Hitting the fan

Let me throw a hypothetical situation at you. Suppose you have a blogger and journalist, who has a mission to eradicate childish attacks and disrespectful behavior from public figures. All well and good, except that this blogger is having a bit of difficulty finding the behavior he insists is rampant. Among his targets are two prominent and outspoken public figures who, despite accusations, deal with the issues and not things like ad hominem attacks.

Then, lo and behold, a commenter appears on blogger/journalist’s (hereinafter “BJ”) site and relates a story showing how childish and disrespectful attacks really do happen. The story is all by itself, relates no checkable facts, and sounds a bit over-the-top even for fiction. But it supports the BJ’s assertions, so rather than being an anecdote, it now becomes evidence. So much so, apparently, that BJ creates a whole new post highlighting this particular story, specifically labeling it as evidence.

But, there’s a catch. Through the course of events, the commenter and his story have turned out to be totally false – complete fabrications, confessed by none other than the commenter himself.

Further, it appears (again through confession) that many of the other commenters who chimed in with support for the story and the BJ’s standpoint itself, were actually the very same guy masquerading under multiple names – in internet slang, this is called sock puppetry. Even further, the fraudulent commenter maintained his own blog, specifically for the purpose of addressing those childish and disrespectful attacks, that was populated almost entirely by sock puppets of himself.

Now remember, we have BJ, who champions reasonable and respectful discourse, and we have the public targets of his attention, who are clearly nasty, brutish, and short-tempered.

So, now the questions. Who do you think performed research, contacted witnesses and companions, and laid all the evidence out for the world to see, while refusing to reveal the actual name of the sock puppet because of the potential of retaliation?

And who dodged the evidence, never admitted to fault, never fact-checked, and even, while being on one of the most prominent and advanced blog networks, missed the evidence of the sock puppet in the first place? And who continues to deny that he has actually no evidence whatsoever for his accusations, now that the source of his only anecdote has dried up and turned out to be a pathological liar? Who also banned and deleted comments from his blog that pointed out his errors, while allowing baseless accusations of lying from the sock puppet to remain? [Edit: Initially, I had attributed a specific epithet to the blog in question here, but have since discovered it was made on the sock puppet’s independent blog and thus not subject to the BJ’s moderation efforts. If that sounds confusing, suffice to say that I just deleted an incorrect attribution.]

Oh, I forgot one little detail: the BJ is getting paid by a notorious religious organization, and his targets are working, published scientists. Whoops, they’re also immoral atheists! Can’t forget that little tidbit.

Kudos to Jerry Coyne at Why Evolution Is True for handling the real research behind this – the comments on that thread, by the way, demonstrate just how mean, nasty and vindictive atheists are. If that wasn’t enough proof, PZ Myers at Pharyngula provides just a wee bit more evidence from his own commenters. Most especially, watch how the supporters of the BJ get taken apart on their bullshit, methodically, rationally, and without resorting to name calling.

And piles of shit on Chris Mooney, the supposed “journalist” who failed to perform even rudimentary research, still has no evidence to back his assertions, has weakly admitted he got taken but not that he never should have in the first place, and most egregiously, after seeing the confession of total fabrication from the commenter, demonstrates he has gall where his brains should be in stating that it still might be based in real life.

Science is based on evidence, and one of the key portions of the process is taking steps to eradicate the possibility of confirmation bias. If you continue to assert without evidence to support your point, and in the face of evidence to the contrary refuse to even recognize that you may be on the wrong track, that’s denial and delusion, the stuff crackpots are made of. Chris Mooney needs to be removed from Discover Blogs and any science advocacy whatsoever.

Last night

Just a few shots from last night as an active but small thunderstorm cell passed quickly through the area. I had actually gone out on errands after the storm, seemingly insignificant, passed my area, and drove directly into a seething thunderhead. Had to go back to get my cameras and ended up missing the best part of the storm.

The foreground is “okay,” not ideal, but you can’t direct the storms where you want them. My area actually has few locations with a good view of the horizon, and using gaps in trees works terribly – lightning is rarely so obliging to stay in the gap. The cell was moving away from me, bearing right a little, but the most distinct flashes were to the left side of the frame. To the right, however, was the full moon that rapidly got covered by clouds – the glowing edge you see at top right comes from the moon hidden only minutes before.

I fired off 48 frames, trying to balance the traffic and the lightning strikes, and got only a few usable images – that’s how it goes. Some can be cropped tighter, like below. Some have squiggly little bolts like a child got their hands on a fine-tip white marker, which is not what you want from storm shots. To get the number of useful frames that I did actually means it was a successful night, and I’m cool with it.

What does it mean?!

Anyone who has ever spent time in a discussion about religion and lack thereof, or even about the value of the scientific approach, has come up against the argument of “meaning.” “But if we live in a random, uncaused universe,” comes the plaintive cry, “then life has no meaning.”

This is a curious statement. After all, the search for the meaning of life has been going on for thousands of years, so it doesn’t really appear that the lack of this is slowing anyone down. If anything, it seems to be a background quest, though I have a hard time calling it that, since I’ve seen very few people actually looking for it in the first place. Those that have told me they’ve found it usually say it’s “spreading the word of god” or something similar. Ignoring the point that finding someone who hasn’t yet heard this word would mean they should be cutting through jungles somewhere, I haven’t really seen these people living out the meaning they’ve found, any more than anyone else. It’s also curious that this simple meaning hasn’t answered that question for so many other people.

Returning the the original reaction, though, we have to wonder why people seem distraught over “losing” something that they never had. It’s obviously not the meaning itself, but the idea that there is one that people are settling for. And when you get down to that concept, you tumble to the possibility that this desire for a cause, purpose, or simple answer is the key factor. It shouldn’t be surprising that we operate from a “cause and effect” standpoint, but we want to substitute “intent” for “cause.” The leaf falls from the tree due mostly to gravity – that’s cause. If we’re talking about ourselves, however, we seem to want there to be something more, a goal or intention to our existence. We don’t concern ourselves with the meaning behind trees or the moon; we don’t have an issue with these simply existing. We just can’t apply this to ourselves.

There’s an interesting dichotomy to all this, though. We also retain a firm belief in free will, and while not mutually exclusive, the dividing line between meaning, as in a purpose, and the ability to pursue our own agendas or desires can become very muddy. You will find people getting just as distraught over the thought that free will may not exist. This comes up in at least two concepts: the deterministic one, which states that all physical aspects that influence our lives, from seemingly random events down to the reactions in our brains, can be traced back to predictable atomic behavior; and the predestination one, which can be similar but also applies to scenarios where an omniscient being has planned the entire universe.

Both of these come with their own baggage, and amusingly enough, it’s the same baggage. Both the disordered universe scenario, where free will can exist, and the (pre)deterministic where it does not, directly relate to nihilism, the philosophical state of life without meaning or purpose. Depressing, yes?

Except that it misses one simple thing: meaning, purpose, depression and love and humor and even green, are all human constructs. None of them have meaning in the vast universe we inhabit. The fact that this evokes any kind of emotion in us indicates that these concepts do have meaning to us. Our brains have certain demands, and these are but a few of them. There’s actually nothing wrong with that. We are not masters of the universe, but we are human beings, and can be happy with that. Can’t we?

Meaning is a strictly personal thing. So, maintain whatever meaning you like. The lack of a universal direction actually provides the ultimate in free will – do whatever the hell pleases you, go in the direction you think is best. This begins to sound like hedonism, the concept of pursuing only that which gives us pleasure, but this is badly misunderstood. Of course we do, as a moment’s thought will demonstrate – we just don’t always do it from an immediate gratification standpoint. The kicker here is, some of the things that give us pleasure are not selfish in any way, but contribute towards the social apparatus of human beings as a whole: cooperation, empathy, charity, fairness, and so on. If you want to spread god’s word, go for it (I have my doubts you can determine what this actually is without inserting your own personal biases, but whatever.) If you want to teach wood shop, have at it! The universe is not going to stop you in any way.

It’s still subverted by the idea that our contribution to the universe is infinitesimal. A thousand years from now, ten thousand, will things be any different because of us? Well, no. And yes. We aren’t going to have any decent impact on anything sizable, and evidence of our existence will vanish quickly. We’re only affected by this because we allowed ourselves to think otherwise, and again, this is probably a by-product of our peculiar brain makeup. Have you ever found yourself saddened by the thought that the rabbit in the woods will leave no mark on the universe? No, we don’t concern ourselves with that, do we? Just our own impact, in our hubris. Get over it.

Let’s not forget the “yes” part above, either. The very fact of our existence is having impact, in the usage of energy and catalyzing of chemicals. This isn’t huge, mind you, but it’s the same as the tiny atomic processes in your body – it adds up. You can have a greater impact if you want, by producing some change in the human species, even on a small scale. Leave a legacy of some kind, be remembered for something, help someone’s life be better in some way. If you look at this from the standpoint of most other living species on our planet, you have a remarkable ability – the tree can do little to change its environment or help other trees, the kinkajou is unlikely to be remembered by other kinkajous in any way. Our brains lend us some interesting possibilities – as long as we don’t let them bog us down with the pursuit of, or despair over, something incredibly vain like ultimate meaning and purpose.

When you step back and look at it in this way, you’ll probably find something interesting: this was all you ever wanted in the first place. A little recognition, a little justification, a little impact, a little legacy. Did we really expect to wield some kind of universe-changing power? Of course not – all we want is to interact with other humans in a positive manner. The nature of the universe changes this in no way whatsoever. Pick your purpose and run with it.

I have to insert some endthoughts here, because this little essay produced some ideas that I think bear closer examination. Nihilism, for instance, was shown to be pointless in definition – it actually only has impact if an individual chooses to avoid defining their own purpose. Hedonism, another philosophy with a bad rap, turns out to be something we all engage in routinely. And while they can almost be considered opposite sides of the coin, both can spring from the “lack of meaning.” Isn’t that a hoot?

But the message that has come up repeatedly in just this short space is how we can be influenced by what is nothing more than a conceit of the mind. Practically everything I’ve talked about here is a damaged concept that doesn’t really have application to the world as we know it, and instead of being born from evidence of their existence, they were created from emotional reactions within our minds. Even worse, the emphasis placed on some of these lend them a legitimacy that isn’t deserved, which is one of the reasons why I push critical thought. A few hundred years of philosophers isn’t proof against starting with a bad premise.

And finally, a return to that plaintive cry from the beginning. Surprisingly few people, when faced with a discovery they don’t personally like such as “the universe has no meaning,” ever stop to think that it must always have been this way, even before they knew about it, and this did not affect their life then. The issue is not reality at all, it’s the willingness to accept it.

Groovy!

I found this little bugger sitting on a shirt I’d left outside near a light. This is an Ailanthus Webworm Moth (Atteva punctella) and my lighting here doesn’t do it justice, since the colors, in bright sunlight, are iridescent and the dark patches are actually navy blue. The reason you’re not seeing it here is that bright sunlight also makes them wander quickly out of focus range before flying off.

The patterns on this moth evolved in the 1960s in order for it to blend in with the flower patterns common in the hippie counterculture, because the moth feeds on marijuana and hashish leaves. It flies quite erratically (obviously), congregates around colored or black lights but occasionally likes strobes, and seems to have a compulsion for sitar music.

You’re not buying that, are you? In truth, the coloring is believed to be aposematic, one of those sciencey words that’s easier (so I’m told) than saying, “warning coloration.” Seen in many species, including insects like wasps and reptiles like poison-arrow frogs, the idea is that bright colors means the species is unpalatable or dangerous. The funny thing about this is, it relies on a very large number of other species having the instinct to shy away from bright colors.

Except, so it would appear, humans. We like bright colors, kids especially, and are attracted to touch them – not a particularly useful trait where frogs with poisonous skin secretions live, but this probably developed long before humans got themselves down to South America. The question is why (not why South America, because it’s a neat place, but why the attraction to colors)?

Okay, that was supposed to be a lead-in to some interesting information about color and the brain, but it failed. I actually haven’t been able to find why it is that we respond to colors. There’s lots of info out there about what colors we respond to and what emotional response they evoke, and it’s easy to speculate. For instance, brighter colors mean ripest fruit, healthiest plants, and healthiest animals, so good for finding food. A flushing response in someone’s complexion often indicates increased blood pressure, and provided this isn’t accompanied by yelling, this can be a sign of attraction. But then there are the anachronisms, like birds. Birds are attracted to bright colors from potential mates, and can actually see a much greater, richer range than we can – and at the same time, they’re the ones most likely to eat my little friend up there, so also most likely to see bright colors as the keepaway signal. So there’s something more there than meets the eye (I’m shameless, I know.)

And as a side question, other predators of insects are bats, which presumably wouldn’t see the aposematic colors in most situations (bats can see just fine, but hunt in the dark.) So is there some other kind of signal that insects might utilize to warn off bats, or do they perhaps have an active mechanism to escape their clutches, like sensitivity to the frequencies bats use to find their prey (which might be difficult without ears) that lets them dodge?

Other questions abound, such as why we respond so dramatically to sunset colors and rainbows, and as I type this the thought occurs that this may be overstimulation, the combined response to all of the individual colors that produce their own particular emotional response.

Now I’m intrigued, and am going to attempt to follow up on some of these lines of thought. Watch for further updates.

The shadow knows…

And then the rains came

After a long period of ridiculously hot weather with only mild breaks, the storm front rolled in this evening right at sundown. I have to admit that, even after living in Florida, I have never driven in rain that fierce before. We needed it badly, but spreading it out a bit would have been much better, you know?

Lots of critters are going to be very happy with all this, but the first to show their appreciation have been the frogs. Even as I type this, the dude above is still calling from its perch in a tree alongside my driveway, and I took the one below only minutes ago. Getting these images required getting soaked, and having quite a difficult time in trying to keep the camera dry enough – the Common Grey Treefrog (Hyla chrysoscelis) at top proved to be the toughest. Not because it wasn’t holding still or in a bad position – actually it was extremely cooperative. Rather, it was pouring like mad when I was trying for this image, and the camera viewfinder and lens continued to either fog up or get fouled with water drops as I attempted to focus by flashlight. Fun!

The capture below has been tough to identify, mostly because I’ve never developed the habit of keeping my photo subjects until I can positively identify them, but instead let them go their merry way. Which means I can’t check belly markings or length of webbing on hind feet. So for now, I’m just going to say this is a juvenile Crawfish Frog (Rana areolata) with the possibility it’s the Carolina subspecies. This one was less cooperative, but once it had gotten to a shallow puddle it hunkered down and pretended to be submerged. It had moved on when I came back out (in the rain, again) to try and see the other markings – yes, I agree, that was quite rude.

And right this second, I think I have another calling on the window to my right, on the deck…

Making light work

Just a peek at one of the male hummingbirds that visit my feeder. I still haven’t set up some natural feeder plants for a better prop than my plastic feeder – it’s been low on the priority list.

No, this wasn’t taken at night – this actually shows the nature of photographing some types of subjects. In order to try for some sharpness on a fast moving and jittery subject like a hummingbird, I was shooting at 1/1000 of a second with a high-speed strobe. The strobe provided light for the subject, but this was much brighter than the ambient background light, early evening with light overcast. What happened is, the brief moment that the shutter was open didn’t allow enough light from the distant background trees to come in, so they’re underexposed almost to black. This gives a very unnatural look to the image, so a better time to try for this is when the sun is brightly illuminating the background.

This happens often in closeup/macro work as well, for a different reason that still has the same result. At high magnifications, depth of field drops way down, meaning that sharp focus does not extend very far – the eyes of the bug might be sharp, but the wings or hindbody are well out of focus. To try and combat this, a small aperture is used, which increases the depth of field but admits much less light. So the same thing happens – the strobe can illuminate the subject adequately, but won’t carry to the background, which then remains dark.

In some cases, a second strobe can be used to illuminate the background, but this can be tricky – too much, too little, or poorly-aimed light causes this to fail. When you’re shooting tiny subjects while trying to keep what’s exactly behind them properly lit, aiming isn’t as simple as you might think, especially when the second strobe is probably mounted on a bracket attached to your camera, which you are then moving around for the best framing (and quite possibly trying to keep your moving subject in sharp focus.) You can also try to use natural light, which would mean leaving the shutter open for a longer exposure to compensate for the reduced light through the aperture. Fine in theory, provided your camera is locked on a tripod, your subject isn’t deciding to wander about, and the wind is completely dead.

Ah, the wind! The macro photographer’s sworn enemy. You never realize how often there’s even a tiny breeze until you’re focused on a bug on a leaf that continually drifts in and out of focus. Is it any wonder that I’ve done detailed shots of insects (such as here) while they perched on a leaf or twig that was then held in a set of tiny clamps on my desk, indoors away from the wind and under a balanced set of lights? Yes, we’re talking cheating yet again, which would imply that this was easier, wouldn’t it? And not requiring lots of camera repositioning as the subject wanders up and down the setting, across the clamps, facing the wrong way, and generally behaving like a hyperactive toddler. Actually, much worse – you can jingle your keys and get a toddler’s attention for 1.8 seconds…

It wouldn’t seem like photos of bugs, or even birds at a feeder, should be even remotely challenging, but there you have it. It’s all about the light, and how you make use of it.

Proverbial thinking

All right, I’ve been meaning to do this post for a while now, and since it’s come up again in my personal life, I think it’s about time.

Very frequently, when I’ve been present on blogs and forums debating about the existence of one thing or another, a common proverb is set forth: “Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence.” On the face of it, this sounds good. I can’t sense something, for instance, living in my walls, but that doesn’t mean there definitely isn’t something living in my walls. I’d be silly to say, “There’s nothing in there,” right?

Let’s try a little experiment. Look around the room you’re in right now, closely. No, this isn’t a thought exercise, quit reading and look.

Back now? Good. How many Peruvian alpacas did you see? None? I’m surprised, but okay. So you’re comfortable with saying there’s no Peruvian alpacas in the room? Aha! Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence! You can’t definitively say there’s no alpacas in the room!

Yes, it’s a damn silly argument. Evidence for certain distinct things is readily detectable, and the parameters for their existence can rule out, for instance, alpacas hiding under a stack or papers or behind the bookshelf. In fact, you’re comfortable with saying that there are no alpacas in the room only because of the lack of evidence.

So we’ve proven that proverb wrong? Good. You’ll find that you can do this with damn near every proverb you can find. Don’t think in proverbs – they’re crutches on proper thinking. And don’t fall for them. They’re quite often intended to sway arguments through popularity, brevity, and the bias we have towards quick and simple solutions. In fact, when someone spouts a proverb or cute saying at you, it’s a good habit to immediately stop and think if this is an attempt to get you to fall for bullshit.

If you haven’t already (numerous times,) at some point in your life you’ll have someone challenge you to proving a negative. This one is so prevalent I’m liable to start harassing grade-school teachers to include it in their lesson plan. How do you prove a negative? You don’t – you can only establish a lack of evidence for it. But even establishing a lack of evidence can be a ridiculous task, depending on the nature of the subject you’re debating. The alpaca above is easy – they’re fairly big, noisy, smelly, and tend not to hold very still in the closet. But, for instance, extra-terrestrial life? Cold fusion? You’d be attempting to show what the entire universe contains to demonstrate the lack of evidence. Which is the only reason you’ll find this tactic is used at all.

We, however, operate on a basic assumption. You’ve almost certainly heard some saying about making assumptions, and now I’m going to spike that one too. The basic assumption is, it doesn’t exist until some evidence has been established that it can exist. Flying purple wombats? Space trees 4,000 light years tall? Invisible rocks? If I told you I believe in them, you’d think I was wobbly. And, you’d be right. You’d at least be perfectly within your rational mind to say, “Show me.”

Even scientists that deal with theoretical particles and astronomical bodies are careful to show how the physical laws that we use every day can extend out to support the idea of their theory. Now, here’s the kicker: They don’t ever say they’ve proven it. Black holes, for instance, were first worked out on paper in ridiculous amounts of math, based on General Relativity. Einstein, who formulated the theory of General Relativity, admitted to not actually liking the idea of black holes, of something so gravitationally strong that it would collapse into a singularity. And, he also admitted the math showed no flaws. Over the years, the theory of black holes has been gone over by countless astrophysicists and refined but again, never discarded due to flaws. And now, with the discovery of certain kinds of radiation in prime circumstances for their formation, black holes are considered better than 90% certain. But not “proven.”

What’s funny is, at certain times you may be expected to formulate your thoughts in terms like this – probabilities, but not definitive statements. First off, this can be extended to anything at all in our base of knowledge, thermodynamics for instance. Can you prove that the pot on the stove will absorb heat from the burner beneath it? No, actually I don’t ever worry about it until it fails.

There have been numerous things that I have challenged the existence of to the people who promote them, and when pointing out the lack of evidence, I have been told I haven’t disproven them. I haven’t disproved [SPOILER ALERT] Santa Claus either, but I have no issues whatsoever with saying he does not exist. I’ll be more than happy to retract that, too – once someone actually delivers some nice, clean evidence. Until that time, I’m fine with relegating Santa, Bigfoot, extra-terrestrial intelligent life, and great-tasting diet food to the bin of “doesn’t exist.” Call it a shortcut if you want – if we treated everything we ever do or discuss in terms of probability, our conversations would get pretty annoying.

The thing is, there is no actual difference between “Chupacabra does not exist” and “There is no evidence for Chupacabra.” You may get challenged on making a definitive statement, but correcting this for scientific accuracy does not advance the argument. It simply means that your opponent is desperate for an opening, anything that can present a crack to wedge their argument into. In some cases, your opponent may want to establish that you’re not providing a dismissive answer automatically, such as, “All baseball players suck.” But basically, who cares? The onus still remains on them to provide positive evidence, regardless of whether their debate opponent is dismissive or extremely fair.

Another example: Gnomes do not exist, therefore there is no evidence for gnomes. Hard to argue, right? Reverse it: There is no evidence for gnomes, therefore gnomes do not exist. Ah, that’s not necessarily the case! True, but so what? Such an argument is about logic within the statement, not about establishing the viability of gnomes. Even a grossly illogical statement does not admit to the existence of gnomes by default. If gnomes do not exist, the latter example above, while not logical, still reaches the correct result. Whoops! Relying on logical equations doesn’t solve our problems.

Stick with positive evidence, and remember that proof is an abstract. And don’t let yourself fall for the negative proof or logical statement fallacies.

Stars around this planet

Tonight, the sky was exceptionally clear, especially for summer, and I trekked (well, drove) down to Jordan Lake to see what I could capture. Jordan Lake is about the only place in the area with largely unobstructed views and relatively dark skies, and that “relatively” is key – there are too many cities nearby pumping light up into the sky for really good night views.

Nevertheless, I managed to capture a first for me, believe it or not: a detailed stretch of the Milky Way. This picture has been enhanced slightly from the original, correcting the color cast a bit and increasing contrast, because digital doesn’t work as well as film on the night sky. This was also taking a chance, because I’m aiming mostly south here, which is not the best move from the Northern Hemisphere – the stars to the south show the most apparent movement, and smear across your photo frame more. This is a mere 26 second exposure and movement is still visible in the full res version. For further specs, this is ISO 800 at f2.8.

The stars at the bottom of the photo, curling around and upwards to the right, are the constellation Scorpius – look for the two pairs of close stars. The pair towards the middle of the frame are the “stinger,” and the other pair is the base of the tail leading into the scorpion body facing towards upper right. Portions of Sagittarius are peeking in from the left, which would make, I believe, the center of the Milky Way Galaxy appearing towards the top left of the frame. It isn’t apparent from our position, because too much dust obscures our view. And somewhere in there is a massive black hole.

One of these days, I’ll do a beach trip during good weather and get out on the shore during really clear nights. The Outer Banks has lots of areas well away from city lights, and of course, half of the horizon is ocean and free from light pollution. When I do this, I now know I’ll need some decent high speed film to get results like this. Alternately, I could construct a tracking platform that counteracts the rotation of the earth, tilting the camera slowly to keep the sky “unmoving,” which allows for very long exposures without star streaks. This plays hell with the horizon, of course, and for most of those shots you’ve seen where the horizon is sharp and the sky is intricately detailed, the horizon has been patched in digitally afterwards. Film and digital sensors just don’t handle the sparse light from the night sky in short exposures, and most especially without grain or noise. ISO 800 is far from ideal – I usually shoot 100 for detail and color rendition, and some films I use are rated at ISO 40 – that’s less than 1/16th as sensitive to light as ISO 800, and so the exposure time would have to be much longer: seven minutes! Yeah, you get some pretty heavy star streaks then.

At some point later on I’ll go into the trials of long exposures, pushing film, and reciprocity failures. Dim light photography has all its own body of knowledge, almost making it a specialty in itself. I’ll warn you adequately so you can skip it if you like ;-)

Planets around other stars

In a series of posts earlier, I talked about the possibilities of extra-terrestrial life, and in Part Three, I mentioned our findings of planets around other stars, usually referred to as “exoplanets.” Now, in that post, I was a bit misleading in the progress we’ve made, and while not exactly incorrect in what I said (which referred to finding Earth-like planets in the Habitable Zone,) it is accurate to say that I gave the wrong impression.

So I’m correcting that now. We have found a handful of planets around other suns by direct visual observation, instead of only (as I implied) by changes in the light levels of the star itself. This is quite impressive, and shows off just how quickly our astronomical knowledge is changing – only a few years ago this was not the case, and some of the planets we know of had been seen a few years ago, but not confirmed.

Bad Astronomy has more details, most especially if you read through the comments (yes, some blogs get comments, imagine that.) We’re still finding planets by the method I mentioned, more than by direct visual observation, but it’s neat to know that we can, on occasion, actually see them directly.

Right now, only two exoplanets are considered candidates for life, Gliese 581 C and Gliese 581 D, and we have not seen those directly despite being much closer. The one that BA is talking about is far, far too young and hot, and would probably never be a candidate in its entire lifespan – it actually appears to lie somewhere in the grey area between planet and star, according to some of the comments. What I said about the proximity of the Habitable Zone still holds true, too – while you can distinctly see the planet well away from the star (it took some time to determine that it was not a faint background star that only appeared close,) it’s a tremendous distance away from the star itself, about 300 Astronomical Units. Since an AU is the mean distance between Earth and our sun, and should roughly correspond to the Habitable Zone for any star remotely like ours (this one is not, not by a long shot,) you can start getting the impression of how close the zone might be, swallowed up in the diffraction around the star itself.

There are lots of variables in observing stars, and it’s not clear if we’ll be able to see an Earth-like planet soon, or ever – one would have to be fairly close to us in astronomical terms, and we’re whittling down the candidates steadily. Considering, however, that at least three moons around planets within our own solar system (Enceladus, Europa, and Titan) may have the ability to support life in niche conditions, it may not require planets in specific zones at all. We’re still working it all out., so keep your eye on the astronomical websites, because our media sure as hell can’t get it straight.