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The science fiction journey of Tatooine into reality

The science fiction journey of Tatooine into reality

Scientists have used Bayesian network analysis to study how scientific discoveries, especially about exoplanets, have influenced science fiction literature. Their research shows a shift from Earth-like planets in science fiction to more diverse and accurate depictions after 1995, reflecting actual scientific discoveries. Credit:

Research reveals that the discovery of exoplanets has influenced science fiction, leading to more accurate and diverse depictions of these celestial bodies, and highlighting the role of genre in science communication.

An astronomy lesson about binary stars might begin with a series of complex diagrams and data, or with a clip from the Star Wars movie in which Luke Skywalker looks up into the sky of his home planet, Tatooine, and sees two suns rising. What would most easily interest a sleepy high school class?

Science fiction has always captured our attention and, as many scientists claim, has often been a source of inspiration in their scientific careers. For this reason, it is sometimes used to communicate scientific knowledge to an audience, or even to convey complex content. To ensure that this is an effective method, it is necessary to understand how real science is represented through science fiction.

This is indicated by a new article published in Journal of Scientific Communication – JCOM He does this using a quantitative methodology capable of analyzing a wide range of science fiction works (particularly about exoplanets), demonstrating that important changes in scientific knowledge also correspond to changes in science fiction literature.

The impact of exoplanet discoveries on science fiction

Emma Johanna Buranen, a researcher at the St Andrews Center for Exoplanet Science (University of St Andrews), together with her colleagues at the Centre, Emily Weiner and Vi Anne Smith, and Christiane Helling, Director of the Institute for Space Research (IWF) at the Austrian Academy of Sciences, applied Bayesian network analysis to A collection of 142 works of science fiction, including novels, films, TV shows, podcasts, and video games.

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For their research, scientists chose to study the representation of exoplanets, also called exoplanets. “They're everywhere in science fiction. They're everywhere. Most stories set in space will have a scene at the end.” Exoplanet“, Buranen explains. “The other reason we use exoplanets is that there was a major shift in our scientific understanding in 1995, when the first exoplanet was discovered orbiting a sun-like star. »

The Bayesian network methodology allowed for a quantitative investigation of a topic – science fiction – usually analyzed qualitatively, often only one work being analyzed at a time. In a Bayesian network, exoplanetary features described in selected works are represented as nodes in an interconnected network, allowing us to understand how each node affects other nodes.

In practice, it is possible to determine whether a planet in a particular work, for example, is depicted as being suitable for life, and whether and to what extent this influences another trait. Because the science fiction works analyzed were spread over a relatively wide period, before and after 1995, Buranen and his colleagues were able to observe that after this date, the representation of exoplanets in science fiction changed.

Science fiction: reflects scientific progress

“Traditionally in science fiction there is a high proportion of Earth-like planets that are habitable, and this is obviously plausible, because these are cultural products created by humans for others,” Buranen explains. “But what has changed since the discovery of real exoplanets is that imaginary exoplanets actually look less like Earth.”

In fact, the large number of exoplanets that science has observed so far contain a large majority of planets that are very different from our own, and rarely lie in what scientists know as the habitable zone, where conditions are likely more suitable for life as we know it. Buranen comments on this scientific reality as having seeped into the representation of science fiction.

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“I can assume that science fiction writers are probably reading all these headlines about worlds covered in lava or raining diamonds, as we see in the media,” the researcher comments.

“I think science fiction is sensitive to scientific discoveries. I think it kind of reflects what was happening in science at the time it was written,” Buranen concludes. “So I think this can be incorporated into science communication as a starting point.” He can introduce concepts to people.

The article “Science Fiction Media Depictions of Exoplanets: Representations of Changing Astronomical Discoveries” can be read for free at the link JCOM.