Updates from 2006

Discovering Terra Nova in 10 Years

By Professor Jaymie Matthews, Dept. of Physics and Astronomy

Five years ago, I predicted in UBC Reports that, within 10 years, astronomers would find a habitable Earth-sized planet around another star (if they are out there to find).  Halfway into my claimed Decade of Discovery, are exoplanet hunters on – or even ahead of – schedule?

An announcement by a team of American astronomers recently of a sixth planet orbiting the dim red dwarf star Gliese 581a made astronomers and astrobiologists almost as excited as if someone had found Pandora or Tatooine.  Why?  Because Gliese 581g would be the first planet known, other than our Earth, to orbit in the Habitable Zone, at a distance from its parent star that would allow liquid water to exist on its surface.

But within a week of that announcement was the suggestion by Swiss expert exoplanet hunters (who had found the first four planets known in that star system) that Gliese 581g was a figment, not of the imagination, but of the noise in the measurements.

The Gliese 581g announcement was based on data using Doppler wobble technique, and in my 2006 article I stated that this technique was not sensitive enough to find an Earth-mass planet around a Sun-like star. That is still true. We need to wait for new data to be collected when the star returns to the skies of Earth next year.

In the meantime, everything is on track for the discovery of an exoEarth within the next five years.  The NASA Kepler mission was launched in March 2009.  That space telescope is staring at about 100,000 stars to look for transits – dips in brightness when a planet passes in front of its parent star.  In the early stages of its mission, Kepler has already identified about 700 exoplanet candidates.  After three and a half years, if there are Earth-sized planets in Earth-sized orbits around Sun-like stars, Kepler should reveal some of them.

Today, we know of just over 500 alien worlds, and we are truly on the verge of finding alien Earths.  If it takes more than five years from now to announce the first discovery, it will be only because (a) astronomers will exercise even more extreme caution with their data, after the Gliese 581g experience, or (b) exoEarths are not as common as we expect.  Only time will tell, and I still say that five more years will be enough time.

Dogs as Prozac

By Prof. Stanley Coren, Department of Psychology

Back in 2006, I looked at the nature of the bond that people have with dogs and some of the research that seemed to show that dog ownership has advantages that affect the physical and psychological well-being of people. It was already well established that petting a familiar and friendly dog lowered blood pressure, slowed breathing, and reduced muscle tension. These are all signs of reduced stress. I cited reports that showed that men who had their first heart attacks were more likely to be alive four years later if they owned a dog, and others that demonstrated that elderly people, who are otherwise alone seem to require less medical attention and are less likely to become clinically depressed if they live with a dog. It was my belief that we would soon see a major breakthrough where physicians might end up “prescribing” pet dogs to improve the physical and psychological health of people.

It seems that my predictions are beginning to come true in part due to the effects of war. The veterans of recent conflicts in the Middle East have been showing symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) in the form of depression and other stress related problems, including increased rates of suicide. In many interviews, veterans and their therapists reported drastic reductions in PTSD symptoms and in reliance on medication after receiving a specially trained psychological service dog. Because of such data, the U.S. federal government, not usually at the forefront of alternative medical treatments, has passed a bill which gives veterans with PTSD a service dog. This is part of a study to determine if scientific research supports the anecdotal reports that the dogs might speed recovery from the psychological wounds of wars. Preliminary data already shows that dogs may work better and more quickly than antidepressants, such as Prozac.