Week in Review

by by Barry Elkinton, Emily Gogolak & Kate Van Brocklin

illustration by by Robert Sandler

Diamond in the Rough

A new source for diamonds may be hard even for De Beers to tap into—it’s a nearby diamond-rich planet born mostly of carbon. The emergence of planet 55 Cancri e sounds like fodder for science fiction, but its implications for our universe and the study of extrasolar planets are certainly real.

NASA’s Spitzer Space Telescope collected data on planet 55 Cancri e’s orbital distance and mass, and resulting computer models gave scientists a picture of its chemical makeup—the planet is likely covered in graphite and diamond. On October 9, this recent discovery was published by the Cornell University Library and should reshape our understanding of planetary chemistry. A diamond in our universe fundamentally changes our perspective of what planets around other stars could be like.

“It’s the first time we know of such an exotic planet that we think was born mostly of carbon—which really makes this a fundamental game-changer in our understanding of what’s possible in planetary chemistry,” said study leader Nikku Madhusudhan, a postdoctoral researcher at Yale University. This gemstone in the sky differs from other rocky planets in the solar system, such as Earth, that are composed mostly of oxygen-rich compounds such as silicates, whereas carbon is very rare (less than 0.1 percent).

“Unlike our solar system, which is dominated by oxygen and silicates, this planetary system is filled with carbon,” said Princeton astronomer David Spergel. This discovery could indicate the prevalence of a whole new class of planets whose chemistry has never been encountered by modern scientists.

Classified as a “super Earth,” 55 Cancri e is twice the size of Earth with eight times its mass. The planet was first noticed when it passed in front of its parent star 55 Cancri A in 2011. Since the rocky sphere orbits its star in only 18 hours, its surface temperatures reach 3,900 degrees Fahrenheit—perfect circumstances for creating diamonds.

Previous studies showed that 55 Cancri e’s parent star was abundant in carbon—much more so than our sun. “If we make the assumption that the star and its surrounding planets are all born from the same primordial disk of material, then it makes sense that the entire planetary system would be carbon rich,” said Madhusudhan, whose study will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Astrophysical Journal Letters.

The planet is situated in the northern constellation Cancer, allowing its parent star to be clearly visible to the naked eye in dark skies. According to Forbes, the diamond planet is worth $26.9 nonillion ($26.9 followed by 30 zeros), which just goes to show that one can still put a price on rocks, even if they’re 40 light-years away. — KVB

Jeremy gets a Job

On Tuesday October 16, President Obama and former Governor Mitt Romney met in Nassau, NY for the second of three presidential debates. Over the course of the evening, the two candidates fielded questions from audience members in a ‘town hall’ format, leading to spirited exchanges over the economy, foreign policy, and Mitt Romney’s penchant for putting women in binders. Afterwards, the post-debate reaction seemed to indicate that both candidates had a strong performance, with perhaps a slight edge to President Obama simply because, unlike the first debate, he actually made it through the evening without needing a nap. But even if the Nassau showdown didn’t seal the deal for either candidate, America now know one thing for sure—Jeremy Epstein is going to get a job.

Jeremy, a junior exercise science major at Adelphi University, was selected to ask the first question of the debate to the candidates. “As a 20 year-old college student, all I hear from professors, neighbors, and others is that when I graduate, I will have little chance to get employment,” said Jeremy. “What can you say to reassure me, but more importantly my parents, that I will be able to sufficiently support myself after I graduate?”

In response, both candidates practically clamored to hand Jeremy his first paycheck. Going first, Romney looked Jeremy directly in the eye. “When you [graduate] in 2014, I presume I’m going to be president,” said Romney. “I’m going to make sure you get a job.”

After Romney finished, Obama tried to match his rival’s encouragement of the cherub-faced youth. “Jeremy, first of all, your future is bright,” said Obama. Later, after discussing his plan to create a clean energy economy, Obama again turned towards America’s new favorite college student. “I expect those new energy sources to be built right here in the United States,” said the President. “That’s going to help Jeremy get a job.”

All this attention quickly turned Jeremy into a media darling. By the end of the debate, #jeremy was trending on Twitter, and numerous media outlets tried to get Jeremy to reveal which candidate’s job offer he found most appealing. At first glance, Jeremy seemed to be leaning towards Mitt. “I felt like he was staring into my soul,” Jeremy said to MSNBC. “Just right through me. I felt like he offered me a job five minutes into the debate.”

But if Romney won the opening skirmish, Obama won the war. In a later interview, Jeremy revealed that, while Mitt’s job offer lifted him to the sublime, Obama’s steady performance throughout the debate was more convincing. “Well, if the election was today, I probably would vote for the President,” Jeremy said to ABC News.

Not exactly a ringing endorsement, but presumably Obama will take what he can get. So forget CNN’s instant undecided voter polls. Obama won the debate. Why? Because Jeremy (kind of) said so. Now, if all goes according to plan, they’ll both have jobs next summer. — BE

Going Commando

“What’s Benito Mussolini doing in your kid’s classroom?” has been the question buzzing around Italy this week, when a restored portrait of the fascist dictator sparked the wrath of locals after it was hung at a school in Ascoli Piceno, a small town in central Italy.

The painting is an odd one, depicting Mussolini—responsible for as many as 500,000 deaths in his 21-year rule—as a sort of ascetic knight in shining armor, donning a white tunic, riding a snow white horse with a mythically voluminous mane, and carrying a sword. It was originally painted during Mussolini’s rule for an exhibition in Ascoli Piceno in 1937, when the town’s school first opened as a technical institute, and it sought to propagandize the dictator’s school reform policies. Last week, the recently restored portrait was put back in the main hall of the same school, now a public high school, eliciting an angry response from residents of the town. The school’s principal told Italy’s ANSA news agency that the painting of Il Duce, as Benito is known, didn’t mean to evoke any hard feelings. He called it “an allegory of Mussolini;” and in a letter to the provincial Young Democrats organization, he wrote that it was for “historical and cultural purposes”—whatever that means.

If you think this sounds like a pretty lame and vague defense, you’re right. The National Association of Italian Partisans, which describes itself as combating historical revisionism and committed to the values of antifascism, announced that the move was totally unjustified and an attempt to “immortalize” Mussolini and the fascist regime. In a nation that still suffers from memories of the Il Duce years, any attempts to praise the dictator are taken very seriously, but revisionism persists. In 2003 Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, referring to Italian concentration camps during World War II, even said that Mussolini only “used to send people on vacation.”

The detractors in Ascoli Piceno, however, quickly got their way: the school administration gave into pressure and removed the portrait on Monday. According to the newspaper La Voce, Italians hailed the removal as a “victory for common sense and reason and therefore victory for all.” The portrait is to be returned to its original owners. But just who they are, why they had the painting, and why it was restored in the first place remains as much a mystery as the flowing white tunic the allegorical Benito is sporting in its frame. — EG