 50 years ago from this month. I am unfamiliar with this man's work, but he had proposed "A Project of High-Precision Stellar Radial Velocity Work." As my professor scrolled through the PDF, he summarized Struve's points. 

Struve argued that we can detect planets larger than Jupiter around other stars with the Doppler effect, a basic principle used in today's radial velocity technique. He argued that there is no reason why these planets cannot be a lot closer to their host stars than Jupiter is to the Sun, that their periods can be 1 day. Plenty of Jupiter-mass planets have been found so far, orbiting so close to their stars that their orbits are only a few days long, making their surface temperatures high and giving them the name "hot Jupiters." Then, Struve writes, "There would, of course, also be eclipses." Those, of course, would be transits. 

I was actually on the edge of my seat, thoroughly impressed. History was never a strong subject of mine, but more and more, I'm appreciating scientific history. Because of my astrobiology class, as we began our unit on the ancient Earth and brought back scenes from my previous geoscience courses, I'm also more confident that I like history investigated by science. We discussed the proposed impact on Earth that formed the moon 4.51 billion years ago. At that instant, a series of questions raced through my mind that must have come up in the minds of those who found the answers that I saw on the powerpoint presentation. How did the moon form? Why is there an atmosphere? And when the picture of early Earth appeared, I realized that - obviously - the Earth didn't have the familiar green continents. Plants must have had an origin; when was this and how did plants rise? 

29 hadean earth.jpg
Source - NASA/JPL

It was a thrilling chain of questions, the answers to which I once found ordinary. So many things we know about today began with a question. Some chose to use science to seek an explanation. A conclusion seems to be that there was a vast, rich history of the universe that we played no part in. History lessons given by science seem to reinforce the fact that our existence is rather insignificant. But I prefer to think of it as humbling. 

The opportunity that we have to learn about this history is so precious, wouldn't you agree?

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I love scientific history (and also history of science)! It is such an interesting way of approaching history.

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