When big scientific discoveries are announced in the popular media, researchers often look to temper the hype—that new drug probably won’t cure cancer, say, despite the headlines.
But on Saturday, at Ciudad de las Ideas, an annual conference about big ideas held in Puebla, Mexico, and sponsored by Grupo Salinas, astronomer Dimitar Sasselov gave us non-scientists permission to be excited about last week’s news that a new so-called “super Earth” christened HD 40307g has been discovered 42 light-years away. “Super Earths” are somewhat larger than our home planet and exist in the “Goldilocks zone”—not too close to its sun, not too far—believed to be capable of supporting life. At least, as Phil Plait explained on Bad Astronomy just before his move to Slate, scientists think they have discovered it—calculations suggest that the planet is there, but it’s impossible to confirm yet.
Sasselov, a Harvard professor and author of The Life of Super-Earths: How the Hunt for Alien Worlds and Artificial Cells Will Revolutionize Life on Our Planet, told me at a Ciudad de las Ideas press conference, “In science, it is rare that a transformational change occurs during our lifetimes.” Discovery of exoplanets—especially super Earths—is one such transformational event, he believes. We should enjoy it while it lasts. Finding super-Earths “has been going on like this for the last 10 years. I think it will go on like that for another 10 years and then it will plateau out.” At that point, said Sasselov, the field’s breakthroughs will be more sporadic, like in other scientific disciplines.
“Something which looked like magic just a few years ago is becoming a reality,” he told the Ciudad de las Ideas audience later that night.
The next step for Sasselov and his fellow space-explorers is to find traces of life on one of these super-Earths—whatever that life may look like.
Disclosure: The Azteca Foundation, the foundation arm of the Mexican conglomerate Grupo Salinas, provided funding for my trip to Ciudad de las Ideas.