Planet discoverer calls for ‘strong promotion’ of EU research

Commissioner Carlos Moedas and the astrophysicist Michaël Gillon, during the interview. [European Commission]

The researcher behind Trappist-1, a system of planets that could contain life, and Innovation Commissioner Carlos Moedas talked to about the importance of EU support. They also played down a PR war with NASA that erupted when the discovery was first made public.

Michaël Gillon is a Belgian astronomer and astrophysicist. He works at the University of Liege.

Carlos Moedas is Commissioner for Research, Science and Innovation.

Gillon and Moedas spoke with’s Jorge Valero.

The first question is almost a must. What is your favourite Trappist beer?

Michaël Gillon: By far, the Blue Chimay

And for you Commissioner?

C.M: The same.

Why ‘Trappist’? Was it the first word that came to your mind when you made the discovery?

M.G: I wanted a name that recalled the Belgian origin of the project. Trappist beer is famous all over the world and most of them are from Belgium. I came up with this acronym, which means “TRAnsiting Planets and PlanetesImals Small Telescope.”

Trappist is part of a larger project called Speculoos (Search for Habitable Planets EClipsing Ultra-cOOl Stars.) This is another example of Belgian PR. What is the aim of the project?

M.G: The project aims to detect planets like the Earth, in terms of size, mass, temperature (not too hot, not too cold), with the possibility of having liquid water on the surface and maybe life. But we don’t want just to detect planets, we want to study them, the atmospheric composition, and maybe detect traces of life. To do this we only focus on the smallest nearest stars, which are called ultra-cool stars.

This is not the first time researchers tried to find similar planets. Why is this project different compared to previous ones?

M.G: Most projects in exoplanet search focus on stars that are like our sun. The sun is much bigger than these ultra-cool stars. Most of the stars in our galaxy are smaller and have lower mass than our sun. At the extreme bottom, there are these ultra-cool stars, which were overlooked by most of the exoplanet searches. It is a kind of anthropocentric bias. These small stars are very interesting. First of all, they are not explored. Secondly, they are the only ones which, with the current technology, we could study and detect life. This is the whole point.

Commissioner, why did the EU support this project?

C.M: The beauty of Horizon 2020 is that we, as politicians, have absolutely no involvement. The choices of the projects are done by peer review of experts and scientists. We work in a bottom-up way, where scientists come to us and tell us what to do. I will always remember the first time I called Michaël and he told me Europe believed in his intuition. In these times, we are living through extremism, populism and everyone trying to close down countries and put up borders, there are very few places on earth where you still believe in the intuition of scientists.

What the Commission did, through Horizon 2020 and the European Research Council, was to believe in Michaël’s intuition, through a technical view of scientists and experts, that he was getting to the right place, with an idea out of the box. That differentiates us from other parts of the world. That is why there are so many people that want to come to Europe to do fundamental science because they find the exact conditions that Michaël found through the ERC.

The seven-planet system was discovered by a NASA telescope. That is when the trouble began because the US agency took almost all the credit. Your name appeared in their statement only in the ninth paragraph. How did you feel when you read NASA’s press release?

M.G: We discovered the system with our telescope Trappist, which is a Belgian telescope. We discovered first three planets, and then another two planets. But the system remained a mystery because there were so many planets, so many signals that we could not make sense of them. At some point, we knew we could not really crack into the system with continuous observation from space.

It was made only possible with the Spitzer Space telescope, a NASA telescope. It really helped us, because it really resolved the mystery of the system and its architecture. It revealed two more planets. But we cannot say NASA’s telescope discovered the system. It was really part of an international research, which was Europe-led, and NASA played an important role, but most of the actors were in Europe.

So what do you think of its statement?

M.G: NASA’s press release was okay. I was clearly mentioned as the leader of the team. If there is a problem, most of it comes from the press itself, because each time the media sees NASA, it tends to give all the credit to the US agency, because it has such a strong image. Europeans have to make clear what we did and leave our fingerprints on the discoveries. We have to develop our own strong promotion of our research.

The press is always partly to blame, because it is very easy to shoot the messenger. But reading the NASA statement, it is at least unclear or misleading when it comes to who led the project. What is your opinion, Commissioner?

C.M: We have to be pragmatic. Obviously, it was not clear. The first time I got the tweet from NASA, it was not clear at all. I think it is a pity because they did not need to do that. They could have been a bit clearer upfront. But we have to ask questions to ourselves. Why aren’t we doing a good job in communicating the stories, and NASA is doing that even with our stories? That got me to contact Michaël and try to think what we can change in the future. We have to be more vocal in general. And it is not only about science.

The EU institutions were trained to not be very vocal about anything, because you would give the credit to the countries. Therefore we have in our DNA a low key way of communicating. In light of the problems and challenges in the world, we have to change that. Science is an example, but it is much bigger than that. We have to be more vocal as politicians and ask people like Michaël to help us, to tell and repeat the story, because a lot is about repeating the story, in different ways, with different people.

Do you have specific examples of how to do it?

C.M: In Europe, by default, we always think before we communicate, and that is good. We want to communicate with all the details. But today, the way you communicate has changed dramatically through social media and new media. You have to be quicker, and sometimes, you have to take more risk, be blunter, and not lose the opportunity. In projects like Michaël’s, instead of communicating at the end of the project, maybe we should communicate in every stage of the project. It is also a way of creating a culture of being in a relationship (with) the scientists, communicating together, and training ourselves to be at the front and not only on the background.

We are the best place for fundamental science in the world. When I saw the news as NASA’s, I immediately called my team and said I am sure this has a link with Europe. We are at the top of the top, and people don’t know it. We have to tell simple stories, we have to be in contact with scientists and give them incentives to communicate more, and we have to liaise with people in different ways.

Michaël, is this only the beginning of the project? Would it be possible to find proof of living creatures in a short period of time?

M.G: That is the whole point. We don’t want just to detect potentially habitable planets. With Speculoos, the project funded by ERC, we will detect more of these systems, so we will get more opportunities to search for traces of life. Even if we don’t find life, we will learn a lot about terrestrial planets orbiting over starts. Only by detecting more systems and by studying them in detail, we will get an answer to the question “are we alone in the universe?”

If we finally find an answer to that question, and we find aliens out there, do you think somebody on our planet will urge us to build a wall and make the aliens pay for it?

M.G: We are searching for chemical traces of life, not for sentient beings. It does not mean there will be someone out there smart enough to make a wall.

If you have to bet on a date, when do you think we will find proof of life?

M.G: I don’t know. If life is very frequent around our stars, within five years we could have the first indications of biological activity out there, ten at most. If life is very rare, we will have to wait much longer.

Moedas: ‘We need to shout’ to sell our discoveries

The EU needs to be “bolder” and “shout” to promote its own scientific achievements to counter the PR tactics of partners like the US, Commissioner for Research Carlos Moedas said on Monday (21 March).

Subscribe to our newsletters