The Third Discovery of Another Earth

The first time it happened, we fought about what it meant.  We’d found another planet in our galaxy, that looked just like Earth:  seven recognizable continents, laid out roughly like ours were.  There were differences, but when someone talked about ‘Florida’ on the Kepler 0787b,  you knew which peninsula they were taking about, even if the angle was a bit odd.

There were plenty of differences; Earth 2 (as people started calling it)  had a more jagged coast in some places, and there were entire islands in Indonesia 2 that we didn’t have – but then again, Indonesia 1 has 17,000 islands.   One of the researchers in my lab  put pictures of Indonesia 1 and Indonesia 2 online, and asked people which one was a picture of the “real Indonesia.”   Once you got answers from people a few hundred kilometers away, unless people had lived there, it was a coin flip which one they’d pick.    The same was true of Florida – everyone who lived in Florida 1 could see all kinds of weird aspects of Florida 2,  but people in Belgium 1 were much more interested in the difference between Belgium 1 and Belgium 2 than they were in the differences between Florida 1 and Florida 2 – most of the Belgians could tell the difference, but not which one was real.

We checked our signalling devices for error, but we had no reason to believe that was happening. This new tectonic imaging was one of the techniques we imagined would be possible when computational resources and sensor fidelity increased to a certain point, and we’d worked through all the models on Titan, because it was closer and easier to see. The models predicted an image which lined up with our optical telescopes – so once the public clouds had enough cycles, and our satellite sensor networks were powerful enough, we looked at the planets we figured were rocky – and saw a distorted copy of ourselves.
It was like wandering by yourself in a desert for Millenia, hoping perhaps that maybe there’s somebody out there. You’ve looked for years and seen nothing, but you have hope because it keeps you going. Then, one day you take out the old telescope, brush a bit of sand off the lens, and see a copy of you out there on the dunes – looking back at you through a similar telescope.

We chalked it up to circumstance.

The second discovery of another Earth caused the astrophysicists to bring up subject of neighboring planets. And there we found more clues – both Earth 2 and Earth 3 were in a similar orbital configuration to Earth 1 – they were both in solar systems that had ‘Jupiter’, a nearby gas giant which could have been a star, if only it’d gotten a little bigger.  They both had ‘Mercury,’ zipping around the Sun, and they both had ‘Mars’ and ‘Venus’. The other planets were a tossup, and appeared to differ between Earth 2 and Earth 3.  ‘Venus 2’ apparently never went through the wild greenhouse acceleration of Venus 1, and Earth 3 had a neighbor between ‘Mars 3’ and  ‘Jupiter 3’,  – a neighbor who was replaced by an asteroid field on Earth 2, just like on Earth 1.

This was comforting for the scientists, who at least now had an explanation.

“Plate tectonics.”  The word was on everyone’s lips, between glasses of beer at the bars which were now buzzing with amateur cosmologists and armchair physics professors.   People said this to each other, confidently and assuredly. “It happened because plate tectonics is governed in large part by orbital mechanics of nearby planets.” The theory held out – we were seeing other rocky planets which were very different from our own, usually with a smaller ‘Jupiter’ or no ‘Mercury’, or a missing ‘Mars.’  On the two occasions where we found a rocky planet in a configuration like ours, the rocky planet would bear a strong resemblance to earth.

I had doubts, myself, but I kept them privately, as I did most of my beliefs.

“Why is that star going over there?”,   the children would ask. The leader can’t say “I don’t know.” And so the leader says “Why, he’s going over there to tell Mars to knock it off with that retrograde nonsense” – because everyone understands people having motives. Nobody really understands what it means that there’s a glowing thing that moves in patterns in the sky, which seem to relate to the herds and the flocks and the tides and the winters.  People make sense to us, and making sense to frightened people is often more important than telling them the truth.

Just as the people in my world – Earth 1 – were telling themselves it was ‘plate tectonics’ that caused copies of us to appear out there in the cosmos, I was pretty sure the people back in the paleolithic had mythologies about the planets because ‘people’ was the lens through which they understood the world.

The third discovery of another Earth happened on Tuesday morning, the last day for which we still had names associated with the days.  The War broke out minutes afterwards.  I’m writing this in the dying light of a tablet; the solar chargers stopped working after the ash blocked out the sun, and batteries are running low. If you’ve found this, it comes to you from another world, where we found copies of ourselves – and the last copy we found had no moon.

It’s hard not to fight each other.  We often resorted to believing in nonsense, in order to prevent ourselves from fighting. Perhaps that just makes the problem worse? Or perhaps it’s inevitable, like death,  taxes, or low tide.

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