When I see the words, “Seven Earthlike Exoplanets Discovered,” I can’t help reading, “Seven planets so close to their sun that they’re tidally-locked, with years ranging from one & a half days to nearly a fortnight.” And I can’t help asking myself, just for a second or two before the Joy of Expensively Fictionalising Materials (artists’ impressions designed to look as much like real photographs of discoverable objects as possible; retro travel posters returning us to science fiction worlds of yore) hypnotises me: exactly what can be described as earthlike about that game of pool?
For that matter, what is sunlike about the barely warm grape they’re orbiting? And in a slightly different but associated question, why are we at all interested in this irritable little knot of physics tying and untying itself in the middle of a kind of gloomridden void, when, at any imaginably attainable speed, it would take an almost geological period of time to get there? What kind of possiblities exist in such discoveries, except for astronomers? What kind of wish-fulfilment is going on here for everyone else? What need is NASA supplying? Who are they patronising?
Obviously it’s important that a space agency has brought us the news, not a science fiction writer. It’s backed by years of authority, years in the business. Nobody seems to have got the message inherent in that, which is that by bringing us this pious gosh-wow the space agency has become just another source of fantasy. (& actually not a very inventive or interesting one.)
This is just another room in the Punch & Judy Show. It’s science’s own fake news. It’s the spectacle of science in the spectacle, helping to dig the grave of its own raison d’etre by giving the media what the media wants. What’s heartbreaking is how warmly people welcome these Brexit buses, one after the other, gliding down the spacelanes towards happy, shiny worlds of plenty & wonder. Toot toot, all aboard. We’re off to the Gravy Planets.