Some planets have no star to circle; book relates dispute over medical discovery

May 21, 2012
Space
Lonely planets, with nothing to orbit
Astronomy Magazine, May

What’s lonelier than the loneliest person in the world? The loneliest world in the galaxy. In this month’s issue of Astronomy, Steve Nadis writes about rogue planets, worlds that are freely floating through interstellar space.

In the chaotic early stages of their development, planetary systems are thought to form a bunch of objects (planets, planetoids, etc.). But as the system stabilizes, not everybody makes the gravitational cut. “Some of these planets get thrown out, and what remains is a stable configuration,” writes Nadis. “At that point, the system is dynamically full, with no unoccupied niches for large bodies to slip into.” Thus, a few planets slip off.

Because they are tiny and dim objects, it’s tough for scientists to get a glimpse of them. But by using a process called microlensing — monitoring subtle shifts in brightness when an object, such as a planet, drifts in front of a more distant light source — researchers have built a strong case for their existence and now think that these lonely worlds are highly numerous, perhaps outnumbering more familiar, tethered worlds.

Biology
A question of scientific credit
“Experiment Eleven,” Walker Books

The discovery of streptomycin, the first antibiotic effective against tuberculosis, was a big step forward for medicine, but, from an ethical standpoint, it was not a golden moment for the scientific community.

In “Experiment Eleven,” Peter Pringle writes about Albert Schatz, a graduate student at Rutgers College of Agriculture who was working as a lab assistant when, in 1943, he discovered the microbe that produced the antibiotic. As Pringle tells the story, the lab’s director, Selman Waksman, took the credit, even though he did not participate in the experiments that yielded the drug. Though Schatz was initially listed as co-discoverer, Pringle writes, his boss eventually pressured him into relinquishing the patent rights to the university and hid the fact that he was getting a significant portion of the royalties.

Schatz eventually sued and won an out-of-court settlement, but the lawsuit sullied his reputation in the scientific community, and when the discovery led to a Nobel Prize in 1952, his boss was the sole recipient. (Neither Waksman’s Nobel laureate biography nor his Wikipedia entry mentions the controversy.) Ultimately, Schatz’s lab notes were rediscovered and his work was recognized, but his story remains a cautionary tale.

Aaron Leitko

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