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Planet Wars 

Last year, two Bay Area astronomers said they had discovered planets outside our solar system and became instant media celebrities. Now, Paul Butler and Geoff Marcy face prominent scientific challengers who contend some of the new planets are nothing but

Wednesday, Jul 2 1997
Superstars of the Universe
Paul Butler leans his gangling 6-foot-2 frame into a tiny office chair, sweeps the back of his hand toward the fuzzy ball of light on a nearby video screen, and erupts: "That star's booooooring. That's 70 Virginis, which has a massive, eccentric planet. That's a completely booooring system. We know its period, we know its orbit, we know everything about it. I only keep observing it to keep gathering data points, but for all intents and purposes, we've nailed it.

"It's downright boring. Boooooring."
Butler is spending a good-natured -- no, downright ebullient -- night at the bathroom-size, computer-filled observation room of Lick Observatory near San Jose. Just as he has done for hundreds of nights during the past decade, he is scanning the skies for evidence of planets, an activity that recently made him and his research partner, Geoff Marcy, two of the most famous scientists in (this) world.

Using exquisitely subtle, indirect methods to look at the skies, Butler, a UCBerkeley research fellow, and Marcy, an S.F. State professor, have calculated during the past 18 months that there are planets circling a half-dozen stars that are, in astrophysical terms, near to Earth. The scientists will soon announce at least six more, and during the next few years they expect to have discovered more than 100 planetary systems.

For all the science-fiction novels, UFO conventions, and Star Trek episodes that might indicate otherwise, these discoveries mark the best scientific evidence that Earth-like planets exist outside our solar system. This fact has made Butler and Marcy heroes in several earthly realms.

Bureaucrats at NASA -- who hope the search for life in outer space will inspire the imaginations of taxpayers like the race to the moon once did -- revere them.

Astrophysical theorists -- who had long been stuck explaining the cosmos without any sun-and-planets solar system but our own to go on -- cherish them. "Poor theorists had been suffering a lack of data," laments Joseph Burns, editor of Icarus, a scientific journal dedicated to solar system studies. "Now we have some data, and it's great fun."

But it is journalists who have appreciated Butler and Marcy most of all. After awkward careers spent dumbing down the science of quasars, explaining gravitational warps in far-off nebulae, and describing minuscule modifications of the big-bang theory, science writers finally found in Butler and Marcy a story that cut to the chase: There are planets out there, and earthlings have seen them.

What followed has been the scientific equivalent of rock superstardom. The Marcy-Butler story has graced the covers of Time, the Washington Post, and the New York Times. They've been featured on The Today Show, Nightline, and the BBC's Breakfast Show. They've given speeches all over the world, and Butler, who earned two bachelor's degrees and a master's at San Francisco State University before getting his Ph.D. in Maryland, last year joined Willie Brown in SFSU's pantheon of alumni of the year.

"Over there, that's where the Time photographer shot us. On this side is where the Washington Post guy had us," says Butler, as he bounds up the stairs leading to a catwalk that rings Lick's grain silo of a telescope. "The Los Angeles Times wanted to send someone over to interview us this week, but I had to tell them we just didn't have time."

The Zone
But there is disquiet in this glory.
For all their fame, for all the accolades, speaking tours, and television appearances, Butler and Marcy now occupy some of science's most miserable temporal terrain. They are living in the delay that exists between the moment major scientific discoveries are first made, and the time they are duplicated -- or debunked -- by their peers.

It is during this period that a scientist may become a hero, a star, a Johannes Kepler -- who wrote the mathematical laws governing how planets orbit our sun. Or a researcher can become a goat, a loser, a Martin Fleischmann -- whose 1989 claim to have produced cold nuclear fusion was later discredited.

It is during these periods of confirmation or disproof that scientific revolutions fail or succeed. This is when humanity makes its herky-jerky progress from old ways of understanding nature to new ones. Just the same, it's a trying time for everybody concerned -- the discoverers, their challengers, and the rooters on the sidelines.

As Butler and Marcy await the papal white smoke of peer confirmation, challenges to their work arrive thick and fast. And the challengers have credentials.

Where once Butler and Marcy spent time with reporters speculating about the type of life that might exist on their extrasolar planets, the scientists now bitterly impugn the editorial standards of journals that publish the work of rivals -- rivals who say Butler and Marcy have misinterpreted data and posited planets where none exist. Mention the work of these rival astronomers to Butler or Marcy, and their ordinarily bright, agreeable demeanors turn a shade darker. The friendly loquaciousness subsides. They speak in irritated, condescending tones.

"More than anything, I'm worried about his career," Marcy says, after an hour of ravaging the work of a Canadian professor who believes the planets "discovered" by the Butler-Marcy team may not exist. "I really am. I'm worried about him."

Challenges to Marcy and Butler run along two general lines, based on alternate interpretations of subtle wobbles the two astronomers have detected in several stars' paths across the night sky. Butler and Marcy say stars wobble because of the gravitational pull of orbiting planets.

The Canadian researcher disdained by Marcy, however, believes the wobbles may come from physical changes in the stars themselves.

A second challenge suggests that such wobbles are created by the gravity of unseen sister stars, locked in orbit with their visible siblings. In these binary systems, the stellar companion is so close to its twin as to be invisible to all but the most specialized telescopes, this theory maintains.

About The Author

Matt Smith


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