Trappist-1: 7 exoplanets, 3 in the Goldilocks Zone

After a bit of a wind up and several hints, NASA finally dropped their big news: 7 earth-sized exoplanets were discovered circling a ultracool dwarf star called Trappist-I, 40 light years from Earth. Of these, 3 planets (e, f, and g) are considered to be in the so-called Goldilocks Zone, which is where it is not too close or too far from the sun, in a range where water could be found – and with water, the potential for alien life.

Let’s break down this discovery.

An ultracool dwarf star is a star that is less than 2,700 Kelvin and in this case is much smaller than our sun – it’s just barely the size of Jupiter. It’s also roughly 2,000x dimmer. It’s found in the constellation of Aquarius (The Water Carrier).

Trappist is the name of the telescope that discovered the star and its planets, the TRansiting Planets and PlanestIsimals Small Telescope. By studying the light from the star, they could determine that it was being orbited by planets, by measuring when and how the light would dim periodically, based on the orbiting bodies blocking the light from reaching the telescope.

The discovery was confirmed by the Himalayan Chandra 2-metre Telescope (HCT) in India, and with the Very Large Telescope (VLT) in Chile and the UK Infrared Telescope (UKIRT) in Hawaii.

Emmanuël Jehin, a co-author of the new study, is excited: “This really is a paradigm shift with regards to the planet population and the path towards finding life in the Universe. So far, the existence of such ‘red worlds’ orbiting ultra-cool dwarf stars was purely theoretical, but now we have not just one lonely planet around such a faint red star but a complete system of three planets!”

Michaël Gillon, lead author of the paper presenting the discovery, explains the significance of the new findings: “Why are we trying to detect Earth-like planets around the smallest and coolest stars in the solar neighbourhood? The reason is simple: systems around these tiny stars are the only places where we can detect life on an Earth-sized exoplanet with our current technology. So if we want to find life elsewhere in the Universe, this is where we should start to look.”*


Artist’s illustration of the surface of a planet in the TRAPPIST-1 system, which hosts seven roughly Earth-size worlds.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

The planets are very close together – so close that they would be visible in each other’s skys if you were to stand on one at look out at the horizon; some would even appear larger than our moon is to us. Their tight orbits also mean that they travel close to their sun, lying closer to TRAPPIST-1 than Mercury does to our sun. The tight orbit also means they are probably tidally locked – so unlike our world, these planets always show the same face towards their sun, acting more like our moon. What else would you see? Due to the dimness of the star, it would be a sunset world, never getting any brighter than dawn or dusk on ours; due to the infrared light, the air would be warm with a rosy glow.


Characteristics of the seven TRAPPIST-1 worlds, compared to the rocky planets in our solar system.

Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Data suggests that all six inner planets are rocky, like the Earth; not enough is known about planet h to determine its composition. Powerful gravitational tugs, both from TRAPPIST-1 and neighboring planets, could heat up the worlds’ insides, leading to volcanism, especially on the innermost two worlds.

The TRAPPIST-1 system is at least 500 million years old, but its age cannot be constrained more precisely than that, Gillon said. Ultracool dwarfs such as TRAPPIST-1 generally live for 4 to 5 trillion years — about 1,000 times longer than sun-like stars.#

Due to the distance of these planets it will be hard to find more information without better equipment. However “NASA’s $8.8 billion James Webb Space Telescope is slated to launch in late 2018, and huge, capable ground-based scopes such as the European Extremely Large Telescope and the Giant Magellan Telescope are scheduled to come online in the early to mid-2020s.”

Sources: *ESO Science Release;; ESO Public Archives



Hummingbird vs Butterfly – how the world changes in unexpected ways

The butterfly effect is a fairly well known idea in chaos theroy. It’s a metaphor thought up by Edward Lorenz, who imagined that the air moved from the flap of a  butterfly’s wing could result in a hurricane over time; the idea that one’s actions, however small, could be the cause of great effect somewhere down the road.

What I’ve never heard of until today, is the hummingbird effect. This effect is one where “an innovation, or a cluster of innovations, in one field triggers innovation in an entirely different field.” What seperates it from the butterfly effect, is that the cause and effect is directly relatable, if not originally anticipated.


Image from Brain Pickings

The reason for all the interest is due to Steven Johnson’s new book, How we got to now: six innovations that made the modern world – where all six are the result of the hummingbird effect.

Here is one of the famous, historical examples of the this theory in action:

“Johannes Gutenberg’s printing press created a surge in demand for spectacles, as the new practice of reading made Europeans across the continent suddenly realize that they were farsighted; the market demand for spectacles encouraged a growing number of people to produce and experiment with lenses, which led to the invention of the microscope, which shortly thereafter enabled us to perceive that our bodies were made up of microscopic cells. You wouldn’t think that printing technology would have anything to do with the expansion of our vision down to the cellular scale, just as you wouldn’t have thought that the evolution of pollen would alter the design of a hummingbird’s wing. But that is the way change happens.”

I had never realized the relation between these innovations before, and it honestly makes me want to go out and buy this book, if only to explore this phenomenon further.

Sources: LinkedIn; brainpickings

Why do some people dislike animals?

Most everyone saw the cute animal twitter war that happened a few days ago between various zoos and aquariums. It was a real win-win situation in that (a) I love animals, (b) I love cute animals, and (c) BABY ANIMALS, OMG, HOW CAN I EVEN?!


Ron Lute (Flickr)


It was much discussed amongst my friends which we found cutest (baby tigers! No baby otters!) and why (look at their little ears! Those little paws!). But one friend mostly stayed out of the uplifting discussion (and retweeting) that followed. She’s not much of an animal lover.

We all have one friend like that right? While we were mooning over horses, they maintained that any animal that lets people ride it can’t be that smart. Dogs are messy and noisy. Cats aren’t to be trusted. Who would ever even want a reptile as a pet? And so on.

As an avid animal lover her disinterest in most things cute and fluffy has always been a source of confusion to me. She admitted that the vast majority of people’s helpless gushing over animals confused her, so we were even in that respect, though she’s in the minority.

Where does the difference come from? The most common assumption of course, is that it’s a habit. If you grow up with pets as a child, you’re more likely to have some sort of animal companion when you grow up – right? Familiarity and confidence in animal caretaking skills sounds like a strong basis for pet ownership. However, it turns out that this is one situation in which the obvious is concealing the truth.

One of the best ways to determine how much of a trait is due to life experience or genetics, are twin studies. Scientists LOVE twin studies. A study from the University of Chicago looked into data collected as part of an ongoing, long running Vietnam Era Twin Study of Aging that collects data on 1000 pairs of (male) twins in order to examine behavioural interactions with animals.

The results? First, identical twins responded more similarly than fraternal twins did, when discussing their interactions with animals. The researchers determined that 35% of the differences in whether or not the participants played with pets could be attributed to genetics. That seems like a rather large genetic disposition towards or against animals before a person is even born.

And yet, coming back around to the idea that having pets as a kid would be a large factor in determining if you have pets as an adult  – apparently it’s not true. The shared environment of siblings who grew up together with pets was not nearly as important as non-shared events, that is individual events in a person’s life. The study determined that 70% of the differences between twin siblings in relation to animals were a result of non-shared environments or random factors. That’s more than twice the impact of the genetic factors.

Growing up in a pet-friendly environment apparently has no impact on the future outcome of pet ownership. A person could grow up with a genetic predisposition to like animals, grow up in a pet-loving environment and be completely turned off of all animals by specific life events. Like being attacked by a dog, for example.

My non-animal loving friend did not have pets when she was growing up. But she was bitten by a dog once. So is it nature – a genetic inclination to be uninterested in animals, as evidenced by lack of childhood pets? Or the trauma of being bitten by a dog when she was younger? According to this study, it was more likely the latter.

Keeping in mind that (a) it’s none of my business, (b) her non-attachment to animals was probably cemented in place before she was ten, and (c) I love my friends anyway even when they don’t like fluffy animals – I’ll try to be more sympathetic to her plight. Besides, that means more snuggling animals for me.

Source: Jezebel; Psychology Today

Warfare, wildlife, and biodegradable bullets

The winner for strangest environmental concept this week goes to the biodegradable bullet. I have seen this news story all over and I’m not sure how I feel about this idea. I am not really pro-gun in any sense. I concede that for people in rural areas, who may hunt or need to scare off predators, a firearm (like a shotgun) is a practical tool. Otherwise I don’t see why anyone needs or wants one.

8073823931_de7c8f2c8f_m(photo credit: John Spade, Flickr)

However, I am aware that shooting ranges exist and some people do that for fun. As an environmentalist, an initiative to reduce the amount of toxic metal mined, and then left to pollute the earth, is an intriguing idea. Add in potential for regrowth through seeds held in biodegradable capsules and suddenly this sounds more like a science fiction than real life.

But the US Department of Defense has been looking into these bullets to replace the live rounds currently used in their training, so it’s not fiction. This might be the first time I have ever heard of an army intentionally attempting to mitigate environmental costs; although, I have heard of accidental environmental benefits of warfare.

The area between the North and South Korean borders is called the Korean demilitarized zone (DMZ). It’s often considered the most dangerous border in the world. In 2012 the Guardian ran an article about this border and its surprising status as a wildlife haven. The political situation that makes it so dangerous for people has created a place that shelters several endangered and rare species. I would not call it a silver lining, because war is a terrible and heartbreaking condition of humanity. But it is a reminder that while we go about doing wonderful and terrible things to each other, the world lives on regardless.

It seems spectacular, and ridiculous to think that someone decided to turn something deadly into a source of life and rejuvenation. It makes you think that the way through to a better future just requires looking at what seems to be inevitable and then changing the rules.

Sources: IFLScienceSBIR/STTREarth NutshellThe Guardian

Discover Parks Canada

c150-discovery-pass   2017 is the 150th anniversary of Canada, and all National Parks are free for the year!

I have already ordered my Discovery Pass and I am very excited to spend as much time as possible in the National Parks this year.

The National Parks were created for preservation of habitats, wildlife and ecosystem diversity, with an eye to preserve that which is most unique in each of our natural regions. They range vastly in size from 14 km2 to almost 45,000 km2. The total area protected is roughly 300,000 km2 or 3% of the entire country.

The system began in 1885, when a portion of land was set aside for public use – the Cave and Basin Hot Springs, the beginning of what is now known as Banff National Park. It grew in bursts, beginning with sectioning off more pieces of land for the public, until eventually an organization was created to combine these spaces and create new ones.

I have been telling friends and family about the free park passes in order to share this awesome occurrence with as many people as possible. I have already begun planning on visiting new parks, and more parks than usual, due to this deal.

What I did not anticipate was the backlash. The nature gatekeepers, if you will. The people who commented under articles about this opportunity that their favourite places will be ‘ruined’ and that there will be a wave of ‘city’ people, tainting the parks, making a mess or otherwise behaving in an unfit manner.

I have met amazing, friendly, lovely, outdoorsy people. I meet them while hiking, or camping, or biking, or enjoying a nature trail at a sedate rate. Everyone is always so energized and happy to be outside, to enjoy our abundance of nature, to make the most of our beautiful country and our occasional good weather.

It was upsetting to see that so many people have this ‘us’ or ‘them’ mentality. Not everyone is lucky enough to have the free time and funds to frequently visit parks. Some people just don’t feel the need to go very often, but will take advantage of the lack of fees to spend some time there this year. Regardless, the parks are for everyone – and hopefully an increase in interactions with the parks will continue to inspire people to protect what we currently have for future generations.

According to Parks Canada: “[Parks] are protected for public understanding, appreciation and enjoyment, while being maintained in an unimpaired state for future generations.”

Note the first aspect is understanding. People can’t appreciate or enjoy what they do not know or experience. The second aspect is what worries others – that uncaring droves of tourists might mess up the parks. There will always be people to whom the state of our natural world is not a priority but they are vastly outnumbered not only by those who do care, but by those who simply do not know what it is they should be protecting. Those people deserve a chance to explore the parks and get to see what’s around them.

While some parks have experienced a decrease in visitors, overall there has been an upward trend. The number of people who used the parks (including the marine areas and reserves) in 2010-2011 was 12,529,627. Last year that number rose to 14,469,008.

Crowds are not fun for anyone. But I’d like to think the majority of people are encouraging newcomers to come see what the Parks have to offer, instead of chasing them away with the idea that only a limited number of people should have the privilege to be there.

Sources: Parks CanadaParks Canada AttendanceHistorica Canada

The Landlocked Dune


South of the downtown core, in a slow suburban area, the trees give way to an interesting sight. The ground underfoot loses the grass, becoming sandier, and the view gives way to reveal Piney Sand Dune.

The dune is located at the corner of Pineland Ave and Vaan Dr. It’s the only inland sand dune in Ottawa and has survived for an impressive amount of time – it dates back to the ice ages, some 10, 000 years. The dunes were created the usual way – in the waning years of the ice age the area used to be an inland sea that eventually drained and changed until only the dunes were left.

The dunes and surrounding forest became a conservation area in 1984 when donated to the NCC by Mr. Pinhey.

As one can expect from a unique ecosystem, there are several plants and animals that can only be found in this location. As can also be expected, it’s an environment that has required some special care in order to survive.

Biodiversity conservation was responsible for its restoration in 2011. In 2012 a non-profit, Pinhey Dunes Watch, took over stewardship of the area. Without this work it would probably take only a decade for the dune to disappear, taking its unique ecosystem with it.

The Biodiversity Conservancy maintains a list of the species that can only be found locally in this location, most of which are insects, beetles, and butterflies, along with specialized plants. The Ghost Tiger beetle that blends into the sand where it lives; the Antlion beetle that has a trapping method for hunting and eating ants; Carex rugosperma a grass that can only grow in sandy soil; Star Fungus, which grows primarily around the edges of dunes; the Pinklady Slipper Orchid which has a symbiotic relationship with fungus in the area and would not survive transplantation efforts.

There used to be thriving spider populations as well but an increase in herbicide usage nearby during the 80s led to their disappearance.

It’s an interesting relic from a different time – for those who like to explore the area they live in and find unexpected treasures in their backyard, Pinhey Sand Dune certainly fits the bill. An unexpected geographic feature tucked away, hidden unless you know where to look.