Thursday, June 13, 2002

It seems that astronomers are now discovering planetary systems that resemble our own, although we do not yet have equipment capable of resolving Earth sized planets (although we will soon). In any event, the number of planets discovered in other solar systems is greater than 100.

This type of research excites me no end. When I was a kid, I recall being told two things. Firstly, no planets have been discovered orbiting other stars, and from Earth we never will be able to discover any, because telescopes cannot resolve individual stars as anything other than points of light. I also recall being taught that nobody has ever seen an individual atom, and nobody ever will, because it is not possible to design a microscope that uses a light (or electon) wavelength short enough.

Both these predictions have of course been shown to be false in just a few years. Nobody should ever have made the first one to me, as it must have been obvious even then that we would be able to discover planets by watching stars wobble due to gravitational fields, and by watching their radiation vary as planets orbit in front of them, but the second one resolved in a way that was was completely off the wall. The guys at IBM invented the scanning tunnelling microscope using obscure quantum effects and we have suddenly have company logos made from individual atoms. (I think the STM is one of the coolest things ever invented).

In both cases the things I was told were true in narrow terms. It was not possible to refine existing instruments of observation to see planets or atoms. However, in both cases people invented completely different techniques to do the same thing, which did not have the same limitations. This is science at its most wonderful.

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