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Professor emeritus Gordon Walker casts a shadow over a projected image of Jupiter, which has roughly the same mass as the exoplanet he discovered. (DARRYL DYCK)
Professor emeritus Gordon Walker casts a shadow over a projected image of Jupiter, which has roughly the same mass as the exoplanet he discovered. (DARRYL DYCK)

Lost world: How Canada missed its moment of glory Add to ...

In June, 2007, the Nobel Foundation sponsored a special symposium in Stockholm, inviting top researchers to discuss the physics of "exoplanets" - planets that orbit stars other than the sun.

The quest for far-off worlds, once dismissed as sheer fantasy, is now considered the "other space race." Such planets may help humanity realize its ancient dream of finding extraterrestrial life, and finding the very first of them has gone down as one of the great accomplishments of 20th-century astrophysics.

In fact, the gathering in Sweden was a nudge-nudge, wink-wink indication from the secretive Nobel gatekeepers that the reward for this discovery will be a prize in physics. Perhaps the one that is to be announced in 10 days. This is, after all, the International Year of Astronomy.

If the award seems certain, who will receive it is anything but. Will it go to the American or European astronomers credited with making with the initial discoveries? Just last week Swiss researchers revealed that they have found the first new planet that is, like Earth, terra firma, rather than an amalgam of gases akin to Jupiter.

Or will the Nobel committee members keep in mind the vagaries of scientific endeavour and award the prize, at least in part, to two dark horses in this race?

"Gordon Walker and Bruce Campbell were the real true pioneers," says Alan Boss, an astrophysicist at the Carnegie Institution in Washington, D.C., and author of a new book called The Crowded Universe: The Search for Living Planets .

He is referring to the British Columbia-based astronomers who pioneered the world's most successful search technique for exoplanets, and published the first scientific paper that accurately reported the detection of one. Unknown to most Canadians, theirs is a compelling a tale of innovation and determination - but one that fell short.

After laying their claim to having discovered the first exoplant, Prof. Walker, in an attack of scientific self-doubt, retracted it. By that point, his colleague had already quit astronomy in frustration.

As a result, their enormous promise ended in heartbreak - a classic example of the physical and psychological challenges of the scientific journey.


Mr. Boss is not alone in acknowledging the Canadians' achievement.

Geoff Marcy, a University of California at Berkeley astronomer and the world's leading exoplanet hunter, has helped to find 170 of the approximately 360 exoplanets discovered so far. And he says the Canadians "invented the technique that we stole … if it wasn't for Bruce Campbell, you wouldn't be talking to me."

He says this over the phone from Berkeley while remotely monitoring results from the giant 10-metre Keck Telescope atop Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano in Hawaii, in a bid to verify sightings of new planets being made by NASA's Kepler space telescope.

Kepler, launched in March, is the first telescope powerful enough to spot planets as small as Earth revolving around distant stars. In mid-August, the Kepler team announced that the telescope is working perfectly and is on target to reach its ambitious goal: a census of such planets by 2012. To do this, it is watching about 100,000 stars in the Milky Way for "transits" - the period when planets pass in front of their stars, causing mini-eclipses that temporarily dim the stars' light.

"Kepler will not find E.T. - it's hoping to find E.T.'s home," Bill Borucki, the NASA visionary leading the mission, said when the telescope was launched.

"Whether we show that there are lots of Earth-like planets, or very, very few, we'll answer a question that has been asked by mankind for millennia: Are there other worlds, or are we alone?"

The excitement over the search for alien worlds belies a huge shift in our view of the cosmos. While by 1980 moviegoers were accustomed to a Star Wars menagerie of fictional worlds, astronomers counted only nine real planets: those of our solar system.

"It is quite hard nowadays to realize the atmosphere of skepticism and indifference in the 1980s to proposed searches for exoplanets," Prof. Walker writes in a recent article.

The skepticism was fuelled by almost a half-century of false alarms, often caused by the fact the planets are hidden in the glare of their stars.

One was reported in 1967 in orbit around Barnard's Star and made it into astronomy textbooks, only to fade ingloriously in 1973 when it was shown to be not a planet, but a problem with a telescope.

In another case, a venerable U.S. astronomer arrived at what was to be the announcement of an alien world he'd found, only to admit that he'd actually made a mathematical error. (He was hailed nonetheless for being brave enough to break the news himself.)

"There was literally a gravesite with lots of tombstones of planets that had come to life erroneously and then laid to rest," says Prof. Marcy.

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