The Book That Predicted Proxima b [Excerpt]

From Scientific American:

Despite outward similarities, however, reality never seems to truly repeat these imaginary histories—instead, it merely rhymes. Wells’s nuclear bombs were very different from the ones eventually built, although the physicist Leo Szilard did read the book about a year before conceiving of the nuclear chain reactions that made real atomic weaponry possible. Similarly, the fact that the Apollo 11 command module was named “Columbia” was not coincidence—it was directly inspired by Verne’s capsule, called Columbiad, which was shot from a giant cannon in Tampa rather than a rocket launchpad in Cape Canaveral. In such self-fulfilling prophecies dreams become reality as other people, inspired by an author’s visionary extrapolations, seek to confirm or refute them.

More recently, the most obvious example of real and fictional history aligning is last month’s announcement of Proxima b, a newly discovered and potentially Earth-like planet orbiting Proxima Centauri, our solar system’s nearest neighboring star. Astronomers presently know little more than the planet’s estimated mass—perhaps just a third greater than Earth’s—and its orbital distance from its star, which is slightly more than seven million kilometers. Additionally, they suspect it might be tidally locked, meaning the world eternally turns the same face to its star, leaving its trailing hemisphere forever shrouded in night. As meager as they are, these observations hew close to ones that first appeared in 2013 work of fiction, the novel Proxima by the author Stephen Baxter—a book that describes the human exploration and colonization of a remarkably similar world around Proxima Centauri centuries from now. Baxter’s planet is tidally locked and six million kilometers from its star and weighs in at just 8 percent lighter than Earth rather than 30 percent heavier.

Proxima b’s chief discoverer, the astronomer Guillem Anglada-Escude, has called the resemblance “uncanny.” Indeed, the biggest difference between the imagined and actual planet …

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