An artist's impression of NASA's New Horizons probe approaching Pluto and its largest moon, Charon. Photo: NASA/JHU APL/SwRI/Steve Gribben
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Is Pluto really the “beige planet”?

McGovern’s microphone sagged. “I just had my feeling about this particular planet go down a notch.” “The Beige Planet,” piped up her co-presenter, Lawrence Pollard.

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So, after days of low-resolution teasers, we finally saw the high-res images sent back by the space probe and the global response was amazement. At first, the reporting and analysis was merely ecstatic, slipping and sliding into something poetic, but within hours had spiralled into something almost Conradian: endless digressions and footnotes abounding in every interview, astronomers royal hurried from their beds to talk of “late heavy bombardments” and the “continual reworking of geological processes”. A small planet showing activity after four and a half billion years! When Pluto was supposed to have been a lump of rock! “Evidence of large craters indicating a very young, repeatedly modified surface . . . lines of sand dunes . . . crisp mountains and landslides . . . ice deposits the size of the Rockies . . . strange hills with grooves that we don’t know what to make of yet . . .”

Over to Mike Brown, professor of planetary astronomy, down the line from the California Institute of Technology. “Well, y’know,” he immediately challenged, “you don’t have to be a planet to be interesting.” Testy! Or way deep? The Newsday presenter Nuala McGovern – reliably positive, never lost for words – was completely silenced (15 July, 5am). “I’m just gonna let that one sink in for a moment,” she admitted, before doing just that and then trying again.

“I’m reading that the planet is red, right?” “Well, y’know,” her gloriously refusenik guest continued, “I look at these pictures and I think it’s kinda beige. Everybody’s saying how beautiful it is but I’m a little disappointed. It looks washed out and beige. But I’m not supposed to say that.”

McGovern’s microphone sagged. “I just had my feeling about this particular planet go down a notch.” “The Beige Planet,” piped up her co-presenter, Lawrence Pollard. “It’s not exactly a brand!” “No, not really,” admitted Brown, who then closed the door to any compromise when asked by a barrel-scraping McGovern if there was any practical application to these discoveries, quite frankly? Any definitive, utilitarian, commonsensical reason to explore the planets and send out probes and rockets and endless wads of cash and tinfoil?

“Absolutely not,” Brown confirmed. “It is not going to help us make better pens.”

Antonia Quirke is an author and journalist. She is a presenter on The Film Programme and Pick of the Week (Radio 4) and Film 2015 and The One Show (BBC 1). She writes a column on radio for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 22 July 2015 issue of the New Statesman, How Labour went mad for Jeremy Corbyn

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Beware of tea: the cuppa has started wars and ruined lives

. . . and it once led F Scott Fitzgerald to humiliate himself.

A drink sustains me – one that steams companionably as I write. It is hot, amber and fragranced differently from any wine; nor does it have wine’s capacity to soften and blur. I’ve never understood how the great drunks of literature, Ernest Hemingway, F Scott Fitzgerald and their like, ever put anything on the page more worthwhile than a self-involved howl, though even Hemingway apparently finished the day’s writing before beginning the day’s drinking.

Tea is more kindly, or so I’d always thought. Those aromatic leaves, black or green, rolled and dried and oxidised, have some of wine’s artistry but none of its danger. Even their exoticism has waned, from a Chinese rarity (“froth of the liquid jade”), for which 17th-century English traders were made to pay in solid silver, to a product that can be found dirt cheap on supermarket shelves.

There are even home-grown teas now. The Tregothnan estate in Cornwall has supplemented its ornamental rhododendrons and camellias with their relative camellia sinensis, the tea plant, while Dalreoch in the Scottish Highlands grows a white (that is, lightly oxidised) tea, which is smoked using wood from the surrounding birch plantations. Tellingly, this local version is priced as steeply as the imported rarity once was.

I enjoy a simple, solitary mug, but I also appreciate communal tea-drinking – the delicate tea warmed with water at 85°C (a little higher for sturdier black blends), the teapot and china, the pourer volunteering to be “mother”, as if this were a liquid that could nurture. But in reality, tea is not so gentle.

Those long-ago English traders disliked haemorrhaging silver, so they started exporting opium to China from India and paying with that. This was a fabulous success, unless you happened to be Chinese. In 1839, a commissioner attempted to clamp down on the illegal and harmful trade, and the result was the Opium Wars, which the Chinese lost. “Gunboat diplomacy” – a phrase that surely constitutes froth of a different kind – won England a great deal of silver, a 150-year lease on Hong Kong and an open tea market. China received a potful of humiliation that may eventually have helped spark the Communist Revolution. As many of us have recently realised, there is nothing like economic mortification to galvanise a nation to kick its leaders.

Later, the tea bush was planted in India, Ceylon and elsewhere, and the fragrant but bitter brew for the upper classes became a ubiquitous fuel. But not an entirely sweet one: just as the opium trade ensured our tea’s arrival in the pot, the slave trade sweetened it in the cup. Even today, conditions for tea workers in places such as Assam in north-east India are often appalling.

Scott Fitzgerald also had tea trouble. When invited round by Edith Wharton, he frothed the liquid jade so assiduously with booze beforehand and risqué conversation during (a story about an American tourist couple staying unawares in a Paris bordello) that he was nearly as badly humiliated as those 19th-century Chinese. Wharton, unshocked, merely wondered aloud what the couple had done in the bordello and afterwards pronounced the entire occasion “awful”.

Some would blame his alcoholic preliminaries, but I’m not so sure. Tea has started wars and ruined lives; we should be wary of its consolations. On that sober note, I reach for the corkscrew and allow the subject to drive me softly, beguilingly, to drink.

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 27 April 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Cool Britannia 20 Years On

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