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What's in the stars?

November 11, 2007 |  9:50 am

For most Americans, today is another nice, quiet Sunday with family. Saturday's chores are done and Monday's labors yet begun. The young eager ones fueling the grunt work on the presidential campaigns are working maybe 18 hours a day now or more. But even they're likely wearing jeans today as they plot the events two weeks out.

Time maybe for a non-political thought, even on a political blog.

We invest so much of our efforts in this business following the trials, trivia, tribulations and drama of the political spectacle in this democracy, trying to sort out the important and interesting from the rest. Democracy is a very messy business, as things tend to be when they involve so many human beings. As voters, we're only starting to pay attention to this presidential race now, which still has 17 contestants remaining but maybe only six or seven with realistic chances.

That will all be sorted out, noisily, expensively, in coming weeks. And 52 weeks from now the next president will be choosing a Cabinet.

But today we were struck by a news story that seems to have nothing to do with politics. It involves astronomers who've discovered yet another earth-like planet in a distant system. It's actually the fifth planet they've found orbiting a star called 55-Cancri in the constellation Cancer. They suspect this system has numerous other planets yet undiscovered.

The new planet orbits Cancri every 260 days in what's called the habitable zone, a distance from the star where water and mild temperatures should exist, like Earth's, meaning so could life.

The newly-discovered planet is 45 times larger than Earth. Yet no one has ever seen it. They can only detect its presence as the gravity of the orbiting planet causes its home star to wobble ever so slightly. Astronomers have found about 250 such faraway planets in recent years. No one can tell yet what's there.

The astronomers announced their discovery in recent days as American politics were consumed with a candidate who stumbled, a husband who defended her with questionable comparisons, dueling conservative endorsements, a libertarian's big fundraising day, planted questions and so many other seemingly important things. Nobody knows what's in the stars for these 17 candidates or for the nation studying them.

But, you know, the dim light that astronomers measured to determine the existence of this new planet began its journey toward Earth in 1966, back when someone named Lyndon B. Johnson was president and another war raged. That means that light has been silently journeying through space at 186,000 miles per second for 41 years covering now 11 different presidential election campaigns.

Now, that's the kind of scale that puts today's terrifically important political news -- and this quiet Sunday afternoon -- into useful perspective.

-- Andrew Malcolm

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