New planet? Whaddya mean, INFERRED? Ain’t it amazing how little scientists KNOW…

planet nine

An artist’s impression of Planet Nine, which could sit at the edge of our solar system. (R. Hurt/California Institute of Technology)

OK, so now the guy who got Pluto demoted, the author of How I Killed Pluto and Why It Had It Coming, says he’s found a new planet. One much farther out (20 times as far as Neptune) and much, much bigger — like, 5 or 10 times as massive as Earth.

Not that anyone has seen this planet, mind you, although the boffins are all looking for it like fun:

Their paper, published in the Astronomical Journal, describes the planet as about five to 10 times as massive as the Earth. But the authors, astronomers Michael Brown and Konstantin Batygin, have not observed the planet directly.

Instead, they have inferred its existence from the motion of recently discovered dwarf planets and other small objects in the outer solar system. Those smaller bodies have orbits that appear to be influenced by the gravity of a hidden planet – a “massive perturber.” The astronomers suggest it might have been flung into deep space long ago by the gravitational force of Jupiter or Saturn.

Telescopes on at least two continents are searching for the object, which on average is 20 times farther away than the eighth planet, Neptune. If “Planet Nine” exists, it’s big. Its estimated mass would make it about two to four times the diameter of the Earth, distinguishing it as the fifth-largest planet after Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus and Neptune. But at such extreme distances, it would reflect so little sunlight that it could evade even the most powerful telescopes…

So, astronomers — the class of people who are always telling us about (much smaller) Earth-like planets in other solar systems, gazillions of times farther away than this — have to infer the existence of a gigantic planet still in the grip of Sol’s gravity? I mean, they’re inferring all that stuff about “Goldilocks” planets, too, but if they have to do it in our own system, how reliable is all that stuff about other star systems?

This kind of uncertainty on the part of experts does not inspire confidence on the part of us ignorant laypeople.

Take another news item from this morning: “It’s official: 2015 ‘smashed’ 2014’s global temperature record. It wasn’t even close.

Yo! Get it together, scientists!

Yo! Get it together, scientists!

Now, I realize that one year — or for that matter, two years — does not constitute proof of a trend. But I am reminded that, in the long run, most scientists tell us that we are experiencing climate change, and it’s our fault.

I believe them. But hey, when scientists can’t even tell for sure whether there’s another giant planet in our own solar system, is it surprising that some people don’t? Believe them, I mean.

And yes, I’m doing a classic thing that ignorant people do — I’m combining all scientists, from all disciplines, into one entity. He’s a guy who looks like… well, like the Professor on “Gilligan’s Island.” That guy knew everything about everything

As for me… I’m just a simple caveman blogger. What do I know?

15 thoughts on “New planet? Whaddya mean, INFERRED? Ain’t it amazing how little scientists KNOW…

        1. Bryan Caskey

          Objection, you’re out of order! You can’t make that joke on something that you said. It has to be on something someone else said.

  1. Jeff

    Most of the planets that have been found outside out solar system have been measured by how much they block they light of the stars they orbit. Planets past the Earth in our own solar system never block the light of the sun. That means the exoplanet search techniques don’t do much to help find outer planets in our system, but it doesn’t make them less reliable in describing exoplanets.

        1. Jim Cross

          Mercury and Venus do occlude the Sun. However, both are inside the orbit of Earth. The techniques would not work with planets in our solar system outside the orbit of Earth.

          By the way, both Neptune and Pluto were inferred because of irregularities in the orbits or Uranus and Neptune, respectively. (although in the case of Pluto, the calculations were wrong) For a while, irregularities in the orbit of Mercury led to people inferring that there was a planet (given the name “Vulcan”) between the Sun and Mercury, until it was proven that the general theory of relativity explained those irregularities. A book came out about the whole search for Vulcan last year–Thomas Levenson’s _The Hunt for Vulcan: . . . And How Albert Einstein Destroyed a Planet, Discovered Relativity, and Deciphered the Universe_.

  2. Bill

    “Everything is explained now. We live in an age when you say casually to somebody “What’s the story on
    that?” and they can run to the computer and tell you within five seconds. That’s fine, but sometimes I’d just as soon continue wondering. We have a deficit of wonder right now.”

    Tom Waits

    1. Brad Warthen Post author

      I don’t keep wondering about anything any more. I immediately look it up. Which makes it hard to get anything else done, because the things to wonder about — that is to say, to look up — keep coming at an unrelenting pace…

  3. Karen Pearson

    I wonder a lot. I wonder at the complexity of the universe. I wonder about the possibility of other dimensions. I wonder at beautiful complexity of life. I wonder why the ability to perceive beauty evolved. I wonder at the variety of cultures the human race has produced. I wonder why poetry can affect us the way it does. I wonder at where curiosity has led us. These are to me just a few of the wonders of this wondrous world.

Comments are closed.