28 More Reasons We Can't Be Alone


It's becoming almost commonplace to open the morning paper to a middle-section headline reading: 'New Planet Discovered'.

But how about yesterday's banner? '28 New Planets Discovered.' If that doesn't make you realize how gosh darn insignificant and small we are, I don't know what could.

Waking up to the news that 28 more planets have been added to our consciousness, seemingly overnight—making it a total of 236 exoplanets (or bodies orbiting other stars outside our solar system) we've found so far—is like pausing to marvel at the digital cellular wireless interactive immediacy of our information-rich age and realizing: This is the future we fantasized about. We are living in the future.

Okay, so maybe we only know about these so-called planets due to analyses of faraway observations of stellar wobbles, or subtle variations in a star's radial velocity presumably caused by the gravitational pull of bodies (e.g., exoplanets) orbiting it. It's not like we're zooming off in our aero-cars, Jetsons-style, to check out the new mixed-use retail development just opened on the ice giant that's circling red-M-dwarf Gliese 436, just 30 light-years off the main Earth-bound access road. Not yet, at least. But this new level of sophistication and speed in making the latest astronomical discoveries is certainly profound enough to lead our thinking in that direction… and not have it be so fantastical after all.

Of course, going off the recent IAU ruling on what is—and isn't—a planet (sorry, Pluto and other 'dwarves'), we can't assume to know what exactly these bodies are. Damn, we can't even agree on what to call the chunks of icy rock in our own backyard, relatively speaking… let alone figure out what else might be out there, based purely on calculations, having never actually seen what we're looking at. When we do get clues or glimpses of the other types of 'planets' dotting our universe, they often don't conform to astronomers' expectations. (Example: HAT-P-2b, 'the heavyweight champion of extrasolar planets'.)

In other words, as the days pass, the planetary scene only gets stranger.

This is not only a terminological problem, but a much more fundamental stretch on our ability to comprehend that which is outside our all-absorbing frame of reference… not unlike the major ontological shift required to move from Newtonian physics to the much more bizarre quantum variety, where a particle is also a wave, its quality also dependent upon who's asking. If we've only witnessed certain kinds of 'planets' with our own eyes (and a fancy-shmancy telescope), how could we possibly know about the others that may exist? If we're only familiar with one definition of 'life', how can we be so sure that we'd even recognize others, even if they're right in front of us right now and we just cannot perceive it? Start arguing from the scientific perspective that life must be, for instance, carbon-based… and I'll reply that science is still operating within that frame we can't get outside of. Until something (or someone) from the outside intrudes in, that is.

Then, in tumbles a golden apple, informatively captioned 'For the fairest'… and we bang headfirst into the limitations of our language (and consciousness): its inherent slippage into ambiguous multiple meanings based upon what we, the observer of the particle (or is it a wave?), are expecting to observe.

I'm speaking, obviously, about Eris, the goddess of chaos and the planet ('dwarf' or otherwise) whose discovery pushed this whole mess to the forefront of scientific debate. Just as Hera, Athena and Aphrodite quarreled over who the 'fairest' label referred to, astronomers bickered over which confining definition would end up on the books… and in both cases, this initial discord only led to more war. The Greek goddesses' respective interpretations of 'fairest' each suited their own self-centered purposes (obviously they all wanted the honor), just like the supposedly scientific decision to define 'planet' a certain way was intended (in my opinion) merely to make the category a smaller and thus easier one for we self-serving earthlings to manage (rather than, say, to clearly elucidate the characteristics of such objects for wider meaningfulness).

As our universe gets bigger and reveals how its phenomena defiantly resist categorization (is it a wave, or is it a particle?) unless we pin 'em into fixity, our conceptual grasp over it all turns ever more speculative. In light of all we don't know, even that which we do claim to know must be called into question. This reminds me of astrologer Eric Francis and his interesting take on Eris as astrologically symbolic of 'the postmodern crisis of self', or the existential chaos that accompanies the realization our fundamental societal Truths (e.g., a particle is just a particle, we know a planet when we see one, marriage is between a man and a woman) are always unavoidably partial and conditional upon our own participation.

Underneath it all, though, we still crave the underlying unifying meaning that would heal these deep Eris-related rifts, between our undeniably limited experience and 'The Big Everything'. We want to believe that there really is some definition of life that'll apply to us—and whatever else lurks out there, laughingly watching us behave like oafish monkeys in a zoo while eating some 12th-dimension, calorie-free version of a hot dog. But we can't find it until, first, we humbly admit to being trapped inside a mirrored cage, from which our attempts to look outside ourselves are bound to fall short.

That's Eris's job, as I understand her: scratching a hole into the cage, and throwing her myriad of golden apples (or bizarre other-worlds) through, for us to fight over or wonder about until the next level of awareness makes itself known.

Related articles from Space.com:
The Coming Age of Planets
Really Old Stars Perhaps Ideal for Advanced Civilizations