To the stars!

Razib pointed me to this really interesting article (by Lee Billings) about the search for planets around Alpha Centauri.

I find this kind of science interesting because the detection of these really subtle signals in a big pool of data is a lot like what we do in genetics.

For each one of the hundreds of thousands of observations, Fischers custom-coded software must model and counteract the various transient distortions caused by the instruments, fluctuating weather and temperature, cosmic rays striking the detector, even the Earths motion through space. The software compares the observed spectra of Alpha Centauri A and B to a spectrum from the calibrating iodine cell, then to a high-resolution spectrum of both stars taken through a larger telescope with a newer spectrometer. This comparison provides the wavelength shift, which is calculated and plotted for each observation. With enough time and sufficient numbers of observations, any planets around either star should manifest as tiny periodic shifts in the lights wavelength.

It’s complete with a theoretician, who proves that the signature should never be there for an Alpha Centauri-like system. More and more like bottlenecks…

Then there is this anthropic aspect – the Copernican principle is that our current place and time is in no way special; it’s just another place. But in some respects our current place and time strike some of us as unusual.

If we were plopped down at some random point in the galaxy, theres only a 1 percent chance wed find ourselves near stars so optimal for detecting small rocky planets like our own, Laughlin said. The hand of fate has dealt us a very interesting situation that has not existed for at least 99.9 percent of Earths history. Its remarkable that Alpha Centauri is right next door just as humans emerge and develop the ability to make these measurements. Im enamored with that coincidence.

Likewise, humans are at a very unusual point compared to our evolutionary history, with rapid environmental and demographic changes making some genetic signatures vastly more likely than ever before. And besides all that, these guys also have a blog.

Now, if only I could develop a skill for tilt-shift photography, the parallels would be complete….