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23 July 2015

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.

By Antonia Quirke

Newsday
BBC World Service

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?

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