Last Updated: 12:01am GMT 12/11/2007
One day last week, The Guardian carried an eye-catching headline on the front page of its review section: "This is Gliese 581c. It's small and rocky and it orbits the sun 20 light years from here.
But scientists say it could support life. Are we close to discovering the new earth?" A day later, the same newspaper had this story on page three: "Could this be earth's near twin? Introducing planet 55 Cancri f. Astronomers discover solar system 41 light years away with similarities to our own."
One paper, two days, two different new earths: if nothing else, it proves that journalists and their editors work on entirely separate planets.
Not that it much matters. Whichever world it is that has been discovered out there, most of us reading of these findings will have felt a surge of excitement.
It was the phrase "new earth" that was the clincher.
This is what we want to hear, that up in the heavens somewhere there is another place capable of sustaining us, somewhere to take up a bit of slack, somewhere we might be able to leave behind the mess we have made of this place and start again.
This urge to explore new lands has been with us since we first took to boats millennia ago. It was what sustained Cook and Magellan, Raleigh and Columbus. It was there in the space programme of the 1960s, in the brave few who flew to the Moon in tin buckets.
And it is there propelling hundreds of thousands of Brits every year to leave these islands and head off to Spain and Portugal, France and Florida.
So it is with this news.
It doesn't really matter that, at 41 light years away, 55 Cancri f is a planet so far from any hint of civilisation that the only future purpose for it would be as an airstrip serving Ryanair flights. The very fact it is out there is cause enough to dream.
Or possibly not. Because what if, by some miracle of physics, Stephen Hawking managed to invent a method of travelling faster than light, we sent a manned flight to check up on Gliese 581c or its equally romantically-named twin and, upon arrival, the space travelling pioneers discovered not some box-fresh new world but a parallel universe?
What if they landed in a vast cityscape gridlocked by bendy buses, with shopping malls lined with chain stores selling stuff nobody needs to consumers up to their gills in debt?
What if their radio communication devices were jammed by mouthy personalities shouting about how they'd gone out last night and got absolutely bladdered on 10 pints and won't be able to give out accurate time checks this morning as they're suffering from a hangover the size of Canada?
What if they found themselves in a place working itself up to a right old lather about the prospect of a bunch of pneumatic models, rentagob former footballers and superannuated pantomime dames being marooned in the jungle for a month?
What if they sought elucidation from the local print media and found themselves confronted by headlines like "Now doctors say it's good to be fat", "Cottage cheese consumption linked to skin cancer" and "Are health check-ups bad for you?"
More to the point, what if they were arrested on arrival and put in a transit camp because they didn't have the requisite documentation, to be sent, once a judge could be wrested from his bed, back whence they came, without even so much as a souvenir copy of Heat magazine?
The hope that a better place lies out there has sustained migration throughout the centuries (except, to be fair, in the early days of Australia, when the migrants were dispatched in the hope that their departure would make things better for those left behind).
But oddly our imaginative responses to boldly seeking out new worlds have generally undermined that optimistic response.
Remember how, in Star Trek, the infinitive-splitting Captain Kirk and his spandex-clad colleagues were forever landing on planets run by Nazis or Chicago gangsters or leggy Amazons who drained the life from any man they snogged (usually Kirk himself).
Remember how even the unremitting misanthropist Gulliver couldn't wait to get home from his travels after encountering what lay writ large and small beyond his natural boundaries. And let's not even think about what happened to the cat-loving Ripley in Alien.
Ultimately, the best thing to come out of learning more about Gliese 581c and 55 Cancri f might be this: the discovery that what we have right now is as good as it gets. And, instead of deserting the place for some assumed better elsewhere, maybe we should just get on with living here.