For someone who’s not interested in planets around other stars, exoplanets, I write about them a lot. But exoplanets have been hot news for some time now and they’re not cooling off any time soon.* The planets are big or little or in between; they’re made of gas or rock or maybe some combination; they might have atmospheres or they might not or nobody knows; they’re hot or cold or in between; they’re in the habitable zone or not. And that’s about it for actual facts.
So. Boring, right? To sex them up, public information officers and headline writers resort to aliens. These are real tweets from responsible sources:
- Alien life may swim on earth-like planets: oceans cover habitable exoplanets
- We are searching for exoplanets that can support carbon based life but possibility of silicon based life grows
- Scientists discover yet another rocky planet that could (maybe) host alien life
- New super-sized Earth may be close enough to detect signs of life
Still boring. So they also try to sex them up with artists’ lurid but scientifically plausible illustrations (see above). The places they show look different but they don’t look real, I don’t have to take them seriously. Still boring. Then somebody tweeted these:
They have discovered a planet. It is brave and cautious. Something mundane stands there, awaiting the future.
They have discovered a planet. It is far away. The wind is heavy and smells strongly of doughnuts. Would you like to pet dogs there?
You have discovered a planet. It is large and beloved. Occasionally, there’s a a far-off howl in the forests. Join me?
God yes, oh yes, please, I thought you’d never ask. Yes. Please.
The tweeter is a Twitterbot named Newfound Planets, @I_Find_Planets. The person behind the bot is Charles Bergquist and he’s a producer at PRI’s Science Friday. His job seems to be, roughly, doing a bit of everything: finding topics, researching them, interviewing guests, prepping the program host, solving the tech problems, and getting the program on the air.
We have discovered a planet. It is diminutive, with navy blue valleys. Its cliffs appear to be made of diamond. When can we go?
His views of exoplanet news are also a little cynical: “I’m more interested in an exoplanet story when it’s about an improvement in process or technique — things like, now we’re suddenly able to see these smaller planets, or we’re able to get information on its atmosphere* — than I am interested in the standard ‘scientists have found another X worlds around a star Y light-years away’ stories.”
We have discovered a planet. The harmful sunrise shines on its elegant rivers. Some of its cliffs look like oolitic limestone.
Bergquist uses bot technologies developed by other people, he comes up with templates for the sentences (which I interpret to mean subject-verb-object, subjects and objects are nouns, verbs are verbs); he gives the bot lists of words; and within its constraints, it chooses the words. Sometimes he gives the bot new words; sometimes he takes away old ones that “don’t cause some reaction in me once I see what the bot does with them.” Sometimes he tweaks the sentence templates if he thinks they get too samey. He also adds new planetary features according to what he’d like to know: moons? rocks? noises?
You have discovered a planet. The wind rushes madly over its bitty glaciers. Once in a while, there’s a an unexplained coo in the darkness.
Bergquist started the bot after Science Friday ran a piece about bots improving peoples’ daily routines, “and I realized that it was something I could do.”
I have discovered a planet. It is watery and rash. We could fly there with a lightsail. Do you want to subscribe to the newspaper there?
He likes the randomness of the bot’s sentences, and wonders, “hmm. why did THAT specific phrase have an effect on me?” He also likes the replies the bot gets, “seeing how personally people take the planets the bot creates.” One person said, “This one is mine, I call dibs.” Another one said, “I think this one is Jenny’s planet.” People ask him for planets, usually just a tweet, “Planet, please?”
Here is your planet: It is orchid, with brawny rings. It is just beyond the horizon. I imagine that there are writers there.
One person asked, “May I please have a planet where I can read books and listen to Handel?”
Here is your planet: It is celadon and elastic. It is in a distant nebula. If there are composers there, you could question.
Another person: “Will you find me a planet to spend the long days with, please?”
Here is your planet: It is powerful and verifiable. It is obscured by a dust cloud. Do you want to see beauty there?
The New York Times published a listicle of sciencey twitter bots and included Newfound Planets. It quoted Bergquist telling them that “people enjoy the bot because they yearn to know what it’s like on another planet.” I’m being presumptuous but I disagree. It’s not other planets they’re yearning for. It’s for life on this one, this incomprehensibly varied, impossibly beautiful planet.
I have discovered a planet. It is just next door. It is peach, with beautiful valleys. One day, you could find joy there.
But sometimes living here can be so difficult, so exhausting. It can be hard to find joy here.
They have discovered a planet. It is spacious and honored. We could voyage there through the mists. We could sing there, perhaps.
We are often disappointed and disappointing. Our dreams tend not to come true. The people we love go away or die.
They have discovered a planet. Something starry sits there, dreaming of daybreak. Would you like to grow old there?
We see other peoples’ moral shabbiness. We worry about our own. We don’t want to be bad people.
We have discovered a planet. It is hiding from us. It is extensive, with russet valleys. One day, we could be good there.
We sleep badly. We sometimes see horrible things. Sometimes we are rightly frightened.
I have discovered a planet. It is far away. Frequently, a comforting purr is heard in the air. It makes me feel happy.
They have discovered a planet. It is huge and unequaled. The wind is warmhearted. Let’s go.
I have discovered a planet. It is spacious and quaint. It is nearer than night. Perhaps you could find peace there.
* Bergquist’s reason for being more interested in the technologies than the planets, and the main reason for exoplanets’ continuing fame, is that astronomers have lined up a lot of fancy techniques and telescopes for finding them. True, astronomers have always claimed every new technology is going to find exoplanets but until recently that’s been a Congressional Funding Device. Now they mean it.
Photos: Pluto / Charon From Hydra by Bill Lile