I don’t think the report that the closest neighbouring star to the Sun has an Earth-sized planet around it has received the attention that it deserves. If all goes well, future timelines of human history will have this, not Brexit or economic crisis or the football transfer news, as its milestone for the early decades of the twenty-first century.
Why is it so important? Well, it gives us something to aim for — a roadmap to becoming a multi-stellar species. First stop, Mars. Then, maybe some of the moons of gas giants further out in the Solar System. And so on to Proxima b, which hopefully will have been given a more interesting name by then. A few technical details to be worked out along the way, to be sure, but all within the realm of possibility from where we’re standing. A tantalising glimpse of human potential, of what we might eventually achieve if we manage to get our act together.
Far from being a distraction from the global problems and conflicts in which we’re currently mired, this discovery more than anything should give us the impetus we need to band together and overcome them: to radically curb our greenhouse gas emissions and adapt to the climate change we’re already committed to; to transform global society into a fairer, more egalitarian way of life worthy of being transplanted to other worlds. Reaching Proxima b would be an incredible stage in the human story, and would undoubtedly lead to dazzling and undreamt-of discoveries; failure to square up to such a challenge would indicate a massive deficit of the courage and imagination civilisation needs to survive. We live on the edge of interesting times.