Goldlicks Planets: Why Science Needs Fairy Stories

I was recently sitting in the back of a taxi in Adelaide talking to the driver about whether life exists on other planets.

There were two things that struck me about the conversation. Firstly, I was in the back of a taxi in Adelaide discussing extra-terrestrial life. But secondly, it was the casual way that the driver referred to “Goldilocks” planets.

“Goldilocks” planets are those located in what scientists refer to as the habitable zone around a sun. Such planets can support life because their temperature is not too hot and not too cold. In fact, it is “just right”. And there was me thinking that a Goldilocks planet was one being roamed by small families of amiable bears with a healthy attitude to nutritious breakfasts.

Even though this term has been around for some years, it seems to me that it has only recently begun to be used more generally in conversation and news reporting. And yet, a couple of developments this week have led me to consider whether this term is enough, or whether we need to extend fairy tale terminology further in order to encompass the latest developments in the field of astronomy.

NASA announced this week that oceans had been discovered underneath the frozen surface of Europa, a moon of Jupiter. Europa is millions of miles away, far outside the Goldilocks zone. But what if life is present there? Scientists may then have to refer to life being possible in the “Snow Queen” zone as well.

Separately, it has also been revealed that the Goldilocks zone is larger than first thought. Scientists have suggested that the Goldilocks zone around some red dwarf stars may extend further because of the type of radiation that these stars emit, as it could melt ice and snow on planets a greater distance away than first suggested. So rather than a Goldilocks zone, we might want to start to refer to a “Snow White” zone instead. But to support this, I think we would also have to name the red dwarf star as well. “Sneezy” would be ideal, as it would suggest the projectile nature of its radiation waves.

I wonder as well whether we should extend the concept and accept that fairy tales offer us the perfect linguistic metaphor for discussing all scientific phenomena. Just imagine how much easier it would be to teach. For example, if scientists have developed a material that is robust to all manner of natural forces, following much trial and error, that could be a “Three Little Pigs” material, able to protect itself from a “Big Bad Wolf” force. If scientists are convinced they have not achieved the best result they could from an experiment and they need to wait for what is coming next, it could be termed “Billy Goats Gruff” research, with the boffin taking the role of the deluded troll. And when there is only one solution to a complex problem, scientists could be said to be searching for whatever fits the “glass slipper”.

It’s not just me who is mining this path. This week, there have been reports about the formation of the Gamburtsev mountains in Antarctica, with theories on how they came to be. It seems that they were covered with ice 34 million years ago and were then, quite literally, frozen in time. Or as it is being reported round the world, “Like Sleeping Beauty, they retained their eerie youthfulness.”

But scientists also need to be careful. Once again this week, the world has been reading about the Cern research facility in Switzerland, and the fact that for the second time, neutrinos seem to be travelling faster than the speed of light. The Cern researchers had better be right. If it turns out they are wrong after all, will anybody ever take them seriously again. Or will they come to be known as “scientists who cried wolf”.

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