Kepler mission announces two exoplanets in the habitable "zone"

The planets are the right temperature and size to support liquid water.

The Kepler mission, a NASA project to find and profile planets outside of our solar system, has announced the discovery of two potentially habitable exosolar planets.

The planets are part of a system, Kepler-62, which is thought to contain five roughly earth-sized planets. The biggest is almost twice earth's size; the smallest slightly more than half.

That alone is notable, because the normal way the Kepler mission identifies planets is by measuring the gravitational they exert on their star. A big enough planet will pull the star slightly closer to the earth when it's on one side, and slightly further when it's on the other. That causes a minute fluctuation in the brightness of the star, measured from our planet, which the Kepler orbital observatory can sense.

But only the largest gas giants have such an effect, and while they are noteworthy finds in themselves, they aren't habitable. To find smaller planets, the mission looks at stars which have other fluctuations in light – due to planets passing in front of them. They then have to model every possible reason why those fluctuations could occur, and hope that they find that the most likely cause is exoplanets traversing the star.

The planets which they've found this way aren't just earth sized, though. Two of them, each measuring around 1.5 times the size of earth, are roughly the same distance away from their star as we are. Their orbits take a third and two thirds of an earth year each, but, because their star is less bright than our sun, they receive 1.2 and 0.4 times the light, respectively, that we do.

That will equal one hot planet and one cold one – but either of them might be in the so-called "habitable zone", where liquid water can exist. And liquid water is the only universal prerequisite we know for life.

The authors note that their method cannot tell if the planets are even rocky, as opposed to gas giants, let alone whether they actually have an atmosphere or water. But they are some of the best candidates we've found to date.

And crucially, we've found them fast. The Kepler telescope has been in orbit for around half its expected life, but it's already produced a vast amount of data to crunch. It's discovered almost 3,000 possible exoplanets, and has already found one that could have water. If the hit rate stays high, there could be many more.

Johannes Kepler, the 16th century astronomer for NASA's mission is named. Image: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Alex Hern is a technology reporter for the Guardian. He was formerly staff writer at the New Statesman. You should follow Alex on Twitter.

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Forget fake news on Facebook – the real filter bubble is you

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that reinforces their beliefs, there is little that can be done.

It’s Google that vaunts the absurdly optimistic motto “Don’t be evil”, but there are others of Silicon Valley’s techno-nabobs who have equally high-flown moral agendas. Step forward, Mark Zuckerberg of Facebook, who responded this week to the brouhaha surrounding his social media platform’s influence on the US presidential election thus: “We are all blessed to have the ability to make the world better, and we have the responsibility to do it. Let’s go work even harder.”

To which the only possible response – if you’re me – is: “No we aren’t, no we don’t, and I’m going back to my flowery bed to cultivate my garden of inanition.” I mean, where does this guy get off? It’s estimated that a single message from Facebook caused about 340,000 extra voters to pitch up at the polls for the 2010 US congressional elections – while the tech giant actually performed an “experiment”: showing either positive or negative news stories to hundreds of thousands of their members, and so rendering them happier or sadder.

In the past, Facebook employees curating the site’s “trending news” section were apparently told to squash stories that right-wingers might “like”, but in the run-up to the US election the brakes came off and all sorts of fraudulent clickbait was fed to the denizens of the virtual underworld, much – but not all of it – generated by spurious alt-right “news sites”.

Why? Because Facebook doesn’t view itself as a conventional news provider and has no rubric for fact-checking its news content: it can take up to 13 hours for stories about Hillary Clinton eating babies barbecued for her by Barack Obama to be taken down – and in that time Christ knows how many people will have not only given them credence, but also liked or shared them, so passing on the contagion. The result has been something digital analysts describe as a “filter bubble”, a sort of virtual helmet that drops down over your head and ensures that you receive only the sort of news you’re already fit to be imprinted with. Back in the days when everyone read the print edition of the New York Times this sort of manipulation was, it is argued, quite impossible; after all, the US media historically made a fetish of fact-checking, an editorial process that is pretty much unknown in our own press. Why, I’ve published short stories in American magazines and newspapers and had fact-checkers call me up to confirm the veracity of my flights of fancy. No, really.

In psychology, the process by which any given individual colludes in the creation of a personalised “filter bubble” is known as confirmation bias: we’re more inclined to believe the sort of things that validate what we want to believe – and by extension, surely, these are likely to be the sorts of beliefs we want to share with others. It seems to me that the big social media sites, while perhaps blowing up more and bigger filter bubbles, can scarcely be blamed for the confirmation bias. Nor – as yet – have they wreaked the sort of destruction on the world that has burst from the filter bubble known as “Western civilisation” – one that was blown into being by the New York Times, the BBC and all sorts of highly respected media outlets over many decades.

Societies that are both dominant and in the ascendant always imagine their belief systems and the values they enshrine are the best ones. You have only to switch on the radio and hear our politicians blithering on about how they’re going to get both bloodthirsty sides in the Syrian Civil War to behave like pacifist vegetarians in order to see the confirmation bias hard at work.

The Western belief – which has its roots in imperialism, but has bodied forth in the form of liberal humanism – that all is for the best in the world best described by the New York Times’s fact-checkers, is also a sort of filter bubble, haloing almost all of us in its shiny and translucent truth.

Religion? Obviously a good-news feed that many billions of the credulous rely on entirely. Science? Possibly the biggest filter bubble there is in the universe, and one that – if you believe Stephen Hawking – has been inflating since shortly before the Big Bang. After all, any scientific theory is just that: a series of observable (and potentially repeatable) regularities, a bubble of consistency we wander around in, perfectly at ease despite its obvious vulnerability to those little pricks, the unforeseen and the contingent. Let’s face it, what lies behind most people’s beliefs is not facts, but prejudices, and all this carping about algorithms is really the howling of a liberal elite whose own filter bubble has indeed been popped.

A television producer I know once joked that she was considering pitching a reality show to the networks to be called Daily Mail Hate Island. The conceit was that a group of ordinary Britons would be marooned on a desert island where the only news they’d have of the outside world would come in the form of the Daily Mail; viewers would find themselves riveted by watching these benighted folk descend into the barbarism of bigotry as they absorbed ever more factitious twaddle. But as I pointed out to this media innovator, we’re already marooned on Daily Mail Hate Island: it’s called Britain.

If people want to receive all their news from a single feed that constantly and consistently reinforces their beliefs, what are you going to do about it? The current argument is that Facebook’s algorithms reinforce political polarisation, but does anyone really believe better editing on the site will return our troubled present to some prelap­sarian past, let alone carry us forward into a brave new factual future? No, we’re all condemned to collude in the inflation of our own filter bubbles unless we actively seek to challenge every piece of received information, theory, or opinion. And what an exhausting business that would be . . . without the internet.

Will Self is an author and journalist. His books include Umbrella, Shark, The Book of Dave and The Butt. He writes the Madness of Crowds and Real Meals columns for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 24 November 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Blair: out of exile