mood Playing with the System Next Door

by Daryl Lease

Published in Issue No. 24 ~ May, 1999

At first, I didn’t pay much attention to the news that astronomers had discovered another solar system in our galaxy.

I suppose I was vaguely aware that this was an Earth-shaking revelation, but frankly, I had a lot of other stuff on my mind. The announcement came on April 15, and I was already feeling puny and powerless, courtesy of the federal government. If the cosmos had similar intentions, it would simply have to get in line.

After I mailed off my tax return, though, the gravity of this astronomical find slowly began to sink in.

Along about April 18 – a Saturday, as I recall – I was so weighed down by news that I had difficulty getting out of bed. I slept until noon, then arose with a stretch and a yawn to a greater-than-ever uncertainty about where, exactly I fit into the universe.

Two, three cups of coffee, and my unease still had not dissipated. In fact, nothing, not even a hairball deposited by my cat beneath my slippers, could distract me from my otherwordly concerns.

It was all so, so hard to comprehend. Once upon a time, we Earthlings considered ourselves to be the center of our solar system. Then, as the result of a revolution, of sorts, the Sun usurped us. Thereafter, we took solace in the belief that our solar system remained the center of the universe.

Now it turns out we’re not even that. It seems we’re sharing our stellar surroundings with a big, bright, beautiful star called Upsilon Andromedea and at least three lackeys, a trio of gassy planets about the size of Jupiter.

Lo and behold, they’ve been in our neighborhood for eons – a mere 44 light years, or roughly 264 trillion miles, away from us – yet we’re just now realizing that the porch light we’ve seen down the block for all these years means that, yes, another solar system has moved in.

The scientific community is, of course, ecstatic about the discovery. And, inevitably, the discussion has turned to speculation about whether this upstart solar system could be inhabited by living beings. The astronomers who found old Upsilon A. say it’s not likely the solar system can support life. For starters, they’ve spotted no rocky planets circling it – no terra firma, no Earth-like orb.

This was somewhat unexpected. For years, astronomers have assumed that all solar systems would be like ours, with a great big sun, and a slew of planets orbiting it – the small, gravelly globes would be in the good seats, and the big gaseous giants would be out in the cheap seats.

Now, they’re wondering if that assumption is true. “Is our own solar system unusual, a cosmic quirk of nature?” asks Geoffrey Marcy, one of the scientists who found Upsilon Andromedae’s planets. “We may live in a bizarre planetary system and just don’t know it.”

Oh, we know it all right. We know it.

In fact, it’s our bizarre, quirky nature that’s troubling me right now. Before Upsilon A. was discovered, our overall Earthling behavior had always seemed at least mildly amusing…charming even. But now that I know we’re not the only solar system in the universe, I’m discomfited by the notion that we’re about to discover that we’re not really very cute at all, that – well – we’re an embarrassment to all of Creation and always have been.

Despite what the scientists say, I suspect Upsilon A. has a planet just like ours. What’s more, I’m worried it’s occupied by people who, give or take a few orifices, are just like us, only brighter.

Sure, Upsilon Andromedea may sound like the name of a fraternity, but we’d be foolish to assume it is inhabited by overweight, beer-guzzling slobs who sleep past noon. UAers may well be brainy, and they may well be on their way here. In fact, they may be closer than we think. For all we know, the light we’re seeing from their solar system may well be their highbeams.

We need to get ready. Unless we take some quick and decisive steps to clean up our planet, to rid it of its most embarrassing features, I fear we’re not only going to be displaced as the No. 1 Solar System, we’re going to become the laughingstock of the Universe.

I’ve taken the liberty of identifying a few potential sources of embarrassment I believe we should address immediately, before our visitors arrive. Please feel free to play along at home.

– Food. Our first priority will, of course, be determining whether the UAers’ taste in food is human, if you know what I mean. If that’s settled in our favor, I think we need to steer them away from fast-food burgers. Once they taste one, I don’t think they’ll look too kindly on what we’re doing to the rainforest.

– Martha Stewart. I hope you’ll agree that this isn’t the image we want to project to the rest of the universe. Our visitors should not be given the impression that we’re likely to try to tidy up galaxy. To be safe, I suggest we send Martha off on a really big mission – like power-washing the Great Wall of China – and hope that the job keeps her busy and out of sight for a while.

– Television. I don’t know. Let’s throw a tablecloth over it, and get back to this one.

– Bill Gates. The thought of him gaining access to superior technology is downright scary. Look what happened to Apple. I suggest we assign him to help Martha scrub down the Great Wall. If they finish early, we’ll ask them to recount their money.

– All of us, Republicans included, must take a vow not to mention Monica you-know-who. We’ll never, ever live that down.

– Internet. Let’s try bluffing. Let’s tell the UAers that our global computer network was originally created to transmit pornography, but that we’re now experimenting, on a very small scale, with the idea of using it to exchange information. Hell, they might fall for it.

So there you have it. That’s my short list. I’m appointing committees right now to identify other embarrassments of an intragalactic nature. If you’d like to volunteer, please send me e-mail and estimate, roughly, how much money you think you can donate to the cause. (All contributions are, of course, tax-deductible. Please make all checks payable to me.)

One last thing: In order not to tip off the Upsilon A. fraternity (or the IRS), please state in the subject line the code name for our project: Operation Keg Party. I look forward to hearing from you.

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Daryl Lease is a columnist for The Free Lance-Star newspaper in Fredericksburg, Virginia.