Not all astronomers are bent on coining techo-babble terms to define natural objects or phenomena, such as quasi-stellar object or stellar nucleosynthesis.
Sometimes, a fun nickname or a quaint turn-of-phrase comes along that truly excites the non scientist. How about black hole or big bang?
Compare the two Anglo-Saxon words above to their less descriptive, and certainly non-romantic scientific terms: gravitational and space-time singularities. (A little more wine, my dear?)
In the case of a quasi-stellar object, the original term used to describe a massive energetic or (radio)active galactic core was quasi-stellar radio source. (Dr. Frankenstein, I presume?)
Ah, but when a few hip astronomers started using the shortened quasar instead, regular folks like you and me took an interest; even the pop culture fell in love with the artificial word's outer limits imagery (maybe you're old enough to remember Quasar brand home electronic products?).
So, as a science writer, I enjoy it when humanity sticks up like a stubborn nail on the parquet floor of science.
Ok, now add a small family of brand new astronomical terms that has infatuated the news of late-they are "Goldilocks zone" and "Goldilocks planet", used to describe possible habitable zones and their Earthlike planets around distant stars.
While it's not clear which astronomer actually coined the term, suffice it to say he or she was clearly thinking of childhood. "Goldilocks zone" hails from English author Robert Southey's 1837 classic children's tale "Goldilocks and the Three Bears". In that sense, both scientists and news reporters are now using the term "to describe conditions that are not too hot or too cold for life as we know it."
"Goldilocks" just got a boost with media flourish last month... with the announcement of yet another possible habitable super-Earth found orbiting the 20-light-year-distant red dwarf star Gliese 581.
Astronomers at the University of California Santa Cruz and the Carnegie Institution of Washington revealed the claim of an Earth-like planet there that could host life.
"Our findings offer a very compelling case for a potentially habitable planet," said astronomer Steven Vogt of U.C. Santa Cruz in a widely quoted news comment about the discovery. "The fact that we were able to detect this planet so quickly and so nearby tells us that planets like this must be really common."
It's not the first time "Goldilocks planets" have been announced orbiting Gliese 581. In recent years, several Gliese planets have been suggested as being Earthlike.
While the romance of more than one Earthlike planet in the so-called Goldilocks zone around Gliese 581 is appealing at first glance, the reality is that red dwarf stars can display wildly fluctuating levels of deadly ultraviolet radiation. How this fact can be reconciled with the fragility of life as we know it, which requires a stable parent star more like our Sun, is rarely mentioned in the headlines.
What's in the Sky: Sky & Telescope magazine has posted a list of easy to find stars with exoplanets (some with "Goldilocks zones") that you can view with the naked eye or a telescope. See: www.skyandtelescope.com/skytel/beyondthepage/101465309.html. Of course you won't be able to see any of these exoplanets, but you can see stars that may be home to the next Earth!
Lou Varricchio, M.Sc., was a science writer at the NASA Ames Research Center in California. He is a current member of the NASA-JPL Solar System Ambassador program. He is a recipient of the U.S. Civil Air Patrol's Gen. Charles E. 'Chuck' Yeager Aerospace Education Achievement Award.