Robert J. Sawyer gave a great talk at our Paul Sykes Lecture last week that featured the relationship between science/astronomy and science fiction. Robert has written many science fiction books with astronomy themes and here is a list of six real stars that have appeared in Robert’s books. Most are visible with the naked-eye from a dark site where the limiting magnitude is 5.0 or fainter but some are only visible from the southern hemisphere.
- Beta Hydri: A close double with components at magnitude 4.7 and 5.5. It barely makes it above the southern horizon when observing from Vancouver. The main component is a giant star with a mass of about 3.3 suns. It lies at a distance of 350 light-years. In Calculating God, the character Hollus, an alien whose species calls themselves the Forhilnor, is from the fictional third planet in the Beta Hydri system.
- Delta Pavonis is a 3.5 magnitude star in the southern constellation Pavo (the Peacock). It is a sun-like star located 20 light-years from Earth. Spectroscopy has shown that Delta Pavonis has a higher concentration of elements heavier than helium compared to our Sun. This leads scientists to speculate that it is more likely to have a planetary system though no planets have yet been detected. The SETI Institute has identified it to be the “best SETI target” in a survey of nearby stars. The alien race called the Wreeds in Calculating God are from a planet in the Delta Pavonis system.
- Another southern hemisphere star, Epsilon Indi is a magnitude 4.7 star in the constellation Indus. It is one of the least luminous stars visible to the naked eye and is only visible because it is just 12 light years away. Epsilon Indi is a triple system containing a pair of orbiting brown dwarfs that were discovered in 2003. The existence of a Jupiter-sized planet is suggested by radial velocity measurements. In Starplex, the Epsilon Indi system had one of the closest portals to “a vast network of artificial shortcuts that allowed for instantaneous journeys between star systems.”
- Groombridge 1618 lies in the constellation Ursa Major. It is a 6.6 magnitude star located at a distance of 16 light years. It is an orange-red dwarf with about two-thirds the mass of the sun. Virtual beings from a planet orbiting Groombridge 1618 engineered the supernova of Betelgeuse in Calculating God.
- Sigma Draconis is also know by its traditional name “Alsafi” which derives from an Arabic word meaning the tripods used by nomads for open-air-cooking. It is 19 light years away has a magnitude of 4.7. It shines with only 40% of the Sun’s luminosity despite having 90% of the Sun’s mass. In Rollback, Sarah Halifax is an astronomer who translated signals from Sigma Draconis as the first transmission received from an extraterrestrial source.
- Betelgeuse marks the shoulder of the hunter in the constellation Orion. It is very bright at magnitude 0.6 and appears orange in colour. Betelgeuse is a red supergiant and is one of the largest known stars – if it was located in our solar system then its surface would extend half-way to Jupiter and engulf all the inner planets (Mercury, Venus, Earth, and Mars). Massive stars use their fuel quickly and Betelgeuse has already run out of hydrogen and is fusing helium into carbon and oxygen. Some astronomers predict that it will run out of fuel and explode as a type II supernova within the next thousand years. Such an explosion would be visible in full daylight and be brighter than the full Moon! At the end of Calculating God, Betelgeuse goes supernova. The supernova explosion occurred over 400 years before the events of the novel but the radiation is first reaching Earth at the present time due to its distance from Earth. The supernova may have been deliberately triggered by an alien intelligence.