ET phone home: Have we found extra-terrestrial life?

Back in February, we heard the news of the discovery of “7 earth-like planets” with claims that these planets can support life. So what makes these planets different from the other countless planets and star-systems forming our universe? As a biologist, I was determined to come out of my comfort zone and find out!

The Discovery

TRAPPIST1
The TRAPPIST-1 System with its seven planets.

At its core, the discovery is that we have found seven planets in a single solar system that we believe have the ability to support life; either our own or extra-terrestrial. This system of planets, known as exoplanets as they are outside our solar system, has been named TRAPPIST-1 with each of the seven planets being named TRAPPIST-1b to TRAPPIST-1h with its star, TRAPPIST-1a, being found in the centre. TRAPPIST-1 is 40-light-years away from earth, equivalent of 235 trillion miles, and is found in the constellation of Aquarius, ‘The Water-Bearer’

Aq Const
The constellation of ‘Aquarius’, known as ‘The Water-Bearer’

 

Ultra-Cool Stars!!

Cool Star
These stars are ULTRA-COOL!!!

While these planets have been described as ‘earth-like’, the TRAPPIST-1 system as a whole is different to our own solar system in a variety of different aspects. Starting with the central star, TRAPPIST-1a is different type star compared to our sun and is classed as an ‘Ultra-Cool Star’. This means that it is smaller and cooler than our sun. In fact, TRAPPIST-1a is only 8% of the mass of our sun and is only slightly larger than the size of Jupiter. By comparison you would need around 1000 Jupiters to recreate the size and mass of our sun! Ultra-Cool stars are also around half the temperature of our sun. Now while TRAPPIST-1a’s 2300°C temperature may not exactly seem cold, it is nothing compared to our sun’s 5500°C temperature.  Because of its small size and lower temperature, it does not give out as much energy and is therefore much harder to find than other stars. However, it is because of these features that scientists believe that Ultra-Cool Stars are the best place to look for life outside of our solar system.

Jupiter Sun
Our Sun and the planets in our solar-system. TRAPPIST-1a is only the size of Jupiter for comparison!

The search for life

Is there life on other planets? Are we alone in the universe? These kind of questions have plagued scientists for generations as we searched the stars. The way scientists predict whether a planet can sustain life is whether liquid water can be found there. Liquid water is essential for life, as we currently understand it, to exist.  It is believed that all seven of the planets may have water, and therefore be able to support life, but three have been singled out as more likely than the others. This is because they are found in the star’s ‘habitable zone’ which is the area around the star that’s at the correct temperature to have water in its liquid state. This area is also lovingly called ‘The Goldelocks Zone’ as the temperature is ‘not too hot, not too cold but just right’!

Habitable Zones
Comparison of the TRAPPIST-1 habitable zone and our solar system’s habitable zone. All of the TRAPPIST-1 planets are closer to their sun than Mercury is to out sun!

‘7 names for 7 planets’

NASA asked Twitter to name the series of planets and the internet had a field day (I guess some people will never learn from Boaty McBoatface!). I’ve included some of my favourites but if you want to look further into some of the suggestions, search for the hashtag ‘#7NamesFor7NewPlanets’. Click the images below to enlarge them.

If you want some more information about the TRAPPIST-1 system then visit www.trappist.one, a website set-up and run by a group of the researchers.  As I said earlier, talking about life in space was a little out of my comfort zone, and I shall be going back to human biology for the next post! However, personally I found this topic really interesting to research so hopefully I’ll come back to space later in the future!

TRAPPIST1-1

DHMO Hoax: There’s WHAT in my water?!

Building on from my previous theme of Science Scandals (click here to see my post on the MMR Vaccine-Autism scare), one very common scandal that is still seen today is the DHMO Hoax.

DHMO is a chemical that is used in a large variety of industries. It is a major component for oven cleaners, bleaches, pesticides and coolants and is a major part of nuclear reactions. It has been known to cause adverse affects if it comes in contact with the human body or the environment. Some of these adverse affects include:

  • Major component of acid rain
  • Contributes to the “greenhouse effect”.
  • May cause severe burns.
  • Contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape.
  • Accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals.
  • May cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.
  • Has been found in excised tumours of terminal cancer patients.
  • Death due to accidental inhalation of DHMO, even in small quantities.

Those who are against DHMO say it is absurd that a chemical that causes this much damage is constantly used in the production of our food and drink. Surveys have shown that the public were unaware of these facts and supported banning the substance.

dhmo5

But what is DHMO?

If we look into DHMO a little more carefully then we can see that DHMO stands for Dihydrogen Monoxide, which is the chemical name for H2O, more commonly known as water! Yes, everyday, normal water that covers two-thirds of the Earth’s surface! This hoax  shows how if science is presented in certain ways,misconceptions are made. If we have a second look at the facts presented above, it can be clearly seen how the presentation of scientific facts can scare the public.

DHMO (Water) has been known to cause adverse affects on the human body and the environment, some examples include:

  • Major component of acid rain –  What is rain made of? Water! 
  • Contributes to the “greenhouse effect”. –  Water is part of our atmosphere and therefore involved in the “greenhouse effect”
  • May cause severe burns. –Have you ever put your hand in boiling water? 
  • Contributes to the erosion of our natural landscape. – Erosion of landscapes are often caused by rivers which contain (guess what) water!
  • Accelerates corrosion and rusting of many metals. – Water is a major part of corrosion and rust.
  • May cause electrical failures and decreased effectiveness of automobile brakes.- Have you ever dropped your phone in the bath or down the toilet? Water is commonly known to short-circuit electronics and damage brakes.
  • Has been found in excised tumours of terminal cancer patients. – Water is part of all cell types in the body, including cancerous ones.
  • Death due to accidental inhalation of DHMO, even in small quantities. – Ever had a choking fit from water ‘going down the wrong way’? 

But does anyone actually fall for this? Does it actually change anything? Actually, it does! This isn’t about people simply misunderstanding science. This is about people explaining science in a certain way to cause chaos and distrust towards the scientific community. For people who don’t realise DHMO is ordinary water, this can become a huge issue with very prominent people attempting to ban DHMO! Since it began in the 1990s, multiple people have come with calls to ban DHMO. Two politicians from New Zealand alone, Sue Kedgley in 2001 and Jacqui Dean in 2007, have released (and later retracted) statements supporting the ban of DHMO. For those who don’t realise the satire behind this hoax, it becomes a conspiracy theory of governments allowing this dangerous chemical to go unchecked.

dhmo7

Often there is no malicious intent behind this hoax and it is used to highlight how if something sounds scientific, we  believe it as correct. It has been used for a number of April Fools jokes around the world, however not all have been received in such a light-hearted manner. My personal favourite use of this hoax is the Facebook page ‘Dihydrogen Monoxide Awareness‘ which commonly shares photos of how DHMO is used in industry and has recently funded a mockumentory on DHMO. I have been using their photos throughout this post.

 

 

The DHMO hoax at its core is all about how science is presented to the public. The science itself says ‘water can be harmful in certain situations’ however as it is presented with complex scientific jargon, it appears as a dangerous chemical that has not been checked. Afterall, water is a fundamental to survival of life!