Smallest Earth-like planet found

It’s just a matter of time before a smaller one is found…

An international team of astronomers has found the smallest Earth-like planet yet outside our Solar System.

The new planet has five times the Earth’s mass and can be found about 25,000 light-years away in the Milky Way, orbiting a red dwarf star.

The planet, which goes by the name OGLE-2005-BLG-390Lb, takes about 10 years to orbit its parent star, a red dwarf which is similar to the Sun but cooler and smaller.

It is in the same galaxy as Earth, the Milky Way, but is found closer to the galactic centre.

Mission to Pluto to launch Tuesday

The vastness even of our own solar system is astonishing, that it would take just a year to get to Jupiter, and then another eight to get to Pluto gives you some sense of scale. Because of the orbits of the planets, this mission really has to go ahead before February 14th, or else the probe won’t arrive until 2020, rather then 2015. I will be about 34 when I read news of the probes arrival. Interesting side note…

It will be the fastest spacecraft ever launched, zooming past the moon in nine hours and reaching Jupiter in just over a year at a speed nearly 100 times that of a jetliner.

Kansas school board redefines science

More on science and religion, the Kansas Board of Education has approved new public school science standards yesterday that cast doubt on the theory of evolution. Notes CNN:

The challenged concepts cited include the basic Darwinian theory that all life had a common origin and the theory that natural chemical processes created the building blocks of life.

In addition, the board rewrote the definition of science, so that it is no longer limited to the search for natural explanations of phenomena.

I just feel sorry for the students.

The BBC report on it here:

The new standards include several specific challenges, including statements that there is a lack of evidence or natural explanation for the genetic code, and charges that fossil records are inconsistent with evolutionary theory.

It also states that says certain evolutionary explanations “are not based on direct observations… and often reflect… inferences from indirect or circumstantial evidence”.

“This is a great day for education,” board chairman Steve Abrams told the Reuters news agency.

Evolution in the bible, says Vatican

I think the phrase here is ‘flip-flop‘:

Cardinal Paul Poupard, head of the Pontifical Council for Culture, said the Genesis description of how God created the universe and Darwin’s theory of evolution were “perfectly compatible” if the Bible were read correctly.

His statement was a clear attack on creationist campaigners in the US, who see evolution and the Genesis account as mutually exclusive.

“The fundamentalists want to give a scientific meaning to words that had no scientific aim,” he said at a Vatican press conference. He said the real message in Genesis was that “the universe didn’t make itself and had a creator”.

Viral hanky-panky

Olivia Judson, an evolutionary biologist at Imperial College London has a piece on avian flu in today’s IHT. She notes:

The influenza virus that caused the infamous Spanish flu pandemic of 1918 had only eight genes – but it brought about more than 20 million human deaths. And alas, its lethality cannot be blithely attributed to wartime deprivation. For one thing, it was particularly deadly in young, healthy adults. For another, in a remarkable feat of genetic engineering, a team of biologists recently reconstructed the 1918 virus and used it to infect mice. The results are sobering. The 1918 virus is far, far more lethal in mice than are other human flu viruses.

H5N1 also has eight genes (by way of comparison, humans have about 20,000). So far, the virus’ effects have been more modest than those of the 1918 influenza: It has killed a lot of birds and about 60 people. That’s still worrying, however, because it has killed more than half of the people it has infected. For a virus, that is a high death toll.

My emphasis. There appears to be a conception out there that the very young and very old will be worse affected by an eventual flu pandemic, this is not necessarily the case.

She ends with a warning:

But the most important point is this: Viruses and other pathogens evolve in ways that we can understand and, to some extent, predict. Whether it’s preventing a flu pandemic or tackling malaria, we can use our knowledge of evolutionary processes in powerful and practical ways, potentially saving the lives of tens of millions of people. So let’s not strip evolution from the textbooks, or banish it from the class, or replace it with ideologies born of wishful thinking. If we do, we might find ourselves facing the consequences of natural selection.

Did anyone see Horizon last week? The study into epigenetics was fascinating, the theory that there may be much more to inheritance than mere DNA was thought provoking – can anyone recommend reading in this area?