“Our Solar System Is a Bit of a Freak”

(Photo: NASA on The Commons)

In a paper to be published in Astronomy & Astrophysics, researchers say they have found that “Tau Ceti, one of the closest and most Sun-like stars, may host five planets, including one in the star’s habitable zone.”

Very interesting quote from Steve Vogt, a professor of astronomy and astrophysics at UC Santa Cruz, who is one of the paper’s authors:

“We are now beginning to understand that nature seems to overwhelmingly prefer systems that have multiple planets with orbits of less than 100 days. This is quite unlike our own solar system, where there is nothing with an orbit inside that of Mercury. So our solar system is, in some sense, a bit of a freak and not the most typical kind of system that Nature cooks up.”

This is, among other things, a good reminder that the local patterns you are familiar with are not necessarily representative of the broader world (or universe!). It is easy, and tempting, to assume that the politics/family dynamics/fill-in-the-blank that you see around you daily is common elsewhere; but often, it’s simply not.

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  1. Andrew says:

    Surely Steve Vogt is not basing that on just the planets we have already found? since the current method of exoplanet detection is biased towards planets near their stars.

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    • Eric M. Jones. says:

      I too, think it is way to early for such a statement. Even assuming he is right about the stars we have looked at…that’s not a good basis for comparison.

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      • Enter your name... says:

        Considering all the star systems we’ve looked at is a far better basis for comparison than considering only the one that we happen to live in.

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    • rick says:

      One has to look at the detection methods. It is much easier to look for big planets that happen to be in our plane of observation.

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  2. nobody.really says:

    Score another one for the anthropic principle. This is one more thread of evidences in the finely-woven tapestry demonstrating that the universe is guided by a benevolent force.

    Just think about it: In the absence of this benevolence, we likely would have been born on a planet in which our ages would increase at THREE TIMES the pace they do now – or more! Imagine how fat we’d all get eating three times as many birthday cakes. Imagine all the time wasted on buying and wrapping presents. Imagine thinking up three times as many goofy projects to keep kids occupied during those parties. Imagine how sick we’d all be of “Happy Birthday To You.”

    I say, praise God!

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  3. J Ludlam says:

    It’s high time an astronomist said something to make me feel unique. They have a 500 year track record of making me feel increasingly insignificant. I was so sick of it I was about ready to jump on the flat earth bus and insist I am the center of the universe.

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  4. Caleb B says:

    I’ve always wondered, given the vastness of space, intelligent life seems like a given, but given the very, very narrow criteria for life as we know it (let alone intelligent life) it just *might* be the case that we’re unique. I can’t ever decide which.

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    • Eric M. Jones. says:

      Let’s assume there are 15,000,000,000 (fifteen billion) intelligent extraterrestrial civilizations—in the observable universe. Then only one-in-ten large galaxies have even one, and detecting one is probably completely hopeless, or stated another way; and given these numbers–there is a 10:1 probability that we are alone in our galaxy.

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  5. Aye! Ain't it so . . . says:

    1st) Is it that people are intuitively aware that “local patterns you are familiar with are not necessarily representative of the broader world ?” Is that why most people prefer where they live (their neighborhood, their town or city, their country) to some other place? They understand that you can’t get anywhere as close to what you’ve already got anyplace else? And once you’re comfortably situated, it’s just too plain hard to re-learn a new way of life all over again.

    2nd) Protagoras said “Man is the measure of all things: of things which are, that they are, and of things which are not, that they are not”. He did not mean that man should be the measure of the physical universe, or of the entities that manifest themselves ontologically within it, which would have placed man above nature. He meant that the conceptions, the foundations of our judgements, the ideas we originate and test come from our minds and our experience. Little wonder that when we set out to explore other solar systems, we should be comparing and contrasting them to our own home solar system. Our psychology, coupled with our experience, is the basis upon which we start our investigations.

    However, one model of education says that learning is when we can rise to the next higher “logical type” (B. Russell) which encompasses the variations in patterns (behavioral or physical) that we encounter, instead of opposing them against each other (i.e. synthesis instead of antithesis.)

    So, this is how we learn.

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    • James says:

      “Is that why most people prefer where they live (their neighborhood, their town or city, their country) to some other place?”

      I don’t know about that. The US is, after all, a country of immigrants and internal migrants, in which most of us live where we do either because we chose the place, or because of economic opportunity/necessity.

      In my case, I live on the other side of the continent from where I grew up, in a place that shares only a rural nature. Along the way that opportunity/necessity thing had me [s]living[/s] tolerating existence in several cities.

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      • People seem to be "slow" movers . . . says:

        Yes, when people break the ties that bind, it frees them up to make significant and dramatic changes to re-establish themselves in a new locale. But it is not a common occurrence.

        Furthermore, migration patterns seem to be based on real connections rather than feelings conditioned by mispercetions of reality.

        It seems that whenever there is a survey seeking to find the best places to live in the United States, the respondents overwhelmingly say they think their hometown is the best of all possible places. Of course, this is one of those statistical findings that people love to overinterpret (kind of like drawing the wrong conclusions from a finding that most accidents occur within five miles of home and then blaming this on “overfamiliarity”.)

        Following Kahnemann et al, we should say people that the longer people live in a place, the more they are inclined to feel the risks of loss exceed the risks of gain from moving.

        The US census bears this out in that the largest segments of the population to migrate are those in their mid to late twenties (follpwed by those unemployed.) And as these are mostly new households being established, it is not surprising that the majority of moves are intra-county (i.e. not far from their parents.) Only about 40% (give or take about 5%) of the population moves in any five year period and then 55-60% of these people move within their county, and another 20% only move to an adjoining county.

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