The New Earth-Like Planet: Notes On Difficulties in Divulgation of Scientific Concepts

I was struck by a simple problem, among the many things I heard in these days about the discovery of planet Kepler 452b, now baptized as “cousin of the Earth.” This may be due to a bias in my mind, which is automatically oriented towards finding discrepancies, or better unpredictable holes, in the ways the main announcement of a scientific discovery is made to the public.

First, from non-specialized radio speakers, I heard (twice) a sentence running as: “We have admired the beautiful pictures of the new planet,” and I immediately realized how deceiving astronomical concepts are when their divulgation passes a number of times from one description to the following one. All the official public outreach sites I checked on the net (e.g. the NASA page, the Kepler mission Facebook page) make clear that the nice images illustrating the comparison between the Earth and the “cousin” Kepler 452b are plain “artist’s conceptions” or “artistic views” of the planet, and not photos of any kind. Kepler 452b in fact is 1400 light years away!

A bit later on, I discovered that even a non-naif good friend of mine had fully conceived the idea that a space probe had reached the far-away solar system (and taken the images)!

She had not counted the time span necessary to do such a mission. Even disregarding the enormous energy necessary to power such space probe, and letting it travel at the velocity of the light (impossible claim), the probe would have taken 1400 years to arrive close to the planet and take the “beautiful pictures,” and further 1400 years to send them back. So the mission should have begun with a launch 2800 years ago.

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