BAN #95: (Editor: please insert appropriate headline here -Phil)

March 11, 2019 Issue #95

Subscribers write the (accurate) headlines of Universe.

[ARG! I accidentally hit the “send now” button on this post, so it was sent early, on Sunday March 10th instead of Monday the 11th. Ah well, no harm no foul, I suppose. Consider it a gift courtesy of Daylight Saving Time.]

Astro Tidbit

A brief synopsis of some interesting astronomy/science news that may be too short for the blog, too long for Twitter, but just right (and cool enough to talk about) for here.

I used to be something of a jerk.

I’ve been pretty open about my character flaws, I think, including my previous penchant for rather mean-spiritedly attacking others for bad science. Movies, TV shows, news articles, whatever… I stopped for various reasons, but mostly because I became self-aware of my jerkiness.

That doesn’t mean the temptation isn’t there, though.

Which brings me to a fun bit of news, an interesting story about an exoplanet called Kepler-1658b. It was the very first exoplanet candidate identified in the Kepler space telescope data, but it was classified as a false positive (that is, not real) due to the numbers not making sense in the observations. It was recently re-examined, and astronomers found that the sizes of both the star and the planet were underestimated in the initial calculations, which is why the numbers weren’t working out. When better values were used, the original observations suddenly made sense: The planet was real.

So, weirdly the very first exoplanet seen by Kepler has finally been confirmed, ten years after the original observations!

OK, cool enough. But an article posted on News 9 out of Sydney, Australia took a different turn. The article itself is fine, reporting on the story with accuracy.

But the headline…

[Credit: News 9]

Um, yeah. What? I laughed when I saw it; you can’t have a planet 60 times bigger than the Sun. A planet that big would be, in fact, a star!

The science behind this is a bit odd. A planet with more mass than Jupiter has a core that’s in a weird state called degeneracy, where it’s not supported by pressure as we think of it so much as the laws of quantum mechanics. They don’t behave the way you might expect. If you add mass to such a planet, it actually doesn’t get bigger, it gets smaller! So these super-Jupiters astronomers keep discovering may be more massive than Jupiter, but they’re not any bigger. Some brown dwarfs with a lot more mass than Jupiter could even be smaller! They’d be terrifically dense.

At some point, though, around 75 times the mass of Jupiter, the core gets so dense and hot that hydrogen atoms can fuse together to form helium, releasing a lot of energy. At that point the object is a proper star.

[Artwork of Kepler-1658 and its planet; the star and planet’s sizes were underestimated until astronomers used asteroseismology - literally, how sounds waves travel through the star - to get accurate numbers. Credit: Gabriel Perez Diaz/Instituto de Astrofísica de Canarias]

So objects really don’t get much bigger than Jupiter before they become a star. And, by the by, a star that is 60 times bigger than the Sun is a big star. It’s either a medium-mass star like the Sun but very old and starting to turn into a red giant, or it’s a massive star that’s just huge.

But a planet it ain’t. So I was pretty confused when I read the headline, and I had to read the whole article to figure out where it came from. It turns out Kepler-1658b orbits very close to its host star, so close that from the planet the star appears to be 60 times bigger than the Sun does from Earth.

Ah, that makes sense (and again, the article gets this correct). I guess whoever wrote the headline (usually not the journalist, but an editor somewhere down the line) either didn’t read the article carefully, or didn’t understand it. I’ll note the article originally came from CNN, so the mistake was probably downstream of that.

So like I said, it would be easy to really make fun of this, but I’m more forgiving (or at least less of an ass) than I used to be.

And hey. I got the press release for this but hadn’t read it yet because I have a lot going on right now; it wasn’t until Carlo Di Martino on Twitter sent me a note about it. So at the very least, the wrong headline got me to investigate this planet further. Silver lining.

But that’s the point, isn’t it? Instead of jumping all over someone for making a mistake, turn it into something that can be positive. A lesson learned, a story otherwise unknown that is now read, an opportunity to think about the situation and figure out something interesting.

Or, say, a topic for a newsletter.

Blog Jam

What I’ve recently written on the blog, ICYMI

[From Monday’s post: The galaxy NGC 3079 shows stars seen by Hubble (orange and blue) as well as X-rays (purple) by the Chandra X-ray Observatory. Credit: X-ray: NASA/CXC/University of Michigan/J-T Li et al.; Optical: NASA/STScI]

Monday March 4, 2019: A galaxy is blowing enormous megacharged superbubbles of gas and cosmic rays

Tuesday March 5, 2019: The median Earth

Wednesday March 6, 2019: AMAZING video: Hayabusa-2 shot a bullet at an asteroid and collected the shrapnel

Thursday March 7, 2019: What killed the dinosaurs? Astronomy and geology.

Friday March 8, 2019: What is the mass of the Milky Way?

Et alia

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