May 27, 2017

A Goldilocks Planet

Yes, I like to look at the moon or the North Star on a beautiful evening, but I’m really not into things astronomical. But I just heard of something way, way, way up there—much farther away than our moon and sun and all the stars that we see–that has left me marveling, and for completely personal reasons—I feel a strange connection to it.

Have you ever heard of a Goldilocks Planet? Well, I never had until a few days ago. But I really paid attention when I heard that a Goldilocks Planet has been found. It’s fantastic. You’ll agree when I explain. Its scientific name is Gliese 581g. Yes, Gliese 581g. What a strange name. Please don’t ask me to explain it. I can’t. What is important is that it is the very first Goldilocks Planet to be found.

Why did this wow me? Because many years ago I interviewed a great astronomer who said that such planets exist. The name Goldilocks Planet was coined later by somebody else. What was enormously significant about his prediction is that he said that Goldilocks Planets could support life–life as you and I know it. And might! And that there must be others out there.

The great astronomer’s name was Harlow Shapley of Harvard University. I interviewed him for an article for the magazine of the Worcester Sunday Telegram. I was a staff feature writer on the magazine.

That was in 1956, I believe—I do not have my scrapbooks handy as I write this. Prof. Shapley is the one who made that big news by coming out and boldly predicting in print that one day a Goldilocks Planet would be pinpointed somewhere in the infinity of the cosmos. We would know exactly where it is!

I’m sure you’re wondering about that name, Goldilocks Planet, which is so much more charming than Gliese 581g. It comes from the children’s  nursery story, “Goldilocks and the Three Bears.” Truth is, I never read that story, so I don’t know why this planet was dubbed “Goldilocks.” Enlighten me, please.

What is so dramatic about Gliese 581g? Let me tell you. In the million, billions, trillions, zillions of heavenly bodies, Gliese 581g is the first found that has the most important essential to support our kind of life. That essential is water.

Why is this so? Because Gliese 581g  has the right size and is the right distance from the star that it circles. Not too close, and not too far. This is how it was explained a few days ago by Dr. Steven Vogt, leader of the team that made the big find on Sept. 29. He is an astronomer at the University of California, Santa Cruz. Perhaps you read or saw this same story.

He said, “Gliese 581 g is the first rocky, roughly Earth-size alien planet found to orbit its star in the so-called ‘habitable zone’ — a just-right range that can allow liquid water to exist.”

Harlow Shapley made his startling prediction in a new book. He had written many. I tried to check its title this morning, but did not succeed. Sorry. Anyway, I read a review of it in the New York Times, I believe. Or maybe it was the Boston Globe.

He was known widely for his writings. He was gifted in a special way. He could write fully on abstruse subjects for scientific journals. Then he could switch to a plain and fascinating style understandable by an ordinary reader like me.

At Harvard he was not only the senior professor and chairman of the astronomy department but director of its Astronomical Observatory. He had spent hours beyond counting at the eyepiece of its telescope.  But later, he didn’t have to do that. A camera would do that work for him. He made the observatory world-famous.

In this latest book of his, I was startled by what he was proclaiming: there was a planet out there with characteristics like our Earth. He was not saying that he had found such a planet. He was stating that statistics—an important branch of mathematics—assured us that there would be planets out there that could sustain life. Not strange and startling life unrecognizable to us, but our kind of life. With creatures human and animal that we see every day

I don’t remember his mentioning it, but what this meant was that if we somehow could get to such a planet, we could live and thrive on it. That was a logical conclusion. Remember, he was writing before Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin made it to the moon!

Back then I was a feature writer for the Worcester Sunday Telegram.  I had been a reporter and then I landed this wonderful job as a feature writer. Which was to find and write up a good feature story every week—a story that would interest lots of people because of who or what it was about. It could be about anybody or anything, just about.

But it had to be true. Factual. Interesting, but not sensational in the way of some tabloid scandal sheets. And the idea of it had to be pre-okayed by my editor and the story I turned in checked by him.

I was only 27 or so at the time. I contacted Professor Shapley—I don’t recall exactly how—and explained what I had in mind. Got to tell you I knew zilch about astronomy. Had never read a book on it, never taken a course.

What strikes me today is why he ever said yes–why he would take the time for a country bumpkin like me. The Telegram was a fine newspaper, the second or third largest in New England, but not the New York Times (what is interesting, however, is that it is now owned by the New York Times).

I expected to go to his office in Cambridge. No. He told me that he would be at his summer home in Peterboro, N.H.  Asked me if I could visit him up there. Sure! I got started early on the appointed day and drove up. A modest frame house surrounded by trees. And when I pulled in, I found Professor Shapley out among the trees, a clipboard in hand. I wondered, What the heck is he doing?

I’d like to say that he was a tall man with a distinguished mane of white hair, but I have no recollection. Time has dimmed all such details. What I remember is that he was a genial man and easy to talk with. Totally unpretentious. Nothing about him to provide a clue about his true identity as a leading scholar and scientist who was very different in a remarkable way.

And what was that? Well, he had written papers and books intended for fellow astronomers. In an astronomer’s lingo, with mathematical equations and tables of data. Writings that had been read and studied by fellow astronomers around the world.

But as time went by, he had started to write also for ordinary folks like you and me. Well, maybe not you, but certainly ordinary like me. All to provide enlightenment and give us an idea of the immensity of our universe and what it is like. And in his latest book, to tell us why he was convinced that somewhere way, way out there would be a planet like ours. More than one. With people like you and me, or very much like us.

So, what was he doing our here in his baggy pants and old felt hat? And clipboard? Poking around at the foot of a big maple? Of course, I asked him.

He smiled. What he told me was so unusual that no wonder I remember it half a century later.
“I’m studying the chipmunks around here. It’s a hobby of mine.  There are many of them. They’re a lot of fun to study.”

He lifted his clipboard and pointed to a sheet on it. It was filled with notations. No idea what he was recording. Maybe what size the furry little creatures were, what they ate, how many babies they had, how they adapted to the various seasons, whether there were different kinds.   Maybe he wrote all that up for some wildlife journal on the side. I don’t know.

If so, I would have found all that interesting enough to write a separate feature about him: “Harlow Shapley—Great Astronomer, Weekend Chipmunk Whiz!”

He invited me into his house and we sat in a sunny corner. He put his clipboard aside. And in a relaxed way…which made me relax, too…I admit I was a bit uptight…explained why he believed what he believed about the assured probability of extra-terrestrial life. And he did it in words that anybody could understand.

No way can I recall his exact words now. I wish I had a copy of my published article in hand! But they went like this:
“Our earth  circles the sun. It’s the Polish astronomer Copernicus in the 15th Century who proved that our earth circles the sun. What extraordinary news. For eons people believed just the opposite–that the sun circles our earth, and there are still plenty of people around who believe that.

“And our earth supports life–supports us–because it circles the sun at the right distance and with the right temperature range on it to have hydrogen and oxygen under appropriate conditions to form water.  Water is all-important for life. In fact, we—you and I–are mostly water. No water, no life. No water, no food.

“Astronomers have concluded that our planet Earth may be the only one in our solar system (in plain words, circling the sun) under conditions which make it possible for us to be born, grow up, and live our lives.

“But—and it’s a great big but—our solar system is only one in the universe.  There are many, many solar systems. They vary in size. Some have more planets than others, and these planets make their loops around their sun at varying distances from it—which means they have different chemical make-ups and different temperatures cold and hot, and so on.”

He made it all understandable to me.

Now here is the dramatic part. Statisticians—mathematicians who specialize in calculating the probability of happenings—can safely conclude that out there in infinity there are one or more heavenly bodies that replicate our planet.  And this is exactly what Professor Shapley had calculated. And this is why he was so sure he was right. This is why he had published that book.

Of course I was greatly impressed. I knew I was sitting across from a great man. I was so grateful that he was taking the time to explain all this to me, and that he was doing it so generously and patiently. And all without making me feel like an ignoramus, which is what I was. My nervousness had long eased, and I felt enthralled as I asked and listened and scribbled in my pad.

I don’t remember whether he offered me a cup of tea or coffee, though he must have. I was there quite a while. I do remember that he asked a lot of questions about me…about what my job was like and why I had chosen it as my vocation. Things like that. I could see that he had a consuming curiosity. Stars and planets. Chipmunks.  Ordinary Joe’s like me.

A cordial goodbye, and then I was in my car heading south toward home. I was elated by my time with him. But also uptight. Uptight because my job was only half over. The harder half was coming up. How to write all this down accurately and interestingly.  Without blunders, and without exaggerations. In complete fairness to him.
And all well enough to be worth printing in our Sunday magazine. We published more than 100,000 copies every week, and statisticians of another kind estimated that some 150,000 readers would look at the magazine…and see my story.

How many would read it?  Well, that was anybody’s guess. But my concern every week was that my editor would think highly enough of what I turned in to justify using all that paper and ink to publish it.

Just before writing this piece today, I researched Harlow Shapley on line. Dead many years now. And I learned something new about him. I knew that he had grown up on a farm in Missouri. And wanted to get away from it. He enrolled at the  brand-new School of Journalism at the University of Missouri. But it was  a year late in opening. What to do?  He decided to pick another field.

He studied the university’s catalog, starting with the letter A. The first subject listed was Archaeology. Later he explained. “That was too hard to pronounce!” The next was Astronomy. He could pronounce that, and that’s what he signed up for! He never got to study Journalism formally but he got very good at explaining things well, which is what Journalism is all about.

Maybe that is why he said yes to me that day, a young journalist who was doing the type of work that had once fascinated him so much that he aspired to do it.  Maybe why he spent so much relaxed time with me in his country house, away from the pace and formality of the great university.

Well, now we know that our universe is billions of years old. What fascinates me as I write this is that in the span of one person’s adult life—mine—I got to meet the scientist who made the amazing prediction that he did: “There’s a planet like ours out there!” And some 50 years later I got to read that the first Goldilocks Planet has been discovered–Gliese 581g!

And we know where is. In fact, I suspect “Gliese 581g” is the way it is pinpointed on some huge astronomical chart.

And we know how far away it is. Dr. Vogt said about 20 light years away.

How far is that? Well, I had forgotten how big a light year is.  I checked. One light year is six trillion miles. Let me spell that out–6,000,000,000,000 miles (I rounded it off). Now multiply that by 20! Not around the corner, eh?

We have reached the moon, yes. And we have plans to reach Mars before many more years.  But it will be a while before we get to Gliese 581g, won’t it? And a while before some of its inhabitants reach us.  Unless they are already on their way.

Who knows?

Oh, excuse me.  Some people,  but not the scientific kind, believe some of those folks are with us now.

John Guy LaPlante is a veteran writer, journalist and resident of Deep River.  His award-winning columns and articles were most recently published in the Main Street News.  He is the author of two books, “Around the World at 75. Alone! Dammit!” and “Asia in 80 Days. Oops, 83! Dammit!”  He has just completed his service as a Peace Corps Volunteer (PCV) in the Ukraine where his 27-month tour of duty began last fall.  John always welcomes comments on his articles.  Email him at johnguylaplante@yahoo.com

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