Friday, November 14, 2008

Another failed creationist prediction?

I became re-engaged in the creationism 'debate' back in 1998 when a local creationist had contacted the astronomy club where I was serving as president. During that exchange, he sent me the Don DeYoung article, “New Stars, New Planets?” from the Institute for Creation Research (ICR). This is an article about the extrasolar planet discoveries, which were fairly new back then, and was an attempt to place a 'young universe' spin on the topic. The original objects were discovered by indirect means, detecting the Doppler 'wobble' around the system center-of-mass. As of this writing, there are 326 objects detected that are regarded as extrasolar planets (The Extrasolar Planets Encyclopaedia).

In addition to the many errors and misrepresentations in the article, there was the interesting statement that stuck in my mind since reading it:

“In recent months there has been a flurry of new planet reports. Computer and instrument improvements have greatly increased detection abilities. We will consider three stars that show evidence of having planetary companions. In each case, no actual planet has been seen. It is difficult enough to observe distant Pluto in our own solar system; the new planets under consideration are 500,000 times more distant than Pluto.”


Combined with the overall tone of the article, this statement seems to insinuate that these extrasolar planet discoveries will never be definitive and therefore the planets may not even be real.

Well, that 'limitation' has finally been crossed. Less than fifteen years later, we seem to have the first actual images:

Astronomy Picture of the Day
http://apod.nasa.gov/apod/ap081114.html
The story at Science@NASA
http://science.nasa.gov/headlines/y2008/13nov_fomalhaut.htm

It's uncertain whether these detections will hold up under continued observations, but the history of science is such that even if these do not, we have reached the threshold for these types of detections. Instrument improvements will make these types of detections more common. Observing these objects over the course of an entire orbit will make their nature even more definitive.

BTW, as another example of out out of touch Dr. DeYoung is on astronomy, consider that the dwarf planet Pluto (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pluto), at magnitude 14, is visible by the human eye in telescopes with apertures as small as 12 inches - a backyard telescope class instrument. This type of instrument has been within the reach of serious amateur astronomers for DECADES.

Update: January 20, 2013: Fixed minor spelling error.

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