alien planet has alien chemistry. io9 is shocked.

GJ 436b has some interesting chemistry, but it's not rewriting astronomy and chemistry books, nor is it a huge surprise to scientists.
hot jupiter falling into star

Could you believe that a far away planet closely orbiting its star would have very different chemistry than what we would expect based on gas giants in our own solar system? Oh you could? And I wouldn’t need to write a story noting about a dozen times how scientists are totally flabbergasted and bewildered at how alien worlds might be very different from our own? Really? You just want the factual reports and an explanation of what the differences between exoplanet GJ 436b and Neptune mean to astronomers? Well, I could do that, but then it would be awfully hard to make what’s essentially a curious, but small discovery in astronomy an astounding, impossible-to-believe-but-true, stop-the-presses science shocker with which io9 decided to go last week.

Here’s the story. GJ 436b has far, far less methane than predicted by models derived from studying the other gas giants in our solar system, as determined by spectroscopy readings. Why? According to io9, astronomer after astronomer have tried to crack this problem but just can’t seem to figure it out. Even though they actually have a working theory and that theory was quoted in the post…

UV radiation from the planet’s star could be converting the methane into polymers like ethylene,” says Harrington. “If you put plastic wrap out in the sun, the UV radiation breaks down the carbon bonds in the plastic, causing it to deteriorate as the long carbon chains break. And we propose a similar process on GJ 436b, but there hydrogen atoms split off from methane letting the remnants stick together to make ethylene (C2H4).”

Well, there we go. It actually isn’t that shocking of a deal and it once again illustrates how some science blogs will go to make relatively mundane news sound Earth-shatteringly important. The same issue applies to the supposed indirect discovery of life on Titan, the fanciful tale of a hypothetical and unrealistic super-Earth’s collision with Jupiter, and a wide variety of other overhyped papers and pop sci posts across the web. It’s an editor’s job to drive hits and sell copies, and he knows that sensationalism sells virtually without fail. But this idea of sensationalizing everything that could possibly be sensationalized can veer into self-parody. Scientists don’t work for magazines and their research doesn’t, and isn’t supposed to be, a ceaseless string of ground- breaking discoveries, so applying tabloid style write-ups of scientific news on a constant basis will eventually end up in headlines like “Shocked Scientists Discover Gravity Still There!” and scoffs from readers.

# space // astronomy / blogging / popular science / science blogging


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