Archive for the ‘non-technical’ Category

The exoplanet prediction market

February 20th, 2007 Comments off

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At first glance, the market capitalization of the Chicago Board Options Exchange, and the list of astronomers active in the field of extrasolar planets would appear to have nothing to do with one another. These two disparate entities are connected, however, by the fact that they’ve both undergone explosive growth over the past decade, and both are continuing to grow. They signify highly significant societal trends.

I think it’s safe to predict that in 25 years, the market for financial derivatives, and the level of economic activity associated with exoplanets will both be far larger than they are now. It’s interesting to ask, will there be an unanticipated co-mingling between the two? And if so, how will it occur?

One very realistic possibility is the development of an exoplanet prediction market, in which securities are issued based on particular fundamental questions involving the distribution of planets in the galaxy. Imagine, for example, that you’re an astronomer planning to devote a large chunk of your career to an all-or-nothing attempt to characterize the terrestrial planet system orbiting Alpha Centauri B. In the presence of a liquid, well-regulated exoplanet prediction market, you could literally (and figuratively) hedge your investment of effort by taking out a short position on a security that pays out on demonstration of an Earth-mass planet orbiting any of the three stars in Alpha Centauri.

Prediction markets have been adopted in a very wide range of contexts, ranging from opening weekend grosses for big-budget movies, to forecasts of printer sales, to the results of presidential elections. A highly readable overview of these markets by Justin Wolfers (who was featured last week in the New York Times) and Eric Zitzewitz of the University of Pennsylvania is available here as a .pdf file. The ideosphere site contains a wide variety of markets (trading in synthetic currency) and includes securities directly relevant big-picture questions in physics, astronomy and space exploration. Here’s the price chart for the Xlif claim,

which pays out a lump-sum of 100 currency units if the following claim is found to be true:

Evidence of Extraterrestrial Life, fossils, or remains will be found by 12/31/2050. Dead or extinct extraterrestrial Life counts, but contamination by human spacecraft doesn’t count. (Life engineered or created by humans doesn’t count.) The Life must have been at least 10,000 miles from the surface of the Earth. If Earth bacteria have somehow got to another planet and thrived, it counts, as long as the transportation wasn’t by human space activities.

It’s very interesting to compare the bullish current Xlif price quote of 72 with the far more bearish sentiment on Xlif2, which is currently trading at an all-time low of 17,

and which pays out if “extraterrestrial intelligent life is found prior to 2050”, and more specifically,

Terrestrial-origin entities (e.g. colonists, biological constructs, computational constructs) whose predecessors left earth after 1900 do not satisfy this claim. If the intelligence of the ET is not obvious, the primary judging criteria will be either a significant level of technological sophistication (e.g. radio transmitting capability) or conceptual abstraction (e.g. basic mathematical ability). Radio signals received or similar tell-tale signs of intelligence (e.g. archeological discoveries) detected and accepted by scientific consensus as originating from intelligent extraterrestrials would satisfy the claim even if not completely understood by the claim judging date.

Recently, open-source software has been released that makes it straightforward to set up a prediction market. We’ll soon have the world’s first exoplanet stock market up and running right here at In the meantime, feel free to submit specific claims (in the comments section for this post) that might lend themselves to securitization…


February 12th, 2007 Comments off

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Saturn reached opposition yesterday, marking the moment in our yearly orbit when the Earth draws closest to the massive ringed giant. At midnight, Saturn is currently the only planet visible in the sky. It’s an odd feeling to stare at the bright unresolved spot of light that encompasses the planet, the rings, and the moons into a tiny golden point, and to know that Cassini, our robot emissary, is actually out there, almost a billion miles away, taking photograph after photograph, and radioing them back to a mere mouse click away.

Schematic image of the solar system on 2/11/2007 created at Solar System Live.

Saturn and its rings are good reflectors of light, but nevertheless, in the vicinity of the planet, the glare is far from overwhelming. The ambient light levels are only a bit more than 1% that of a bright summer day on Earth. It would be easy to stare at the crisply defined terminator marking the day-night boundary on the planet and the arcs of black shadow cast by the rings. On the Cassini website, there are many views that show the planet as it would appear to human eyes.

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Cassini also has the ability to photograph in the infrared. The following false-color photograph shows visible and infrared images of the planet superimposed. In the infrared, Saturn glows with interior heat — still welling up from the planet’s formation — that illuminates the night from within.

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The picture above is not a bad approximation of what a younger more massive planet would look like to the naked eye. 2M1207 b, for example, which seems to have a mass about five times that of Jupiter, is in a 1700-year orbit around a young 25-Jupiter mass brown dwarf. At 1250 Kelvin, 2M1207b is still warm enough to be self-luminous in the visible region of the spectrum. It is also slightly illuminated by the light of its companion (whose ~2500K surface is intrinsically 100 times more luminous.) Methane absorption and Rayleigh scattering of incident light in 2M1207 b’s atmosphere likely give the weak crescent a bluish-green hue.

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Categories: non-technical, worlds Tags:

mp3s of the spheres

January 18th, 2007 Comments off

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New users are still streaming into If you’re a first-time visitor, welcome aboard. You’ll find information that you need to get started in this post from several days ago.

The EZ-2-install downloadable systemic console is the primary software tool that we provide for analyzing data from extrasolar planetary systems. The tutorials 1,2, and 3 are the best way to learn how to use the console. Over the past few months, we’ve been adding a range of new capabilities that go beyond the features described in the tutorials and which improve the overall utility of the software. We’ll be explaining how these new features work in upcoming posts, and for our black-belt users, we’re also putting the finishing touches on a comprehensive technical manual.

When we designed the console, our main goals were to produce a scientifically valuable tool, while at the same time make something that’s fun and easy to use. Early on, we settled on the analogy with a sound mixing board, in which different input signals (planets) are combined to make a composite signal.

We’ve pushed the audio analogy further by adding a “sonify” button to the console. When sonification is activated, you can turn the stellar radial velocity curve into an actual audible waveform. If you create a system with several or more planets, these waveforms can develop some very bizarre sounds. From a practical standpoint, one can often tell whether a planetary system is stable by listening to the corresponding audio signal. Alternately, the console can be used as a nonlinear digital synthesizer to create a very wide variety of tones.

Here are links (one, and two) to past posts that discuss the sonification button in more detail. If you come up with some useful sounds, then by all means upload the corresponding planetary configurations to the systemic back-end.

Categories: non-technical, systemic faq Tags:

Armchair Planet Hunting

January 15th, 2007 2 comments

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The Associated Press just published an article on how the Internet has facilitated an increasing number of collaborations between amateur and professional astronomers. The systemic project is one focus of the AP piece, and we’re seeing a jump in traffic as a result. If you are a first-time visitor to the site, welcome aboard!

There are several ways that you can use and participate in systemic. Our project home page is a weblog (updated fairly frequently) that gives an insider’s perspective on the latest developments and discoveries in the fast-moving fields of extrasolar planets and solar-system exploration. We write for a target audience of non-astronomers who are interested in astronomy. To get a flavor for the blog, keep reading the posts below, or have a look at a few of our past articles, such as our take on last Summer’s big “is Pluto a planet debate”, our exploration of what planets and galaxies really look like, or our series [1, 2, 3, 4] on the feasibility of detecting habitable terrestrial planets in the Alpha Centauri System.

You should see a set of links just to your right:

These links give you information that you can use to start participating in the actual discovery and characterization of extrasolar planets. (Despite the fact that we’re rocket scientists, we’ve been unable to consistently sweet-talk Microsoft IE into correctly displaying our site. On some versions of IE, you may have to scroll all the way down to the bottom of this page to see the links). The Downloadable Systemic Console is our Java-based software package that allows you to work with extrasolar planet data. The Systemic Backend is a collaborative environment that has the look and functionality of a social networking site. Registration and participation are free. The nearest well-characterized extrasolar planets (GJ 876 b, c and d) are 14.65 light years away, and so the news of useful modern innovations such as pop-ups and spyware hasn’t had time to propagate to those far-distant worlds. Hence the systemic backend is completely free of annoying ads!

One final note: there are two separate channels for registration on systemic. The first, accessed through the “login” tab on the site header above, is part of the WordPress package that runs the blog. Registration on the blog allows you to comment on our frontend posts. The second, accessed through the “backend” tab on the site header or the link to the right, gives you access to the collaborative php-based environment that constitutes the systemic backend. You can register for either or both, and you don’t need to give your real name or any real-world identifying information other than an e-mail address.

Tune in regularly for more news and updates.

Categories: non-technical, systemic faq Tags: