The problem with scientists is that, for all their ability to poke the soft bits of the universe, go “ooh, isn’t that weird?” and make numbers dance for them to explain the weirdness, they are utterly hopeless at giving anything a reasonable name. In fact, they tend to one of two opposite extremes – and a boring middle ground, which I’ll explain later – when trying to find a shorthand way of referring to whatever exciting discovery they’ve just made, both of which are geared towards preventing people from asking awkward questions, like “why did this take five years and millions of pounds?”, or “for the last time, Professor von Evil, where’s the off switch?”. The first is to string together a long chain of words in a dead language in the hopes that it’ll sound impressive enough that nobody will ever question exactly what it is you do, giving rise to fields such as Xenoectopalaeontology, or the study of alien ghost dinosaurs. The other is to give it what you initially think is a quirky and funny name, but which none of those pesky laypeople ever understand without you patiently sitting down and going through it with them. Quarks are a constant pain here, no self-respecting scientist wants to admit that the title given to the things constituting protons and neutrons and quite a few other tiny little things was actually nicked from a poem. Another example is the Goldilocks Zone, which brings me onto what I was actually going to talk about.
See, the Goldilocks zone is the name given to the area around a star that’s not too hot and not too cold, and everyone who has ever been a child – most of you, presumably – should instantly guess that it is, in fact, just right. In this case, it’s just the right temperature for liquid water to exist on the surface of the planet – any hotter, it boils off into the atmosphere, any colder and it freezes. This is kind of a big deal, for a planet – liquid water is one of those things that is generally regarded as being pretty important for life to exist.
Recently, scientists announced that a planet orbiting the excitingly-named star Gliese 581 (a small red dwarf somewhere in the general direction of Libra, for those of you wishing to send them a postcard. Please note that this will cost you somewhere in the region of fifty billion first class stamps, and will not be delivered until shortly after the end of time itself) was in the Goldilocks zone of said star. The even more excitingly-named Gliese 581 g, as the planet was brilliantly titled after astronomers couldn’t think of a complicated or a witty name for it – if in doubt, just give it a name that makes it sound like it came from an Argos catalogue, the third option I mentioned earlier – happens to be in the Goldilocks zone. It also happens to be solid, probably – it’s not much more than four times the mass of Earth, which in planet terms means it’s fairly likely that it’s a lump of rock instead of a cloud of gas – which has got scientists all excited because this means that there’s a very good chance that it can support life.
There are, unfortunately, a few problems with this, for all of you hoping it would be a planet populated by blue people who would relentlessly hammer home an environmental message that really didn’t deserve to be an entire film. First of all, it’s about 20 light years away, which despite being pretty close in terms of space in general is still an awkward distance. Theoretically, we could have a conversation with whatever lives there, even if it does take us 40 years to get a reply to whatever we say. At any rate, we’re probably not going to be hopping over for a cup of tea any time soon.
Also, the planet is predicted to exist in a state called tidal lock, based on the size of it, the size of the star, and how far apart the two are. This means that one side of the planet always faces the sun, causing it to be burnt to a crisp and the other side to be frozen. Luckily, this still leaves a middle band of kind of permanent late evening running around the planet, which sounds pretty cool at first, until you realise that if it never reaches early morning, it’s never appropriate to eat the alien version of a kebab.
Then there’s the question about whether or not whatever is crawling around over there is similar enough to us that we can actually communicate in any way. There’s a fairly good chance that if there is anything alive there at all, it’s the space version of bacteria, or something equally primitive. Even if something more exciting had evolved, whatever it once was, it may have died out long before we crawled out the sea. And even if there is something living there, think about how hard it’ll be to actually talk to it. Imagine going on holiday to a country where you don’t speak the language and they don’t speak yours. Now imagine that they’ve got five heads and keep trying to eat you. It’s like Wales but a billion times more frightening. There is, of course, one upshot to this. If it turns out that there used to be something there, but isn’t any more, it’ll give all the Xenoectopalaeontologists a field day.