Precise usage

New Scientist is running an article titled, “Organic molecules found on alien world for first time.” Compelling title, isn’t it?

The problem is most people are going to read more into it than is actually there. The average Joe understands organic to mean ‘living or formerly living material.’ This isn’t wrong, because a biologist might use the term this way, but a biologist wouldn’t say ‘organic molecules.’ Why? Because many, if not most, organic molecules aren’t exclusively the product of living material.

The Wikipedia defines organic compound as “all chemical compounds containing carbon-hydrogen (C-H) bonds of covalent character.” So what’s the nature of the organic compound detected on planet HD 189733b? It’s simple methane. Nothing to get excited about. While I’m no expert, I suspect planetary scientists are not at all surprised methane exists on some of the multitude of worlds in the cosmos.

If anyone gets excited about this, it’ll be the media. They can’t resist a good headline.

The noteworthy aspect of this discovery is not that the methane is out there on a planet, but rather that we were able to detect it from 63 light-years away. It’s the first time such a feat has been accomplished and a vital tool for discovering other Earth-like planets.

There’s something to be curious about as well. The article quotes Sara Seager of MIT in Cambridge, “When the temperature is this high, the dominant form of carbon should be carbon monoxide, not methane.” Still, the surprise is that there’s methane on a planet so hot, not that there’s methane on a planet.

I know I’ve written about it before but don’t even get me started on using the word organic to define a way of producing food. Why couldn’t they get their own word? Organic already has plenty of definitions.

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