January 10, 2013

Once, when astronomers announced they had discovered a new Earth-like exoplanet that might be capable of supporting life, I did the blogging equivalent of hiring several elephants, a brass band and 17 pom-pom twirlers and throwing them a parade. 

But lately my attitude toward the ever-burgeoning number of planets has become that of the hard-drinking aunt in a drawing-room comedy. “More planets?” I sigh. I ladle more vodka into my stemware. “The only thing more tiresome than old planets is new planets.” 

We don’t even care enough at this point to give them interesting names. The one that has been attracting buzz most recently is called — I kid you not — KOI 172.02, which is short for Kepler Object of Interest, a name that all its friends agreed was a mouthful. Given its excessive size — 50 percent larger than Earth — it is a “Super Earth,” not an Earth Twin, which seems cruel, given the underlying similarities. You do not stop being someone’s twin just because you arrive at college and increase your size by 50 percent. But “Super Earth” sounds better than “Fat Earth Twin.”

It has a 242-day year, it could support life on its surface, I understand that it’s impressive. But after getting excited about Gliese 581 G and Kepler 21 something or other and all those others, these planets just blur together. And the more planets we discover with Earth-like conditions, the more likely we are to bump into some sort of life forms. This one, according to a quote from astrophysicist Mario Livio in the Atlantic Wire, might be capable of supporting ‘very clever dolphins.’ Very Clever Space Dolphins is a fair-to-middling name for a band, but I don’t want to tangle with them anytime soon. 

This is an area of science, like research into dinosaurs, that I wish would proceed more slowly. I have just gotten accustomed to the absence of Pluto. Give me a few years to wrap my mind around this Super Earth. And don’t tell me T-Rex had feathers and was a fetching shade of teal. This is all too overwhelming. I am beginning to feel a creeping sympathy for people who called Kepler and Galileo heretics. It was not that they were opposed to the progression of knowledge. It was just that they were sick of having to get excited about new sunspots. 

Calm down, science, please. 

Alexandra Petri writes the ComPost blog, offering a lighter take on the news and opinions of the day.