Seven New Planets
and Another Science Tease
I love science. I really do.
Especially science that deals with space exploration. I can
still name the original seven astronauts…the order in
which they flew… the specifics of their flights. So
I’m with the program.
But I’ve come to find over the years,
that dramatic pronouncements of the latest discoveries, bloated
as they are with such great promise—clues to how our
planet was first formed… whether other life might exist
(or had existed) out there… or indeed, how the universe
itself might have gotten started—turn out to be a big
tease. They enter the news cycle to great fanfare, only to
quickly fade; never to be heard from again. At least not in
our lifetime. Perhaps one day in that of our children. Or
Scientific discovery that loiters in the cosmos—
what with all those celestial bodies moving at unfathomable
speeds— ironically, tends to move at a snail’s
pace in terms of revelations. Consider that Galileo was peering
through his telescope and discovering much about our neck
of the woods, as early as 1609. Though to be fair, science
often runs into a roadblock of real world factors that hamper
its advancement. These usually include, financial feasibility,
politics and the more pressing priorities here on Earth. And
in the case of Galileo, throw in heresy.
For me, the moon first comes to mind. 45 years
after the last astronauts left their footprints there, it
was discovered from afar in 2009, that it had water. And…?
The story died right there. Haven’t we’ve always
associated water to be synonymous with some form of life?
Also, we’ve yet to get around to building
colonies there as predicted amidst the exuberance of the first
lunar landing almost 50 years ago. Though for the first time
next year, two tourists will orbit the moon via an independent
company called Space X.
And upon reading such news, I think of the
ill-fated teacher, Christa McAuliffe, the first civilian selected
to fly and lose her life in space in 1984.
Then there’s Mars.
NASA first landed an unmanned vehicle on the
“Red Planet” in 1976. It then took them until
2012 to posit that there were once flood and river channels
on the planet, and that it too, still has some water present
today. Though probably below the surface and in the form of
ice. And…? Like the moon water discovery, nothing more
followed. Though I would posit that Lunar and Martian water,
have got to be better than what’s coming out of the
faucets in Flint these days.
There are finally plans on NASA’s drawing
board to send a manned vehicle there in the 2030’s.
Over 60 years since Spiro Agnew (Nixon’s first, and
disgraced, Vice President) proclaimed in 1969, “Now
on to Mars!”
On January 18, 2001 a headline in The New
York Times announced that: Scientists Bring Light to Full
Stop, Hold It, Then Send It On Its Way. I thought that
was so serendipitous, it inspired a poem in me which began…
They do stuff like this all the time.
Mostly while we are sleeping.
Discover things like
under the surface of Mars;
new planets and solar systems—
they even midwife the birth of stars…
This feat however was never heard from again.
And 16 years later, I wonder to what end you would want to
stop light dead in its tracks in the first place. Seems like
a fraternity prank now.
Don’t get me started on the discovery
of the boson, or so called “God particle.” I did
a piece on it almost five years ago. (Random Colliding
Thoughts on the Hadron Collider and the Boson It Has Wrought;
2012 MUSE-LETTER). One pompous theoretical physicist espoused
at the time: “With enough data, physics would make
The boson was said to be the ”key
to understanding why there is diversity and life in the universe.”
It threw the geek gods into a state of euphoria.
Someone must have misplaced the key. Not another
word on the boson since. At least not to the general public.
Perhaps the boson is going the way of the bison? And to what
use is that Hadron Collider put to these days?
Which— finally, I know— brings
me to this recent discovery of a new solar system with seven
orbiting planets. It has scientists positively kvelling.
Especially given that some of these orbs, look and feel very
much like Earth and therefore could possibly sustain life
as we know it (insert sarcastic aside here). And maybe some
form of life is already there?
This Trappist -1 System, as it is called for
some unknown reason, with its planets labeled 2b,3c,4d, etc.,
was accompanied in all the news outlets, by an artist’s
colorful rendering of their relative size and order of alignment
from their sun.
As Trappist sounds too “monkish,”
and numbered lower-case letters lack any personality, I’ve
taken the liberty in renaming it all, for easier reference
In particular, the planets of Sessions, Spicer
and Conway are said to most resemble conditions here on Earth,
and therefore most likely to support life. By contrast, Bannon,
like our Mercury, is too hot and would burn everything to
a crisp. And get this, we are excitedly told that Trumpist-1
is “only 40 light years-away!” When you consider
that the “observable universe” is estimated to
be 91.3 billion light-years wide, that sounds like it’s
right around the corner.
Alright. So when are we sending a robotic
craft there for further “hands-on” exploration?
Well, not too soon. If you assume we use the fastest space
vehicle soon to be at our disposal —Solar Probe Plus
due in 2018, with a potential speed of 450,000 miles an hour—it
would take over 60,000 years to get to these “nearby”
planets 235 trillion miles away. And that’s
without traffic. Or getting lost on the way (“Are we
there yet?”). Damn. See what I mean?
Ultimately, we can only visit such places
in our mind. And that’s fine with me. That’s what
makes us human. Because the more we discover… the more
we discover what we don’t know, and therefore have to
assume. There are more things in heaven and earth Horatio,
than are dreamt of in your philosophy. (Hamlet, Act I
So no, I’m not getting sucked in this
time. I’ve learned to lower the bar on left-brain expectation,
while raising it upward on right-brain imagination. Call it
mind over math. And in that sense, science— for all
its attempt at precision and providing answers to all that
is unknown— often requires a leap of faith in much the
same way that any belief system does. And in my mind’s
eye, I see a planet in the Trumpist solar system, where perhaps,
someone is sitting quietly fishing.
See the storm of people blowing
Ocean waves of voices at high tide.
Off to the islands of suburbia they go;
Small crass warnings in effect for the ride.
Through Donny Osmosis in their passing
Beneath their hubbub I absorb the gist
And the grist for their longing everlasting,
Over and over in a rhythmic wish:
“Day is done and now to get home.”
I toy with a premise stretched out to metaphor:
“Day is done and now to get home,”
Said Odysseus in the aftermath of the white-collar war.
Bitterness from the balcony? Palpable? Perhaps.
Submerged as I once was three decades at minimal,
Drydocked now and sea legs sapped,
Beneath the fake stars of Grand Central Terminal.
My ticket punch-drunk from too many trips;
Memory of the commute, now but a blip.
I’m not a reader of memoirs and autobiographies
by politicians. My feeling is that such books are little more
than infomercials in print form, and therefore the “authors”
are hardly going to be forthcoming in their self assessments.
At best, you’ll hear, “I misspoke.” No politican
ever owns up to failings and simply says, “I screwed
up.” Instead, it’s sort of like what you get in
a job interview when an applicant responds to a question about
their weakest trait by saying something along the lines of:
“I tend to be too much of a perfectionist and give 110%
on every project I’m involved in, large or small, and
am sometimes too modest about taking credit for my achievements.”
You could almost read that type of answer
in the very title of Hillary Clinton’s 2014 book “Hard
Choices.” And no doubt there was much hard work to be
done in coming to make those hard choices. Interestingly,
another 2016 presidential candidate Carly Fiorina, once had
choices to make as well. But they were not hard…they
were tough! Said so right in the title: “Tough Choices:
A Memoir” (2007). Some no doubt, even tougher than Sophie’s.
I did break my rule on this almost eight years ago, when I
read Ted Kennedy’s “True Compass.” It was
written as his life was winding down from cancer, and he knew
it. It was published just three weeks after his death. And
I thought in that context, he might have offered something
further on that night in Chappaquiddick. And also, why he
sat by so silently during the Clarence Thomas hearings, while
members of the Senate Judiciary Committee did a number on
Anita Hill. To most viewers and pundits, that silence was
deafening and tied to Chappaquiddick. (For Ted Kennedy, did
not all roads lead back to Chappaquiddick?). He denied in
his book that that was the case. And once again I swore off
But upon it being reported that Barack and
Michelle Obama just signed a two-book deal (his/hers memoirs)
for $65 million—who do they think they are, J.K. Rowling?—I’m
in! In fact, that sum is worth another exclamation point!
I’m impressed by big numbers (you might
have noticed). And I like Barack and Michelle (we’re
on a first name basis since I once ate at the same restaurant
on Martha’s Vineyard that they did). And I’m curious
as to what pearls of wisdom they might dispense with that
would cost that much dough. But most of all, I like good writing.
And apparently, Barack Obama is the one politician who really
can write. No ghosts for this guy. In fact, I might violate
my rule further, put my cynicism aside, and go back and finally
read his prior works in anticipation of his upcoming book.
“Dreams from My Father” (1995)
first put him on the map. And in addition to being a best
seller, it was praised by many for its literary quality. Some
consider it a classic that will have legs for years to come.
USA Today even ranked Obama second to Winston Churchill as
the best politician ever to put pen to paper (ahead of Lincoln).
And in conjunction with his follow up book, “Audacity
of Hope,” over 4.6 million copies reportedly have been
sold, while spending a combined 270 weeks on The New York
Times Best Seller list.
$65 million? That figure far exceeds all predictions by literary
agents and publishers. Estimates this past January were more
in the $20-45 million range for a “two-Obamas”
deal. And even at the high end of that level, they would have
broken a record, exceeding the $42.5 million total (adjusted
for inflation) that the Clintons got for their respective
memoirs: Bill’s “My Life” (2004) and Hillary’s
aforementioned “Hard Choices.”
The critics and readers have spoken well of
Barack. But can Michelle write? Is her story as compelling?
That remains to be seen. But I keep coming back to that humongous
number and wonder just how many books their publisher, Penguin
Random House, has to sell for them to recoup that investment
and for the authors to “earn out,” in the parlance
of the publishing industry. I was unable to find anything
on line other than, “For the Obamas to earn out their
$65 million advance, they will most likely need to sell at
least several millions of copies all together” (Vox.com).
That certainly pins it down.
Trying to wend one’s way through the
math of the publishing industry is virtually impossible given
all its variables. Not to mention all the secrecy and misinformation
bandied about when it comes to book sales. But as previously
mentioned, Obama’s books did sell over 4.6
million copies combined. And for another perspective, according
to a piece in The Daily Beast, Sarah Palin’s singular
best seller “Going Rogue,” sold 1,455,000 copies.
She was at the height of her popularity at the time.
Perhaps the Obamas should entitle their books,
“Going Gold.” And golden each word in these memoirs
must be, if they are to meet all expectations. But above all,
in these and other such books, I want something without any
“truthiness”; a brilliantly coined word by Stephen
Colbert, to describe what appears to be true despite
no evidence to back it up. Also known these days as, “alternative
facts.” The Obamas have their work cut out for them.
But having been under the gun for eight years by hostile opposition,
writing a memoir about their White House years, should be
a short walk in a small park for them.
Quote of the Month
“Anything of great
value—creation, a new idea—carries its shadow
zone with it. You have to accept it that way. Otherwise
there is only the stagnation of inaction. But every action
has an implicit share of negativity. There is no escaping
it. Every positive value has its price in negative terms
and you never see anything very great which is not, at
the same time, horrible in some respect.
The genius of Einstein leads to Hiroshima.”