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A curious mathematical crime-fighter has just boosted our confidence that the galaxy is brimming with alien worlds.

The statistical phenomenon, called Benford's law, has been shown to fit existing data on both confirmed and candidate exoplanets. The results suggest that of the thousands of planetary candidates, the majority will turn out to be real worlds and not errors in the data.

Initially a mere mathematical oddity, Benford's law states that the first digits of the numbers in certain sets follow a pattern of probability. For the numbers in a variety of data sets, 1 is the leading digit about 30 per cent of the time. Higher digits are less frequent: on average, just 4.6 per cent of numbers in such sets begin with 9.

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