Magazine article The Spectator

'The Search for Earth's Twin: The Extraordinary Cutting Edge Story of the Search for a Distant Planet like Our Own', by Stuart Clark - Review

Magazine article The Spectator

'The Search for Earth's Twin: The Extraordinary Cutting Edge Story of the Search for a Distant Planet like Our Own', by Stuart Clark - Review

Article excerpt

Fifty years ago this summer, a new show appeared on American TV screens. These, the opening titles explained, were the voyages of the starship Enterprise ; its mission -- to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilisations. Half a century later the Star Trek franchise still rumbles irrepressibly on, but now the first part of the Enterprise 's mission has moved firmly from the realms of science fiction into those of fact.

The change is profound: in 2016 we can look up at a night sky full of stars and know that almost every one of them has its own family of planets orbiting around it, just as the Earth and the other planets of our solar system orbit the Sun. This is not a new idea; as early as the 16th century the

unorthodox Dominican friar Giordano Bruno suggested that the stars were all suns, each with its own inhabited worlds. (He was later burned at the stake for an array of even more heretical opinions.) But it was only in the final decade of the 20th century that astronomers were able to confirm that such 'extrasolar planets' really did exist. Since that first detection, strange new worlds have been discovered at an ever-increasing rate. As of 18 July, the tally of confirmed extrasolar planets stood at 3,368 but, by the time you read this, the number will surely be even higher.

In The Search for Earth's Twin, Stuart Clark charts the emergence of this new field of astronomical endeavour. Planet-hunting is now seen as one of the most fashionable and exciting pursuits in professional astronomy; but for the early pioneers -- two small teams of Swiss and American scientists -- it was a lonely and daring path to take, pitting them against a scientific orthodoxy that deemed their projects unlikely to succeed, and leaving them with a struggle for both funding and job security.

The initial scepticism of the scientific establishment was not without justification: finding planets around other stars is extremely hard. Planets emit no light of their own, and what little light they reflect is utterly swamped by the dazzle of their parent star. (Clark likens the challenge to trying to pick out a table tennis ball held next to a searchlight from a distance of several kilometres.) But, as often happens in science, the conceptual and technological breakthrough ultimately came via a creative, left-field approach. …

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