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Coming at the world from an unexpected angle, far too fast to stop.

Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité

News Posted on 2015-11-19 12:35:11

song is visual.

When we
watch this now, it seems a bit… camp, almost. Bit of melodrama. But it was
filmed in 1941. France was occupied, and it looked like the war was in the
balance. Most of the extras in this scene were actual refugees from France.
Their tears were real.

been an article doing the Internet rounds today where the Marseillaise was seen
as a bit too jingoistic for the current situation. While there might be some merit to that argument, the article writer gets it completely wrong a bit down the line, when he’s
saying that ”If you are descended from migrants it’s hard to hear this and
still feel that you are part of the ‘enfants de la Patries’ rather than those
invading ‘féroces soldats’.” Because both this song, and the modern
French definition of citizenship—in essence, what it means to be French—were
created during the French Revolution. And the French idea of citizenship
differs quite a bit from what we think of in the UK, Germany or Sweden.

In France,
citizenship is viewed as an act of will. You become French by wanting to be
French, by embracing the ideals of ”liberty, equality, and brotherhood”. The US
view of citizenship works much in the same manner. You swear allegiance to the
flag and the Constitution: to ideals, not to a ruler, a vaguely defined ”nation”
or a particular group of people.

US society
does have a problem with racism. But nobody who was even remotely on the same
planet as the average human would ever claim that Will Smith or Colin Powell were in any was « less
American » than Tommy Lee Jones or Madeleine Albright.

On top of
that, France and Frenchness is nowhere near as clearly defined as it might
appear from the outside. (“Wherefrom does your intimate knowledge of France
stem,” I hear you ask. “From studying the damn language for six years,” I reply
haughtily. I even prefer speaking French to English when I travel in the
Maghreb, as 1) more people there speak French than English, 2) they can hear
immediately that I am not, for a fact, French, and so they infer that I make an
extra effort to make myself understood, which tends to make a favourable first
impression.) There are still today quite a few people in France who will
vehemently oppose any suggestion that they speak a language called French; they
speak Occitan or Provençal. (And don’t even get me started on Italy—it
has been claimed that there was no such thing as an Italian language until most
people could watch national TV transmissions in the 60s, where they spoke
Italian instead of the local language, and no real concept of Italianhood until
Mussolini forced one upon them.)

And it is
precisely by upholding these ideals, the ones created and spread by the French
revolution, that the French (and, for the most part, other Europeans) have
responded now. The guilty are those who perpetrated the crimes in Paris,
including those who planned it, and those who aided and abetted it. Not the up
to maybe 6 million French Muslims who didn’t. Not even the millions of people
terrorised into aiding them in Syria, as most of them undoubtedly feel they don’t
have much choice, what with ISIS holding guns to their heads.

And if we
back up to the clip from Casablanca, that’s pretty much how the fallout from
WWII was handled. And for what it’s worth, I think that could serve as a
blueprint for how to deal with this situation. Not that I think my opinion
counts for much. Hey, I’m a translator. You can count on me for the tricky
words, but when it comes to tricky political solutions, I elect people to
handle them for me.

So, what
did they do in 1945 that I think was so brilliant? Why did Germany succeed, but
Iraq turn into something that was worse than when they started?

the Allies had decided that they would accept nothing but unconditional
surrender. Remember, this was not only before the concentration camps had been
liberated, but before many of them had even been built; this was only one year
almost to the day after the Wannsee Conference, when the Shoah was engineered.
The Allies did not want a situation where anyone could claim that Germany had
not been properly beaten.

they dealt with the Nazi administration by due process of law, as far as that
was possible. While the matter of jurisdiction was difficult from a strictly
legal point of view, it was widely recognised that the Nazis had invented
crimes so monumental that nobody had even thought of naming them; still, it was
impossible to see them as anything but crimes. But, and this is important, it
was clear that the main responsibility lay with those who had planned and
overseen the crimes; those who had participated enthusiastically were also
punished, but to a lesser degree, while most Germans were regarded as having
been coerced or maybe just fooled into cooperation. (And the diligent student
of history will note that the infamous “only obeying orders” excuse was, in
fact, a referral to the most popular management fad of the time, the “leadership
principle” that stated that underlings would only become inefficient if they
worried over the Why and Wherefore of their orders; they should leave all the
worrying to their superiors. Many US companies are run that way to this day.
For the rest of us, it’s comparable to waving our ISO documents in the face of
the prosecution.) Only those who could be proven to have committed crimes were
punished. We do individual responsibility; collective responsibility is for
barbarians and Nazis
. So while there were punishments meted out, the vast
majority of Germans were acquitted; in a way, forgiven for their crimes.

thirdly, we have the point that was lacking completely in Iraq. The Marshall
plan. Originally, the plan was to transform Germany into a country focused on
, with no heavy industry at all. This idea was soon abandoned, and instead, money was poured into the economies
of Western Europe. In essence, US money rebuilt much of what the war had

This is
what the US failed to do in Iraq. Sure, money was poured into the country, but much
of it went to “security measures”, and most of that was swept up by American
companies providing training to military and police. That’s what you get if you
ask the military what people need. It’s like asking the IT staff at your office
if they maybe need more computers. Maybe the Iraqi would have wanted a hospital
or two, instead of what amounts to little more than well-meaning slogans.

So, the
last point is: build basic housing, schools, hospitals. It might look
expensive, but it’s really nothing compared to the cost of the next war that
you’re avoiding. Because today, the US-led coalition is remembered in Iraq for
everything they smashed, while the Germans, by and large, remember the Allies
for everything they rebuilt and, as opposed to the aftermath of WWI, for not
being sore. Instead of a generation growing up embittered among the ruins, and
joining the next madman who comes along, they could grow up remembering someone
saying to them, “We’re really, really sorry about your Dad, and we know that he
was a good man, but forced to fight us by evil men. Here’s a school for you so
you can catch up with what you missed during the war, a hospital so that we can
help your sister, and a flat where you can live with your mother.”

Hey, it’s gotta
be worth a try. The other way didn’t work.

Pride and Prejudice

News Posted on 2015-01-14 00:15:05

Today’s song.

As I’m
writing this, there’s a wave of anger and sorrow over the recent events in
. And as usual, unfortunately, there’s also a wave of hate and prejudice riding
piggyback on this; I’m not going to give these the benefit of linking to them.

I’m also not
going to talk about the obvious cognitive dissonance of the haters wanting
exactly the same thing as the terrorists: curtailing of fundamental democratic freedom.

I’m going
to talk about the sneering, off-hand deriding of the “religion of love and
peace”. One which even normally tolerant, level-headed people might succumb to.
The obvious implication being that we,
as good secularised Christians, would never stoop to violence.

Because I
have personal experience of this.

Only 25
years ago, in what is now the European Union, I lived in one of the most pleasant
places on the planet
, a country that in many ways still fits Tolkien’s description
of Shire. My brother, on witnessing an argy-bargy over a parking spot,
exclaimed, incredulously, “they’re nice even when they fight”.

there were a couple of occasions when I had to explain that even though my
accent is suspiciously Protestant, I should count as a Tourist. The people I
talked to explained, in a very nice and friendly way, that this was indeed
lucky for me, since they were Republicans and they would otherwise have been
lending me their hats so as I would have something in which to carry home my
teeth. For being the wrong sort of Christian.

What is referred
to in Eire and the UK as “The Troubles” (and in most of the rest of the world
as the “civil war in Northern Ireland”) had calmed down since the most violent
phase in the early 70s, but what the newspapers called “sectarian violence” was
still alive and well. People did get murdered in Belfast on a fairly regular
basis. I visited that city once, and the first sight that met me outside the
railway station was the muzzle of a machine gun; our bags were searched when we
entered shops because they never knew who was carrying explosives. There were
even bombs going off back home in Dublin.

In case the
message hasn’t come through yet: only 25 years ago, Christians were killing
each other in Western Europe, for purportedly religious reasons. Murder,
indeed, in the name of love.
And while you might argue that these labels are
simply lampshading of political divisions—after all, UK newspapers would always
label the sides “Republican” and “Loyalist”—there were, in the same year, Muslims
being massacred by Christians here in Europe
; it is often described as “ethnic
cleansing”, but the definition of ethnicity the murderers used was based on religion.
Thousands were killed by Christians simply for being Muslim.

Some people
find this easy to forget.

And no,
this does not excuse anything. Firstly, I doubt there were any French
cartoonists present at Srebrenica, and it was certainly not mentioned as the
cause for the attack. And secondly, even if they had been there, revenge is no
way to run our affairs. We have courts for meting out justice. And thirdly, the
idea that a crime might be excusable because someone else also committed a
crime is stupid beyond description.

But my
point is that the Western world has, since the Enlightenment, been based on
individualism. This is the idea that you are, generally speaking, responsible
for your own actions. Not for anyone else’s. And nobody else can be held
responsible for what you do.

This would
appear to have been under challenge as of lately. Some people reason that
although they are individuals, all
unique and different, the others are all
the same, and not only that, but they must all be exactly like this one person
they read about in a newspaper.

stupid beyond description.

Finally, of
course, today, I am Charlie. I am also the victims of the Shoah, of the Bloody
Sunday, of Srebrenica, and all those others who had the presumption to be
different from someone who was wielding a weapon.

Forever Young

News Posted on 2014-09-04 17:47:29

I’m getting
lazy, and just link to today’s music like this.

weekend, I visited the town where I grew up,
and had a rather… odd insight about infinity. (If that seems strange to
you—well—my head is, possibly, an interesting place to visit.)

The thing
is that infinity is, like, huge. Absolutely mind-bogglingly huge. And as far as anyone can tell, the Universe
itself is infinite. In space, that is. It really goes on for literally ever,
not just until the next bus arrives or whatever you think is a very long time.
Specifically, it’s so big that absolutely anything that can happen, does. An
infinite number of times, even.

And just as
specifically, that includes you.

Say what?

Well, to
the extent that you’re an arrangement of various atoms in a complex pattern, it
doesn’t matter how unlikely that pattern is. The likelihood that it’ll appear
again is ridiculously low—but not zero. And if you have infinity to play in,
anything that’s possible will happen, no matter how unlikely it is. There’s
even an exact copy of the entire Earth out there, not even taking into
consideration the number of copies that are so similar we couldn’t tell the
difference (because there’s an extra atom of silicon in a grain of sand in Algeria,
or whatever).

even a bloke who has been helpful enough to figure out how long it should be to
the nearest exact copy of you
. (No, he doesn’t have too much time on his hands. Honest. It’s his job to think of
things like this. There you go,
your mind’s boggled again. Onna house. But every now and then, one of these maniacs
come up with something like electricity, so we’re ahead here.)

Mind you,
that’s just the average distance between two yous. If you keep going, there’s
another. And another. An infinity of them, since you can go on forever. And
there’s also a replica of you who’s President, Queen, or Pope, or all of the
; anything that could happen to you, inside the laws of physics, has happened,
an infinite number of times. Including that time you were crooning drunkenly
outside a pub and Malcolm McLaren happened to walk by and decided you were the
Next Big Thing.

And as if
that wasn’t enough—and that’s when I did a double-take—there’s also a copy of
you from the past. An Earth just like this one, only it took a while longer to
get there, so it’s still a while ago there. In my case, specifically, I
realised that somewhere in an infinite universe, it’s a spring day in 1983 and outside
my school, The Almost has just finished playing The Girl I Love, moving on to I
Don’t Care
, and I’m sitting there enjoying myself immensely, despite being
a complete idiot, full of myself and a walking advert for teensy angst.

No, I
wouldn’t exactly want to go there, if only to avoid meeting that complete and
utter twit.

But there’s
a place I’d like to go.

To the
planet where The Almost didn’t break
up in 1984 or thereabouts, and continued to make the sort of great songs that
are possibly now preserved only on an old C90 tape I haven’t played for decades,
plus of course on the sort of rare-ish album Första Vinylen.
Just so I could buy their records and bring them to this planet, you see.

If you’re
Henrik, Johan,
or Wille, this is when
you get exactly as full of yourself as I was four paragraphs up. If you’re not them, this is where you leave a
comment telling me which planet you’d like to visit, if you had a free pass to
any place in the infinite universe.

Extra, Extra

News Posted on 2014-04-01 12:16:25

…and an update: Banksy’s Web page is now completely blank. Still not barking.

In the meanwhile, rumours say the the happening might have been arranged by the crew Czon and Underground, but, crucially, with Banksy’s explicit approval. They have denied it, but as we’re in conspiracy theory territory anyway, I proclaim the denial to be a very suspicious fact in itself.

Czon, in the meanwhile, is a good illustration of one of the shortcomings of street art. There’s a woman involved in the crew, and she’s apparently welcome as long as she’s willing to be depicted without any clothes on.

Art Lover

News Posted on 2014-03-28 16:47:57

One of my
most highly prized possessions is something I don’t, strictly speaking,
possess. It exists only in digital form. It’s an email I got ten years ago, and
it’s actually only one word long, plus the signature.

The word is

signature is “Banksy”.

So, with a
long-standing interest in that very elusive person and his art, it’s no wonder that this
Sunday, I ignored my beeping hoax sensors and made the pilgrimage to
Hudiksvallsgatan in Stockholm, where it had been rumoured that Banksy was to show up for some
sort of manifestation.

I wasn’t
alone. See below. Picture taken 15 minutes after the designated starting time,
and more people showed up during the next 15 minutes; my estimate is somewhere
upwards of 2,000 people. Since I was there on my own (as opposed to alone), I
could chat with some people and overhear quite a few conversations. Most
believed it was a hoax, and most believed nothing much would happen, except for
perhaps a video later appearing on YouTube of the police trying to disperse us
and the caption “look what you can make hype-susceptible people do by
using a famous pseudonym”.

Then a
whistle was blown on our left. A lone jogger in sunglasses threaded his way
through the crowd, followed by a woman who said she wasn’t about to miss
anything. People were completely bewildered until the jogger reached the end of
the street, turned around, and waved at us to follow while whistling a couple
more times. (He was obviously more used to, say, rave crowds.)

The crowd—now
pleasantly surprised since something or other was obviously about to happen, or
maybe was already in the process of happening if the excitement was going to be
limited to a short stroll—followed, rather like lemmings don’t do in real life
(only when massacred wholesale by Disney in order to get a better story). We
were led to a condemned building a few blocks away, and after standing in line
for an interminable time (during which many people prepared themselves by pulling
out their phones and watching the exhibition inside on Instagram), we were led
into a room where the writing on the wall proclaimed “This must be the
place”, in a manner very reminiscent of the street artist Akay.

And, well,
it was. First exhibit was a pair of legs (seemingly alive) hanging from the
ceiling. Death of the artist, no less, so I’m explicitly free to add my own
interpretation. Good. I will, later. A short manifesto on the wall, called
“Anonymous celebrity” and carefully phrased to add to the mystery. It
even referred to the statement put out by Banksy’s publicist only the day
before. For me, though, the great part was still all the other people: milling
about, very uncertain what they were actually doing, and peeking and poking at
the various odds and ends that usually litter condemned buildings, in case they
were actually part of the exhibition.

And in the
next room, there was more writing on the wall, this time most definitely in the
style of the street artist Klisterpeter.

And another
queue in the corner. Leading us past a wall adorned with what a surprisingly
large number of people have failed to identify as a quote from the Hitch-Hiker’s
Guide to the Galaxy, seeming to indicate that someone had got fed up with lying
in front of the bulldozer of commercialism, and into a much larger space. This
one was definitely devoted to Banksy, with re-creations and re-interpretations of
some of his more iconic works.

There were
even exhibits among the rafters, although I was hindered from exploring by
vertigo (and also by being fat enough to be completely unwieldy even on a
ladder, had I found one, but the people up there seemed to have been scaling
the walls). I saw people wearing chimp masks, and there were apparently more
Banksy works up there, real or fake.

And at the
end, a proclamation. The poor artist.

So, what
was all this about?

Internet, as is its wont, abounds with theories. They range from it being
somehow genuine, whatever that might mean in this context (If Banksy is
actually involved, making the stencils and posting them to Stockholm for the
exhibitors to use, does that make the flower thrower “genuine”? Does
“genuine” even have a meaning here? What if Banksy was only shown a YouTube
video of this, laughed and said “Go ahead, do it”?) up to this being
a very elaborate PR stunt by Gucci.

My own
official stance is this: I don’t know whether Banksy was really involved, or if
the question even can be said to have a meaning. But I do know that I was part
of a very ambitious and very well executed street art happening.

there’s the unofficial part.

don’t normally use other artists’ names. Claiming to have done something in
cooperation with, say, Dan Brown or Steven Spielberg is utterly out of the
question unless they’ve actually been involved. So, the only reason someone
would have done this would probably be to criticize Banksy in some way.

suppose it was done without Banksy’s involvement or approval. What do we have
then? Well, we have first a couple of Swedish street artists, then a
retrospective of Banksy’s career, and then the statement that Banksy has been
crushed by commercialism. In effect, a very elaborate way of stating
“Banksy is a sell-out”.

That’s a
huge effort to go to in order to say something that’s been said by lots of
other people. (Very unfair, in my view; the only thing the bloke has done is to take whatever money is thrown at him, in the end enabling him to be a full time artist, in effect freeing himself from commercial pressure.)

If Banksy
is involved, though, it gets a lot more interesting. Then the exhibit is about
his own perception of himself, and how he’s being crushed under some commercial
media hype. Then it’s not just a repetition of what someone else said. It
becomes an artistic expression. It becomes, for want of a suitable word, art.

And there’s
a final clue. As of the moment I’m writing this, Banksy’s Web page only says “Banksy
has not made any t-shirts for a water charity”. This is because someone
claimed he had done so, and the claimer apparently made a decent amount of
money selling said tees. Most artists are very sensitive about having their
name used by someone else, especially if there’s money involved.

Yet, we
have the curious incident of the street artist on his Web page.

Not proof,
of course. And he’s probably not falling over himself to deny some allegation
made in a two-horse town at the edge of the inhabited world, so maybe he’ll get
around to it next week, who knows. Still, it makes me wonder.

Of course,
there’s one way we could get to know, without being told explicitly.

If a mural
were to appear in London tomorrow, showing Banksy being crushed under a giant
Gucci bag.

Better Days

News Posted on 2014-01-08 15:56:07

Frankly, I find it reassuring that whenever we figure in the news, it is in contexts such as this.

Failing to understand satire is an event in which our politicians excel. I remember well when a Swedish punk band sung “There’s nothing to do in this boring suburb – there’s nothing here for us. Well, OK, I exaggerate a bit: we can take drugs, get drunk and get into fights.“-and politicians were horrified that they could “glorify drugs like that.”

Then again, it’s been said that Hell is a place where the the cooks are English,
the policemen are German, the mechanics are French, and the entertainers on TV are Swedish. We’re not really known for our sense of humour. Or, come to think of it, for having any kind of fun at all.

Why is this so?

The explanation is easier than you think. Close yourself into a small wooden cabin, and let the outdoors be below freezing and snowy for 6 months, and let the Sun (the celestial body, not the newspaper) be below the horizon for half of that time. Then open the door, and let’s see how much fun you are.

A Moment of Gibberish

News Posted on 2013-01-14 10:35:59

Sorry about this: a friend requested the lyrics of a song I once wrote with my Dad. But I don’t want to post it on Facebook, since they’d probably claim that this amounted to giving it away to them. Posting it here, copyright stays where it belongs.

It’s in Swedish, hence the apology. (Last night I had the strangest dream I’ve ever had before, I dreamt it was a Friday night and I had run out of booze…)

I natt jag drömde något som jag aldrig drömt förut

Jag drömde det var fredagkväll och all min sprit var slut

Jag drömde om en jättesal där flaskor stod på rad

Men framför dem satt riksdagsmän som reste sig och sa:

“Det finns inga Systembolag, och ingen får sälja sprit

Och ingen känner längre till det ordet Akvavit”

På gatorna gick folk omkring och leta’ efter en krog

Och alla strupar brann som eld och ingen människa log

I natt jag drömde något som jag aldrig drömt förut

Jag drömde det var fredagkväll och all min sprit var slut

4,000 Light Years From Home

News Posted on 2013-01-11 10:41:24

I would appear to have discovered a planet. In my Web browser.

No, really. At least I am one of five who can lay claim to first having spotted it. And this is not as strange an achievement for a translator as it might seem at first sight.

It’s a crowdsourced science project, which anyone can join at The background is this:

In 2009, NASA launched a telescope called Kepler into space specifically to look for planets around other stars. The principle is very simple: look closely at a star, and see if it dims as a planet crosses it. The devil is, as usual, in the details. We’re talking about noticing a speck of dust orbiting a pinhead of light in China, or something similar (I haven’t actually worked out the scale but it usually goes something like that). The speck has to line up exactly with the pinhead. If we were trying to find, say, Jupiter from this distance, the transit would last for a few hours every twelve years, and dim the light by one tenth of a percent – rather less than the regular dimming of the Sun during the 11-year sunspot cycle, and comparable to the optical ‘noise’ generated in the telescope unless you flood it with liquid nitrogen or something.

Still, it works. Out of the 145,000 stars that are monitored, there are a few where planets line up nicely with the star when seen from our perspective, where said planets are big enough to cause the light to dim enough so that it’s noticeable over the background noise, and where their orbital period (‘year’) is short enough so that you can spot several transits (if you see only one, it could be most anything, from a real planet, via a boulder-sized asteroid near Mars, a bolt that someone at ISS dropped and which is now orbiting Earth, and then all the way down to a cosmic ray happening to hit the detector; for a “discovery”, they need three transits so that they can see that it’s regular).

This is where the crowdsourcing comes in. Watching 145,000 stars at regular intervals for several years will generate quite ludicrous amounts of data. Computers can sort out likely candidates – from what I can see, they flag anything where there is a pre-set amount of variation in the data points. But computers are actually quite bad at one thing that the human brain excels at: pattern recognition. The Kepler researchers have thus enlisted the help of some 200,000 human brains to examine their patterns, and it is all done via a Web interface that is so easy that you don’t have to know much about anything at all to contribute usefully to the science, simply by flagging anything that looks out of the ordinary.

Below, I’ve inserted a screen shot of what most of the light curves look like. (Each point represents a measurement; they have been taken every 30 minutes or so over the course of three months.) Nothing very much. Fuzz that falls vaguely along a line across the screen. (The reason the dots don’t fall exactly on the line is that regardless what you’re measuring, and no matter how expensive – sorry, delicate – your equipment is, you will not get exactly the same result twice in a row.)

Sometimes, the star will be variable. It will vary regularly (or, quite often, irregularly) over a period of days, weeks or months. The light curve will be similar, although for reasons having to do with how they are plotted, the curve will normally look a bit less fuzzy around the edges. (If you’re a scientist, the reason will be obvious. If you’re not, the reason is irrelevant.)

And this is what we are looking for. A few data points stand out by being below the rest. This is the light curve of KOI (Kepler Object of Interest) 4760478, and I drew a box around something that looked suspicious to me. (The gap on the right isn’t relevant because it lacks data points altogether, which means that the telescope was doing something else at the time.)

Ta, as they say, Daa.

Of course, I wasn’t alone. Each light curve is examined by a bunch of people, to make sure we don’t miss anything. It appears that eight others spotted this one. (Had I been the only one, it would probably never have been examined by the actual scientists on the project.) On top of that, it’s still only a “candidate”: we’ve only spotted two transits so far, probably simply since the planet has only had time to complete two orbits since Kepler became operative. It’s on the watch list, though, and will probably be confirmed soonish.

And for all the yesterday’s news about discovering planets, I still remember when I was a kid. Not only had we failed to discover any planets outside our own Solar System, but the science books I read – many of them published in the 60s, and many of them based on science from the 50s – were only gradually coming over to the view that planets might be a normal feature of stars. But until 1978, the smart money was betting that planets formed only under highly unusual circumstances, and that our galaxy might contain something like a dozen planetary systems altogether. The first verified exoplanet was announced only in 1992. It’s exploded now: there are currently 854 verified planets on the lists, and Kepler has identified some 18,000 likely candidates that only need more observations to be confirmed.

Was there any point to this, then? After all, I have scanned some 5,000 light curves. Took quite some time. Seems like very little to show for it.

Well, I started out as a scientist, and frankly, looking at various forms of spectra was what I liked most. As they unfold, in a research context, you know that you are actually looking at someone that nobody in human history has ever looked at before. Every new data point can pop up in a new, unexpected place, heralding knowledge that nobody has ever had before. This feeling of adding something new, no matter how small, to the combined knowledge of the human race, is awe-inspiring. (You might find this really, really weird. If you work with golf or sailing, I find you equally weird. Takes, as they say, all sorts.)

If you prefer, you can be awestruck by the human ingenuity. We laboriously dug rare materials out of the ground, and painstakingly put them together to form an intricate device. We put other equally rare and uncooperative materials together in such a way that they could have exploded and killed hundreds or thousands of us, but we controlled the explosion so that the intricate, fragile device was hurled out into space intact. We use the device to look at something so distant that we can’t even perceive it with our own eyes. A few photons were missing for a few moments. And from this, we are able to deduce that a planet got in the way, thousands of light-years away.

And not only that, actually.

This is a figure from the actual scientific publication where they announce the discovery (available in its entirety at arXiv or the Zooniverse; reprinted by kind permission by the authors, as are my screen dumps of the PlanetHunters interface). I’ve coloured “my” planet blue, at the lower right. There is more information available in the paper, but this gives you the top two facts:

1) It’s big. Radius is 12 times Earth’s radius, which makes it something like one-and-three-quarters Jupiters in volume.

2) It’s lukewarm, for a planet. I nearly fell off the chair when I saw that the temperature given is 272 K, which is -1 °C. This is a “theoretical surface temperature”: the planet is very unlikely to have a solid surface at all, and if it does, it lies at the bottom of an atmosphere. Atmospheres provide greenhouse effects, and a planet with an atmosphere is considerably warmer than one without (for Earth, the difference is about 30 °C). This planet is comfortably inside the “habitable zone”, the distance from its star where water can reasonably be expected to exist on the surface of a “rocky planet” like Earth or Mars.

And gas giants like Jupiter have moons.

Imagine we took Jupiter and dragged it to a similar place in our own Solar system. This planet, KOI4760478-1 (this name isn’t official; I’ve formed it by analogy with how they form designations of confirmed planets), circles a star slightly more massive than the Sun, and three times as luminous, at 1.4 times the Earth-Sun distance (that’s some of the ‘more information’ I mentioned earlier). So we’d have to drag it to a place somewhere between the orbits of Earth and Venus, say 1/3 of the way from here to Venus. (We’d have to drag ourselves out of the way, but compared to dragging KOI4760478-1 that’s a piece of cake, or even biscuit.)

Jupiter would probably stay much the same: the main influence on Jupiter isn’t the Sun, but Jupiter itself. It gives off more heat than it gets from the Sun, and this would stay much the same. But the three moons that seem to contain lots of water – Europa, Ganymede and Callisto – would thaw. We would have a system with three potential life-bearing moons. (Io is probably not very friendly to life, and seems to lack water).

Detecting moons around KOI4760478-1 will probably be a task for my grandchildren. But it’s intriguing. All gas giants we’ve seen so far have moons, so it seems very reasonable to assume this one has, too. They will be warm and cosy, and given what we know about planetary development and whatnot, there’s a fair chance that at least one of them would harbour life.

The really interesting stuff starts to happen if more than one of them is inhabitable.

Face it, the reason NASA stopped going places was that there was nowhere much to go. The Moon was devoid of air, water, and anything remotely valuable; Mars was only marginally better endowed and impractically far away. Had we lived around KOI4760478-1, there might have been loads of interesting places to go quite nearby, cosmically speaking.

I leave it as an exercise to the reader to dream up an interesting scenario with three inhabited moons, only two of which have space technology, various religious and political sects setting up colonies all over, and the various colonialistic ideologies that might arise. Then dream up a plot where this is all background and the point is something else altogether.

In the meanwhile, I’ll contend myself with pictures of Endor and Pandora. And I think I’ll lay claim to the third moon, counting outwards from the planet, name it Pelotard and proclaim myself Emperor.

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