ZOË RICE: GJ 1214b, or “super-Earth.” That’s what they’re calling our newest possible sister planet, located a few dozen light years down the cosmic road. As a long-time sci-fi and Discovery Channel enthusiast, I can’t help but be excited about the discovery. GJ 1214b–or Soggy, as I’ll call it here, despite not having registered the name with any sham authority, hits a good deal of the qualifications for nurturing life: not too close or far from its sun, an atmosphere of helium and hydrogen, and the likely presence of water. The question I like to muse upon is, But what kind of life?
I do believe that scientists will find life on other planets within my lifetime, or at least firm evidence of its existence there in the past. But I expect plant life, or perhaps marine life, or some kind of microscopic organism. Given the number of planets in the unimaginable expanse of the universe, it’s a definite possibility–even a likelihood–that there is some kind of intelligent life out there, a species evolved enough to affect its environment the way we have ours. But if this alien species exists, I imagine it’s far beyond our limits of detection. Or, even more likely, it has probably already died out. Humans as we know ourselves have existed mere thousands of years, a miniscule blip on our planet’s radar. Even if we do find a planet someday that can host intelligent life–how could we possibly find it at the precise blip moment when that race still lives and thrives? Time, the thing drawing us closer to the discovery, is likely the same factor barring our chance of ever meeting some other kind of higher intelligence.
But Soggy thrills the imagination for other reasons. Not dreams of colonization–the distance and conditions make that sound near impossible. More, I imagine archaeologists and anthropologists one day being able to get their hands on it. Perhaps they can read in the ground, the water, the remnants of life past, what might have come before. Perhaps one day our children or our children’s children will learn about evolution on other planets they way we learn about dinosaurs and ice ages on our own. I long for the time when we discover the unthinkable about life beyond our world. What Gene Roddenberry or George Lucas couldn’t even fathom or create on the screen. The prospect that somewhere out there life exists beyond the limits of our imagination–that’s what I long for our explorers to find. Soggy’s discovery hasn’t gotten us there, but it’s a step in the right direction.
MATTHEW DAVID BROZIK: Not for nothing, but this super-Earth isn’t the first to be discovered. It’s actually the thirty-first. In any event, even after it is officially named, no doubt every inhabitant of regular-Earth will be able to name it again under the aegis of the International Star Registry. (Or, rather, its wholly-owned subsidiary International Super-Earth Registry.)
I have long both loved and loathed the International Star Registry as a scam. Sort of a scam. That is, the ISR is reasonably up-front about being unaccredited as a naming authority. What the ISR sells for $54 (for the “Custom” package; $109.95 for the “Deluxe” and $154.99 for the “Ultimate”) is, essentially, a piece of paper (though no doubt it is a nice piece of paper) with a lie on it. A little white lie, anyway. A white dwarf lie, if you will.
And yet… the ISR still wants the fiction to seem legitimate. Maybe today the legitimacy mechanism is a vestige of more duplicitous prior practice, but it remains. And it’s kind of brilliant. (You know, like a star is.) To give the notion of letting private persons “name” celestial bodies some veneer of authority/authenticity, the ISR (a purely private for-profit organization) “records,” annually, the listing of names in a document, Your Place in the Cosmos, with the U.S. Copyright Office.
The genius of the effort lies, as it were, in the truth that that most laypersons do not know one government office from another, so they hear (on very late night television) or read (in the Star) this and think, “Ah, it’s legit.” But at least half of what is registered with the Copyright Office is fiction. So the only thing that registration of a list of suckers who have paid in the past year to name stars accomplishes is protection of that list. In other words, if someone else wanted to copy that list (or some significant portion of it), the ISF could sue. But there is no protection for the starnamers among us. Which makes sense, because there is nothing to protect. Except that piece of paper you got in the mail. Keep that in a cool, dry place, out of direct sunlight.
I’ve always been curious about multiple naming entries for the same star appearing in a single volume of Your Place in the Cosmos. I don’t know how the book is organized, but I imagine that it would not take much effort to quickly find two entries naming the same star different names. Then what? Chaos, one presumes.