Astronomical Paranoia

Everybody scoops me. I don't try that hard to be the first one to bring you breaking news on my blog. Some bloggers get all wrapped up in breaking news and end up missing the more important story or the eventual truth revealed. I prefer to watch things develop, get a feel for where they are heading, and then add my own perspective once I've had time to think about it. Think of my blog as the follow up to breaking stories that you seldom get in print and NEVER get on television as they race to scoop the other guy and retain market share.

Getting scooped by a competitor and the accompanying paranoia has a long history in astronomy too. One case that comes immediately to mind is the prediction and discovery of the planet Neptune. In 1845 Urban Jean Joseph Le Verrier presented a paper to the Paris Academy of Sciences explaining why Uranus was not following the rules of Newtonian mechanics as seen from Earth. The following summer he presented a second paper concluding that there was an 8th planet and described its longitude in relation to the sun within a few degrees.

Meanwhile, in England, John Couch Adams was working on the same problem, and derived an approximate solution by October 1843. Unfortunately, his more precise results did not reach the Astronomer Royal, George Biddel Airy, at Greenwich until October 1845. Upon seeing Le Verrier's nearly identical results Airy convinced astronomers at the Cambridge Observatory to search for the undiscovered planet, but they had such poor charts of that area of the sky that the search proceeded very slowly.

Le Verrier had convinced astronomers at the Berlin Observatory to undertake a search program. Armed with their new Star Atlas they began their search on September 26, 1846. That same night they found a 'star' that was not in their atlas. It was Neptune. The British suggestion that Adams be given partial credit for the discovery was ridiculed severely in Paris papers.

Earlier in history, Galileo, aware of competition as the telescope was becoming available to more observers, resorted to writing up his discoveries in the form of anagrams. That way he could claim first 'publication' without giving away what he had found exactly. Of course, if he turned out to be wrong there was no need to translate the anagram!

When writing about the discovery of the phases of Venus, Galileo resorted to encoding the discovery in a Latin anagram, which when decoded and translated declares that Venus imitates the phases of the Moon. After observing the rings of Saturn for the first time he circulated a jumble of nonsense that later would be translated to “I have observed the highest planet tri-form.”

Christiaan Huygens, upon publishing the discovery of Saturn's moon Titan also circulated an anagram describing his discovery of the actual nature of Saturn's rings. A few years later he was still able to claim to be the first to realize that the tri-planet was actually a ring system, since the anagram predated any other discovery announcements.

Modern times and scientific enlightenment has changed nothing. With astronomers competing for telescope time and funding, the drive to be first is still very alive and well. Often times, several teams of astronomers will be working on the same problem or similar projects that overlap in scope. And so we come to today's real topic.

On the Systemic website, Dr. Greg Laughlin has announced a discovery in the tradition of Galileo and Huygens in the form of an anagram. It reads, "Huge Applet, Unsearchable Terrestrials". Predictions as to what this actually means have filled up the comments section to blogs. Since posting the anagram last month, Laughlin has given several more clues: it contains a German name, and doesn’t contain the words “super” and “Earth.” The best guesses seem to be something to do with an earth-like planet around a star named Gliese something or another.

I can't blame the guy. Almost exactly one year ago he and his team were scooped by a Swiss team that discovered a Neptune sized planet orbiting Gleise 436. He even recounts the story of Adams and Le Verrier on his blog site, bemoaning his hard learned lesson about getting timely follow-up data.

Stay tuned. When the true nature of the discovery is finally announced, it won't be breaking news, since it's already been announced, we just can't translate it! But I promise I'll let you all in on the big secret when it comes out.


Small Town Doc said...


Hi. I saw your comment over at BadAstronomy blog, and I thought I would check out your site. It looks great. I'm thinking of dumping the BA blog all together, for the very reasons you mentioned. I feel (and so do MANY others) that BA has gotten extremely political as of late. And although I don't agree with his politics, even if I did, I would find it quite annoying (and embarassing after a while) to have non-science rants all over the place. I like your site; I will visit often. Thanks.

Patrick said...

Adams probably got more honor than he really deserved for the discovery of Neptune, see this article in S&T or a more complete account here.