Christmas on other planets


AND lo, they beheld a star in the east. Well, they beheld the star centuries ago, actually, but they’ve only just discovered that one of the planets orbiting it could support life. It’s not exactly in the east either, truth be told. But we mustn’t allow a good Christmas story to be spoiled by specifics.

Wise men – to wit, astronomers – this week revealed that conditions on one of the five planets orbiting Tau Ceti, a star almost identical to our own sun, are favourable to life. This planet lies in the so-called Goldilocks zone of the solar system, where it’s neither too hot nor too cold for water to exist. It goes by the name of Tau Ceti e, because until we revoke the right of scientists to name the things they find, and let right-brainers take over, that’s the sort of language we’re going to have to keep dealing with.

The Tau Ceti system, which science fiction fans may also recognise from Barbarella and numerous episodes of Star Trek, is only 12 light years away. On a planetary scale, this is like suddenly noticing a perfectly habitable house right next door to you. But it’s been there all along. It’s almost creepy, really.

The next question is, does anyone live there, and the questions after become truly momentous. What are they like? Friend or foe? More advanced or less? Have they been watching us? Did they crash in Roswell in 1947? Are they lizardy folk? Do they know about Jim Corr?

And as it’s Christmas, and nothing can appear in any printed medium at this time of year that doesn’t make reference to that fact (bah humbug), we must also take a moment to ponder whether or not they have Christmas.

Well, assuming Tau Ceti e is in an elliptical orbit around its sun, then, like us, they will have a solstice. That ‘turn’ in the year is always cause for celebration, regardless of what religious traditions your society acquires (and isn’t there a stretch in the evenings already!), so they surely celebrate it. And there’s every chance they celebrate it by eating overcooked fowl and quarrelling with all their relations.

You may find it a comfort, the idea that there’s an alternative Christmas happening 12 light years away, especially if you’re worried about failing in your duty on Tuesday to design, produce, direct, cater and stage-manage The Perfect Christmas for your family, to say nothing of trying to use up all those baked beans you laid in in readiness for the Mayan apocalypse the other day, which was supposed to have saved you the bother of doing Christmas at all this year, and so much for that, dammit.

It’s entirely possible that, on other planets, the Perfect Christmas is, parallel universe-style, the same as the classic Imperfect Christmas here. On Tau Ceti e, the Perfect Christmas Home might smell, not of warm cinnamon and baked apples, but of Brussels sprouts and the gastro-intestinal consequences of Brussels sprouts. Maybe the cook doesn’t have to be Nigella Lawson; maybe she can be the Medusa instead, her very gaze a terrifying weapon keeping all comers out of the kitchen. Maybe on Tau Ceti e, the whole idea is to give people presents they don’t want. And Uncle Ned – dear Uncle Ned! – may not be required to fall asleep in front of the Downton Abbey Christmas special simply because he can’t hold his eggnog – he can just be himself, and can pass out comatose because he’s in end-stage liver failure from cirrhosis.

Readers should note, however, that the period of orbit of Tau Ceti e around its sun is something around 168 days. This means they get Christmas twice as often as we do. It depends on your point of view, of course: Countless people would see that as an incentive to visit Tau Ceti e, but for many others it would be something of a deterrent, though they might not say so at this time of year for fear of spoiling the festive mood for their friends – an instinct that shows they do understand the real meaning of Christmas.

On the other hand, by the time we’re in a position to visit the Tau Ceti system, it will hopefully be because we can travel faster than light. And only think how much more manageable the Perfect Christmas will become with the aid of time travel. If you botch it, you can go back and try it again and again. You can keep on trying, in fact, until you’ve succeeded in providing your family with every seasonal cliché that advertising has told you they must want. That should earn you a bit of space (for want of a better pun).


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 23 December 2012

Animal magnetism

WHEN false rumours spread this week that Fungie the dolphin had died, suspicions naturally fell at once on rival Killarney. Who else could have such a strong motive for maligning Dingle’s oldest tourism ‘product’? And as Kerry tourism is acknowledged to be the lowest form of the art, nothing can be put past anyone down there.

However, on reflection, it seems more likely that it was Dingle itself that put the rumour about, as a way of saying ‘Remember Fungie? He’s still around. Why not visit him (and spend some money)?’

Soon afterwards, Killarney upped the ante by announcing a proposal to put a roof over the town, to stop the rain from bothering the tourists. It seems Killarney gets a lot of rain, which is the only thing wrong the place, at least as far as Killarney is concerned.

You can imagine the scene – the parched hanging-baskets, the trapped odours, the wilted Americans. The whole thing smacks of desperation. Surely Killarney has cottoned on by now that no tourism ‘product’ is complete without an illustrious animal, and that Dingle’s advantage in this respect cannot be gainsaid. Baltimore realised as much straight away, and put itself in the papers almost immediately with a picture of a humpback whale, which should attract thousands of sustainable tourism types for years to come.

Having said that, animal attractions can be unreliable. I speak as someone who treaded water for an hour in Dingle harbour, waiting for Fungie to come along and communicate something of spiritual import, but he never appeared. Stood up – nay, snubbed – by Ireland’s most genial marine mammal, there was nothing for it but to paddle back to shore at a rate of knots, fuming and swearing about inner peace and the like.

There is an abundance of dolphins in the Shannon Estuary, although regrettably they don’t subscribe to the Dingle school of tourist attractions. Dolphin-watching trips in the estuary are thrilling, for a while, as you watch these magnificent creatures gliding in and out of the water, again and again… and again. You join the crowds leaning over one side of the boat and then the other, gasping in delight and snapping photo after photo. So elegant! So exuberant! Gliding in and out of the water! But after a time your enchantment starts to feel a little forced. “Oh look, there’s yet another pod. Ha ha. How lovely.” You begin to fidget, and to wish you’d brought your book. Don’t these dolphins have a second act? Can’t they effect a sea rescue, or apprehend a criminal?

Yet dolphins that do tricks can cause untold trouble, as Seaworld in Florida found recently, when a dolphin bit eight-year-old Jillian Thomas on the hand. In the video of the event, you see Jillian resisting her parents’ requests to display her injuries to the camera. The child is clearly in a paroxysm of embarrassment, having just been bitten by a creature that’s supposed to heal the lame and bestow telepathic absolution on sinners and what have you. She might as well have been kicked by Bambi. No wonder she wanted to hush it up.

“I just want to film and see what your hand looks like,” says her father. “I don’t want to,” wails Jillian. “We’re not going to show it to anybody,” says her mother, which, it turns out, translates roughly as “We’re just going to put it on the internet.”

Meanwhile, the BBC this week reported that an animal charity has established a driving school for dogs in Auckland, New Zealand. The clip shows Monty, a giant schnauzer cross, actually driving a car.

He seems competent enough behind the wheel but he’s not driving test material. For one thing, his paws assume the four o’clock position, instead of ten to two. He also looks the sort of driver who puts his elbow out the window and goes cruising for bitches, panting along to the sort of music dogs like – music that involves whistling, probably, such as ‘Don’t Worry, Be Happy’ (the anthem of all dogs), or something by Roger Whittaker.

The idea is to encourage people to give a dog a home by showing how intelligent they can be. That’s the cover story, at least. But at the bottom of it is more than likely a conspiracy to get people to visit Auckland and spend their tourist dollars.

As it happens, the attraction is likely to do both: so superb is Monty that people will flock to Auckland in the hope of driving home with him, and setting up a nice bed for him in the garage, and maybe doing Route 66 with him some day in a rented Mustang.

That’s the answer: get your own magnificent animal, and you’ll never have to be a tourist again.


Published in the Irish Mail on Sunday, 9 December 2012