Despite the doom and gloom that seems to have settled over the poor beleaguered U.S. of A. lately, there’s some fascinating things happening, news of which is buried somewhere under the presidential campaign that’s ripping the country apart at the seams.

There’s been some science happening, and some of it is right out of the pages of the last hundred years’ worth of science fiction.

Let’s look at a couple of them, starting with the fact that the nearest star to us has a possibly Earthlike planet in its habitable zone.

Proxima Centauri is “only” 4.24 light-years away, and based on HARPS (High Accuracy Radial velocity Planet Searcher) observations taken between 2000 and 2014, a team of astronomers discovered a planet about the size of Earth, in the habitable zone of the cool red star.

From the journal Nature:

At a distance of 1.295 parsecs, the red dwarf Proxima Centauri (α Centauri C, GL 551, HIP 70890 or simply Proxima) is the Sun’s closest stellar neighbour and one of the best-studied low-mass stars. It has an effective temperature of only around 3,050º kelvin, a luminosity of 0.15 per cent of that of the Sun, a measured radius of 14 per cent of the radius of the Sun and a mass of about 12 per cent of the mass of the Sun. Although Proxima is considered a moderately active star, its rotation period is about 83 days and its quiescent activity levels and X-ray luminosity are comparable to those of the Sun. Here we report observations that reveal the presence of a small planet with a minimum mass of about 1.3 Earth masses orbiting Proxima with a period of approximately 11.2 days at a semi-major-axis distance of around 0.05 astronomical units. Its equilibrium temperature is within the range where water could be liquid on its surface.

So what if the year is only 11.2 days long? If I was born there I’d be getting ready to celebrate my 1694th birthday. You’re only as old as you feel!

Okay. This is a big deal. And not that I’m 1694 in Proxima b years.

To me, at least, what this says is that if a potentially earthlike planet is right next door, simple logic would seem to indicate that they’re everywhere. That means the observable universe is looking lots and lots more Star Trek and Star Wars-friendly all the time. There are planets all over the place, and some of them aren’t gas giants, and some of those non-gas giants are not too close (too hot) or too far away (too cold) from their stars. In that zone, the zone Earth inhabits around our own Sun, if you have an atmosphere that isn’t too thin (like Mars’s) or an atmosphere that isn’t too thick (like Venus’s) you could have liquid water, and if you have liquid water and sunshine and a good magnetic field to keep solar radiation out you can have life. And if you can have life maybe one of those life forms might develop creative intelligence as a survival tool, and when they’re done just surviving they might look up at the stars and think, What are those, anyway? And they might invent radio and then . . .

Italian astronomer Claudio Maccone might pick up that signal and get everybody with a radio telescope looking at HD 164595, which appears to be the source of a strong, regularly repeating signal that might be aliens trying to say hello, finally. Anyway, they tried to say hello about 94 years ago, which is how long it would take a radio transmission to travel that far.

Or it might be any number of naturally occurring phenomenon and have no intelligent cause whatsoever.

Or it might even be coming from a different star entirely.

But hell, it’s a candidate signal, and worthy of a closer look. But for now, as quoted in a cnn.com article, Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence (METI) president Douglas Vakovich said, “the greatest limitation of the May 2015 signal is that it hasn’t been replicated. Before we can give any credence to a signal as coming from extraterrestrials, we need to see it repeatedly to make sure it wasn’t just a transient phenomenon.”

Okay, so we might not be leaving on colonization starships for the 4.3-year trip (at the as yet impossible to achieve speed of light) to the nearest possibly Earthlike planet (which could just as possibly be Venus-like or Moon-like and we haven’t moved to either of those places, which are lots, lots, lots closer but totally suck as places to live) and you likely won’t be adding any HD 164595ians to your list of Facebook friends in the next . . . probably, ever . . . but look at this science being done!

Look at these possibilities!

It makes me want to write a science fiction story in, like, the worst way.

Oh, and I started this by saying:

Despite the doom and gloom that’s seems to have settled over the poor beleaguered U.S. of A. lately, there’s some fascinating things happening, news of which is buried somewhere under the presidential campaign that’s ripping the country apart at the seams.

But that’s total nonsense.

The United States of America is actually more or less fine, and though there’s a lot wrong with it it’s still among the best places in the world to be a poor or middle class person. Our enemies are actually shockingly few in number, mostly hopelessly under funded and under manned DIY terrorist operations, and despite countries like China and India making lots more money than they used to, the US is still, by a huge margin, the world’s strongest and most stable economy. Donald Trump is not going to be president. Goldman Sachs has already decided on Hilary Clinton, so at least politically speaking nothing is going to get much better but don’t expect anything to get much worse. This is still the single best time ever to be a human in the entire two million years or so that there’s been such a thing.

And even if the “lamestream media” doesn’t think anyone cares, we’re barreling toward a scientific and technological singularity, whatever that is, and are experiencing an exponentially-increasing explosion in both pure science and practical engineering entirely unprecedented in all of that same two million years.

Okay? So . . .

Let’s take this as inspiration for more Star Trek-style hopeful, aspirational SF, and lots less gun-centric post-apocalyptic power fantasy. We aren’t degenerating into savagery, we’re evolving into a race of technological super beings that might very well take their place in an interstellar community.

Believe it or not.



—Philip Athans


About Philip Athans

Philip Athans is the New York Times best-selling author of Annihilation and a dozen other books including The Guide to Writing Fantasy and Science Fiction, and Writing Monsters. His blog, Fantasy Author’s Handbook, (https://fantasyhandbook.wordpress.com/) is updated every Tuesday, and you can follow him on Twitter @PhilAthans.
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