Back in the 1990s I remember reading several articles, concerning different projects, describing how the Hubble Space Telescope had just “discovered a black hole for the first time.” In almost every case it was indirect evidence, usually but not always better than evidence previously in hand. In almost every case, it was a good and interesting result, worth making the news. In almost every case it was overzealous press release writers and/or science journalists overplaying the less certain scientific truth.
So I shouldn’t be surprised to see the plethora of articles today about Kepler-186f, the first Earth-like planet found yet, or the first Earth-sized planet in the habitable zone, or other takes. Do check out these articles and learn more, as they are mostly fair about the assumptions and uncertainties that lead to the conclusions that this planet is probably close to Earth-sized, a little less certain that it is close to Earth-massed, that it is pretty much in the habitable zone where water may be liquid on its surface, and that it orbits a star that isn’t quite as bright and massive as our own sun. When we find a similar planet around a main-sequence G star like good old Sol, be prepared for another round of press releases saying something like the “first Earth-like planet found around a sunlike-star.”
I may sound a bit cynical about this, and I suppose I am on the journalistic side, but I am actually rather excited. Bring them on! I remember when we had to speculate about whether or not planets were common around stars or not. Now it’s a matter of figuring out how many millions and millions of Earth-like planets are out there, and finding them. Here’s our initial efforts tabulated, many of which previously got their own press releases and articles, too. Soon to be added: Kepler-186f.
Furthermore, I’d like to see more inventive science fiction reflecting the realities out there that there is a great diversity of planets and planetary systems. There are planets of every size in every kind of orbit around every kind of star. Get more creative! Or at least as creative as Nature apparently is.
Closer to home, there is a similar burgeoning explosion of Kuiper Belt Objects being discovered, and some cold, icy Earth-sized worlds may exist beyond Pluto for us yet to discover. So many worlds, near and far.
This is a time in which science fiction is becoming scientific fact, and science ought to be pushing science fiction writers to greater levels of inspiration, creation, and production. So instead of rolling my eyes at the next marginal “first” I see in the news, I will smile that I live in the science fiction future I looked forward to, in which millions of potentially inhabitable planets exist out there for us to find. Not just Earth 2, but Earth Million and more.