15 September 2011


There are billions of double-star systems, aka binary stars, in our galaxy. In such a solar system, one star may orbit the other, or both stars may orbit a common point or pair of points. (Check this Wikipedia link for several very interesting images and animations, as well as for information on the genesis and makeup of such systems.) Because of the intensity and variance in the light emitted by pairs of stars, we have not detected a binary star with an orbiting planet.

Until now. The NYTimes reports that NASA's Kepler telescope has definitively shown a planet orbiting two stars at once, at a distance of 65 million miles from the pair (about 70 % of the distance from the Earth to our Sun). Besides the gee-whiz factor, planet Kepler 16b ~ nicknamed Tatooine after the Star Wars home planet which also orbited two suns ~ is forcing astrophysicists to reexamine their assumptions about the ground rules for planet formation. "It was long thought that for its orbit to be stable, a planet belonging to two stars at once would have to be at least seven times as far from the stars as the stars are were each other." Kepler 16b is half that theoretical distance from its stars (see artist's image above, click to enlarge).

Life remains full of surprises and undiscovered knowledge ~ whether on the ocean floor, in tropical rainforests, in near or outer space, even in our own bodies. It is moments like this that make the daily struggle worthwhile.

Here's another such moment. A calico cat names Willow disappeared from its Colorado home five years ago. Willow was discovered yesterday on a Manhattan street, and thanks to a microchip that was implanted when she was a kitten, she will soon be returned to her family, which includes three children and two dogs. Awwww. I'd never thought of a microchip implantation for my two cats, but now it's a serious consideration. Check out the link for a picture of Willow.

Finally, thanks to the ever-fecund Sheril Kirshenbaum for this bar graph (see below) showing the PhD gender ration within various fields of study. The headline? "How to choose which department happy hour to go to (when you're single)." Damn, I wish I'd known this when I was in college. But looking at the fields of study, the gender composition makes a certain amount of sense ~ more men in the sciences, more women in the arts and social sciences. In an ideal world it would all even out, but we're still working on that.

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