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Gliese 581c: Nothing To Sneeze At?

Reading this story about the discovery of a potentially habitable planet 20 light-years away, I thought: Oh no, more pollen.

Already my black Honda has turned green from the tree-schmutz. Spring brings with it certain special obligations, such as "Spring Cleaning," when you realize that your life is a sprawling array of undermanaged surfaces. All those nooks, crannies, alcoves, crawl spaces. Plus the car needs work and the cats need to go to the vet and your own body probably needs serious attention with a stiff wire brush and maybe some Drano. These folks searching for new planets need to include a maintenance budget. Ask yourself not whether this planet is Earth-like or Mars-like or a Hot Jupiter or whatnot: Ask who's going to clean it.

I am second to no one in my curiosity about life beyond Earth, and my support of astrobiology, exobiology and bioastronomy is the stuff of legend. But I think we can all agree that this is really a bad time of year to be discovering alien life forms. I've got them in my yard like you wouldn't believe. Neighbors walk by and point: "There's the Weed House." I'm seriously thinking of having Roundup dropped in huge buckets from a helicopter. So far I've stuck with the corn gluten and the hands-and-knees, yank-it-out strategy, but one of these years it's going to be all about the napalm.

Meanwhile the pollen is as thick as fog. We should not be finding alien life until we're sure we won't be allergic to it. You can just picture a scientist culturing a little bit of Gliese 581c bacteria in a Petri dish -- only to have a sneezing fit so horrendous that the scientist's head literally explodes. Grisly stuff.

Springtime can have its gentle side, but nature is only pretending to be something that can be tamed. A flower bed is, at some fundamental level, a vicious lie. That's not reality. Those pretty flowers -- a bait-and-switch operation if there ever was one. The central delusion of human civilization is that we are in control. This is a form of madness that dates to the invention of farming. Weeds are the reality.

And humans are weeds themselves -- so perversely adaptive that we have even managed to survive in outer space. Gliese 581c should immediately be put into galactic protective custody to ensure that no human will try to show up and plant a boxwood maze. (Fact: Archer Daniels Midland is at this very second salivating at the prospect of a new place to grow corn.)

Let's be honest and admit that human civilization is a threat to the entire universe. Our central paradigm is that any rocky planet in the "Goldilocks position" such that it is neither too hot nor too cold for the existence of liquid water is the perfect place for a new Applebee's.


More on this at the Bad Astronomy blog.

By Joel Achenbach  |  April 25, 2007; 9:01 AM ET
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