Astronomers are like restaurant critics—both bang on constantly about exotic places we’ll probably never get to.
For instance, astronomers keep finding new, exotic planets out “there,” habitable worlds that we cannot see. They tell us these worlds could be exactly like ours, complete with donut shops, traffic jams, and social distancing. Or they might not be. No one really knows. But that doesn’t stop the astronomers from finding more and more planets. We are loaded with planets.
Recently, they spotted a blob circling the star GJ1061. In a wild bit of creativity, they called it GJ1061d. It will take you over 400,000 of our years to travel to GJ1061d for a visit. And that’s the problem with these planets we cannot see. How to entice volunteers for the one-way trip? It’s like the first explorers who discovered the La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles. Somebody, probably a summer intern, had to agree to be lowered into the gooey glop to find the Sabre tooth Tiger skulls with menacing fangs that scare the pants off the children on school field trips. Without those jutting canines, you’d just have a tar pit museum showing off the old tires and arrowheads they found. And that won’t sell tickets.
They’ve found so many new planets that that naming them gets weird. GJ1061d is something that sounds like the password to my email. Occasionally, though, there’s a wit on the team. When the farthest (so far) orb in our solar system, VG18, needed some cachet, they must have thumbed through seven Harry Potter novels and added in some Grateful Dead lyrics before they re-named it “Farout” because it was, well, the farthest. That’s inspired science.
Astronomers think we need to keep sending mechanical rovers that look like remote-controlled Roombas to clunk around looking for water, old gum wrappers, or new molecules. Recently, they found phosphine, a smelly gas molecule that could indicate life, on Venus. Very exciting; it suggests that somebody might be at home. But before you sign up for the Venusian holiday weekend package, read the fine print. Five months of space travel gets you to a place where you would be crushed by the enormous weight of the atmosphere, and you would burn up in surface temperatures high enough to melt our spaceship. It’s a little like going to Scottsdale in the summer.
Now what’s the link up of astronomers and restaurant critics? Say our local newspaper’s restaurant reviewer has been on a road trip and discovered a tasty new Hydroponic-Greco-Ethiopian-Incan barbecue pit in a strip mall next to a shoeshine stand. Raves and raves. Best ribs in the land. My saliva is flowing. But the place is in Omaha and I live in Providence, Rhode Island, and I’ll never get there. Ever.
To further investigate this connection between food science and star science, I invited three astronomers to a predawn breakfast in Providence. Contemplating a sky science meetup, we had to get takeout from the appropriate bakery. The Seven Stars on Hope Street filled the bill. Then we headed for a park.
Once at a picnic table, I expected the astronomers to sit around gazing at planets in the pale sky. I even thought one might point and say “There’s a bazillion planets like ours up there.” The others would nod and smile. But that didn’t happen. The trio of sky watchers started comparing the Seven Stars cinnamon buns to the buns at every other bakery in Providence. And one said she only had better cinnamon buns once before, at a rib place in a strip mall in Omaha.
So, from the conversation that morning, I’ll have to take it on faith that there are a bazillion planets out there, and possibly on our beloved GJ1061d, an identical bunch of astronomers is sitting around, gazing at our blue planet, and doing much the same thing: Comparing the cinnamon buns.
In the end, it doesn’t matter if we, the public, believe them about all those planets. But you can argue about the buns until the sky goes dark.
John Hewitt is a writer living in fiery California. His last absurdist novel was Freezer Burn, the story of a dead ferret with a musical ear.