Tuesday, Oct. 14, 2008

Wide Weird Universe

By David Luhrssen
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The science of nowadays envisions a cosmos wider and weirder than the science of a century or even a quarter century ago. It�s hard for most of us to keep up with the changing theories or fully grasp their implications.

The History Channel series “The Universe”provides an elementary lesson in those branches of learning concerned with the universe beyond our Earth. Underlying the eye candy computer graphics is an understandable sequence of explanations, mostly by reliable scientists. Out now on DVD, the 14-hour set spans many light years and topics, everything from supernovas to dark matter.

If all the talk about things imagined but unseen, such as worm holes and white holes, sets your head swimming, you might want to start with the more tangible subject of planets circling other stars. They were science fiction until the 1990s even if theoretically probable. Since then some 200 have been detected, usually through wobble tests and Doppler shifts, at first by astronomers whose careers were going nowhere. Since planet hunting was deemed little better than UFOlogy by mainstream science, they had nothing to lose by being risky.

What astronomers think they have discovered about those other worlds makes our orderly solar system and our bountiful Earth appear unique. The orbits of those extra-solar planets are eccentric to say the least, and the planets themselves are gaseous giants or balls of ice buffeted by 6,000 mph winds or raked by radioactive rays. Life as we know it could not exist under such conditions, although those 200 planets represent an incalculably tiny percentage against the millions of worlds as yet unknown.

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