Imagine for a moment that you lived on another planet. Not Tatooine, Trantor or another fictional orb, but a real-deal planet circling a star somewhere in our real-deal galaxy. What would your world look like? Would there be a rocky surface? An atmosphere? How long would a day last? How about a year? What special physiology might you need to survive there? There’s no single scenario, of course. Starting with some basic facts, you can speculate in all sorts of surprising directions. That’s the fun of the exercise.
Over the last quarter century or so, astronomers have confirmed more than 3,600 exoplanets — that’s 3,600-plus worlds in addition to the planets, moons and other heavenly bodies known in our own solar system. People have long imagined what it would be like to live on Mars, and bold thinkers have dared to envision an existence on, say, Jupiter (see “Juno spacecraft reveals a more complex Jupiter“). Today there are many more possibilities, including planets orbiting dim red stars very different from our sun. In “Life might have a shot on planets orbiting dim red stars,” Christopher Crockett describes the hurdles life might face in evolving and surviving near these cool stars. On planets orbiting Proxima Centauri, TRAPPIST-1 and other M dwarfs, water could be extremely sparse, energetic flares might regularly singe the surface and you might live always in sun or forever in darkness.
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Reading about these worlds, I’d say, is better than fiction — as is a lot of what Science News covers. You don’t need a novel or a movie to escape into what feels like another reality. Just flip through these pages. The stories will take you to other worlds, as well as inner, hidden ones. Former Science News intern Elizabeth S. Eaton writes about the bacteria that infect our bodies and the problem of antibiotic resistance. Picturing these invisible, single-celled organisms wreaking havoc in the body, unchecked by our best medicines, gives me goose bumps. Eaton’s story is about the battle that would ensue if predatory bacteria are sent in to hunt down and kill these bad guys, as some researchers have proposed. One researcher likens the bacteria to the antagonists in the Alien films. There’s true cinematic potential.
And it doesn’t end there. Bruce Bower takes readers into the past, to the roots of the human evolutionary tree. Most scientists think Africa was the birthplace of hominids, but new research suggests it could have been Europe. And Susan Milius offers an opportunity to consider what it might be like to live in another type of body — a flamingo’s. The birds have an off-kilter shape, with ankles where we’d expect knees. For flamingos, Milius reports, standing on one leg might be more stable than standing on two. After reading the story, I couldn’t help but attempt to balance on just my right foot, in hopes of getting a handle on human-flamingo differences. (It was an unsuccessful 20 seconds. Thank goodness my office door was closed.)
Every issue of Science News includes similar inspiration. There’s serious stuff to be sure, but there are plenty of chances to ponder the strangeness of reality — and to stretch it. After thinking about living on Proxima b or being a wading bird, consider being a wading bird on Proxima b. For fuel to help your imagination run, you’ve come to the right place.