Deeper Into Jeopardy! XIX: To the Exoplanets! – $400

Some good news and some bad news this week. The bad news first: I will be cutting back my posting schedule for Deeper into Jeopardy! starting this week, from a clue every weekday to a clue every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. Basically, this is because I’m quite busy with my full-time job and various other things, and while I still love writing this series, I have a lot less time to devote to it and to my other projects than I did when I started it. I much prefer to post a little less in order to take a more relaxed approach to the series and be able to put more effort into each, than to try to maintain the hectic schedule as it is now and possibly let the quality suffer.

But now, the good news! Because I’ll be writing six posts every two weeks instead of five posts every week, I will be adding a (quasi-)random Final Jeopardy! clue to my posting routine, on the Friday of every other week. I’m very excited for this – Final Jeopardy! clues tend to be more detailed and offer a more obtuse (and hopefully, therefore, more interesting) path to the correct answer. Discussing FJ!s should bring a new angle to this series, and maybe reveal some more insight into the ways the writers construct their clues.

So, all that means that the writing schedule for Deeper into Jeopardy! will run on two-week cycles – the first three clues of the category in question will get looked at Mon-Wed-Fri of the first week, the last two on Mon-Wed of the second week, and an FJ! on the second Friday of each cycle.

I thank my readers sincerely for their understanding, and certainly hope you will keep coming round here. Without further delay, let’s start the first category of a bright new dawn for this blog, with a category I just couldn’t resist: TO THE EXOPLANETS!. By the way, last Friday saw Julia Collins win her fifteenth game, making her the third person in Jeopardy! history to win that many, and putting her three ahead of the season’s earlier bête noire Arthur Chu.

Jeopardy! category: TO THE EXOPLANETS! (21-05-2014)

$400 clue: NASA has found an Earthlike planet within a “habitable zone”–the area in a star system where this could exist in liquid form

Correct response

The clue: Recent news – this exciting bit of science news just came out last month. The planet, known by the unimaginative moniker Kepler-186f (Kepler-186b through 186d are much closer to the star, itself called Kepler-186), is rocky, only a little bigger than Earth (its radius is about 11% greater, although with a pretty large margin of error), and is at the right distance from its star for it to have liquid water. Even though astronomers have found well over 1700 exoplanets (that’s a planet in a different star system than ours, by the way) so far, Kepler-186f is the first to fulfill all three of those conditions.

Strictly, soberly, scientifically speaking, Kepler-186f is an exciting discovery because it demonstrates that Earthlike planets do in fact exist in the habitable zones of stars besides ours. Whether or not you thought that was a likely scenario has to do with your approach to statistics – since we only knew of one planet like that (that is, Earth) until we found this one, you could either take the approach that since we hadn’t found one yet such planets are likely to be rare, or that since we know of at least one, more such planets are likely to be out there.

If we let our imaginations run a little further, though, this is exciting because as far as we can tell by studying the life we have on this planet, water is a necessary ingredient for it. Of course, the same caveat holds as above: we only know about life on one planet, and life on that planet needs water. Whether or not that means any life needs water is not a given – but it still makes sense that if we are interested in looking for life elsewhere in the universe, we may as well look for conditions similar to what we know. And it should also be pointed out: we do not know whether or not Kepler-186f has liquid water. All we know is that, speaking in very broad, astronomical strokes, it’s in the right place for that to be a possibility within the narrow band of knowledge we as a species possess about matters such as this.

Size comparison of Earth and an unembellished representation of Kepler-186f, and orbital comparison of the Solar System and the Kepler-186 System (click for a larger version)

The clue: A relatively complex clue for a very simple answer. It was big science news when this was announced by NASA, and I like to see the writers including science news in the show, although they could have indicated how recent the news was in the clue as well. Even with its somewhat circumlocutory structure, it’s not very hard – I don’t think there are many people whose minds wouldn’t go straight to water when they hear something about a liquid in space. No one’s talking about looking for oil in space – but once we find life, it shouldn’t take long.

In Jeopardy!: Well, just searching “water” in the J!Archive understandably returns an internal server error, so we’ll need to try another tack. Searching “water planet” returns just ten clues, three of which are about Mars, the rest divided among Jupiter, Saturn, and Mercury. “Water space” returns a hodgepodge of ten with no discernible patterns at all. Basically, there’s a lot to know about water. Give it a read.

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