The title of this post isn't some kind of rhetorical question that I'm about to answer with a sense of journalistic poise--ah, let's explain why this is a huge discovery. It's a question I'm posing because, well, I'm confused.
Obviously, news about a newly discovered "habitable zone" planet in a distant star system is going around social media this week, stirring up discussions around the possibilities of extraterrestrial life, planets worth exploring, our humble size compared to the vastness of the universe, etcetera. But we've discovered plenty of exoplanets already, many of them in the "goldilocks zone." Just take a look at this Wikipedia page.
So why is this particular discovery blowing up across social media?
Maybe it has something to do with the terminology researchers are using to describe it. A "bigger, older cousin to Earth" and what-not. In terms of size, it's the most like Earth that we've discovered so far, so I guess that's interesting. Or maybe something else is going on. Something that makes me a little squirmy.
Now, don't get me wrong. I'm all about astronomy news being in the mainstream, especially when many people get genuinely excited about it, but part of me has to wonder if we have so lost touch with what's happening in astronomy that this discovery feels like big news when it kind of isn't. Researchers have been at this for a while, making similar discoveries for years. In fact, best estimates put the number of Earth-sized exoplanets in the habitable zones of other stars around 40 billion. And that's just in the Milky Way. We've found one. Neat, I guess.
Maybe I'm being a bit of a curmudgeon. My car is in the shop, after all, and I think I'm fighting a cold. Not the best time to post something to the internet. But, frankly, this feels like a minor form of sensationalism to me. And maybe that's nitpicking. Maybe I should shut up and be happy every time science is in the mainstream, even if terms like "God particle" and "Earth 2.0" get thrown around alongside artist renderings of planets that don't actually exist. Okay. I will try. But you know what I'm really afraid of? I'm afraid of science news turning into the Weather Channel website.
"SHOCKING NEW FINDINGS PREDICT LARGE ROCKS MOVING VERY FAST THROUGH SPACE."
"EARTH 2.0 DISCOVERED. YOUR TWIN MAY LIVE THERE, BUT WITH A SCARY MUSTACHE!"