As we focus on President Bush's verbal slip about the unwinnable war on terror, and John Kerry's Vietnam Swift boating, some scientists, intrusive and utterly indifferent to the political calendar, yesterday announced the discovery of two new planets the size of Neptune.
Your first question is whether there are any aliens there, and, if so, do they crave human flesh. Then you try to remember how big Neptune is. Then you wonder if this is a ploy to distract you from the important issues that face our nation, such as whether Bush showed up for all of his National Guard service, and whether Kerry was really in Cambodia that Christmas or just near the border.
Finally, you slap yourself, because you know that science matters, that discoveries in outer space are important for our future as a species, and, moreover, that the discovery of these new planets might somehow move the polls in the swing states.
(Fact: If someone cures cancer in the next three months there'll be a sidebar on how it will affect the race in Florida.)
They made the announcement at NASA headquarters on a little stage backed by a mural of a spiral galaxy much like the Milky Way (scale: 1 inch = 100 gazillion miles). A placard said Smallest Exoplanets Discovered, which, in planet-hunting, is a form of boasting. Small is good, because it's more Earthlike. Large means Jupiterish -- crushingly uninhabitable and repulsively gaseous -- and we now know the galaxy is lousy with Jupiters. A decade ago we knew of no planets outside our solar system, but since then we've detected more than a hundred extrasolar Jupiters, and if you were to stand up today and say you had found a new planet 80,000 miles in diameter everyone would just say "And?? . . . "
The NASA event took place during a rather frenzied period in planet-hunting. A few days ago a Swiss team of astronomers, knowing that the Americans were poised to make a big announcement, rushed out the news that they'd discovered the smallest planet, even smaller than the two announced yesterday. But the scientists at NASA HQ asserted their priority, say they'd submitted their findings to refereed scientific journals before the Swiss did. We live in contentious times.
One new planet orbits the star Gliese 436, an "M-dwarf," also known as a red dwarf, a type that's common in the galaxy. The discovery of planets around these faint, but utterly ordinary stars suggests that the Milky Way may be chockablock with planets. The other new planet is yet more intriguing, for it's the fourth planet found around the star 55 Cancri. The diversity of planets in that system implies that, just as in our solar system, these things come in many sizes.
"We're on our way to finding our first extrasolar Earth," said University of Texas astronomer Barbara McArthur. Scientists dream of finding "Earths that, in the Goldilocks sense, have the temperature just right," astronomer Geoff Marcy said yesterday.
Now we mull the political implications.
In truth, it's hard to know if 21st-century science can possibly affect a political contest that retains certain 19th-century attributes. We think in four-year increments. We fight the last war. We're better at politics than science. Science has this fetish about facts; in attack ads, those are optional.
Many scientific announcements about outer space involve things that don't seem to matter much to ordinary people. When they find a black hole out there it's hard to get too excited unless there's a clear and present danger that it will soon suck us in. In which case we will preemptively invade.
At the risk of grossly overgeneralizing, it's fair to say that there are some Republicans who have no interest in habitable worlds -- including Earth. To even discuss alien worlds is to run the danger of being seen as a kind of Jerry Brown-ish peyote-eating space cadet, completely out of touch with the concerns of no-nonsense Americans who drive pickups and fix fence posts and didn't see the movie "You've Got Mail."
Other Republicans are more open-minded about alien worlds, but understand the political realities: If we find a place inhabited by octopodan creatures with four heads and tentacles and a slitlike orifice that spurts slime onto the ground to predigest food, that's just a whole bunch more Democrats.
The new planets have yet to show themselves to be that most prized thing in the Republican universe: marketable real estate. What we need are vivid images of the terrain of these worlds, so that people can start figuring out where to put the driving range, the sand traps and the water hazards.
Democrats, meanwhile, embrace the idea of alien worlds. In the liberal imagination, these are places that can be colonized in order to create the perfect society, one where all decisions are made communally and all produce is organic. Imagine no possessions: That's going to be the law on Gliese 436.
Besides, if Bush wins reelection, the Democrats are going to need a place to go.