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Double suns and alien worlds: the science fiction journey from Tatooine to reality

Scientists used Bayesian network analysis to study how scientific discoveries influence science fiction literature

A view of a planet in a multi-sun system. A dialogue between science fiction and science. Credit: The Science website via DALEE
A view of a planet in a multi-sun system. A dialogue between science fiction and science. Credit: The Science website via DALEE

An astronomy lesson on binary stars can begin with a series of complex charts and data, or with a clip from the movie "Star Wars" where Luke Skywalker looks at the sky of his home planet, Tatooine, and sees two suns shining. What would interest a class of sleepy high school students more?

Science fiction has always captured our attention, and as many scientists claim, it has often been the source of inspiration for their scientific careers. For this reason it is sometimes used to explain science to the public, even complex content. To be sure that this is an effective method, you need to understand how real science is represented in science fiction.

They did this in a new article published in the Journal of Science Communication, in which they used a quantitative methodology that can analyze a large corpus of MDB works (referring specifically to planets outside the solar system), and showed that important changes in scientific knowledge also correspond to changes in MDB literature.

Emma Johanna Puranen, a researcher at the Center for Extrasolar Planet Sciences at St. Andrew's University, and her colleagues ran a Bayesian network analysis on a corpus of 142 MDB works, which included books, movies, TV shows, podcasts, and video games.

In the study, the scientists chose to investigate the representation of planets outside the solar system. "They are everywhere in the MDB. In most stories that take place in space, there will eventually be a scene on an extrasolar planet," explains Foranen. "The second reason for using extrasolar planets is that there was a huge change in our scientific understanding in 1995 when the first extrasolar planet was discovered around a Sun-like star."

The Bayesian network methodology enabled a quantitative investigation of a subject - MDB - which is usually analyzed qualitatively, and usually only one work at a time. In a Bayesian network, the features of the exoplanets described in the selected works are represented as nodes in a connected network, and we can understand how each node affects the others.

Practically, it is possible to determine, for example, that if a planet in a specific work is represented as supporting the existence of life, whether and to what extent this affects another characteristic. Since the time span of the MDB works analyzed was relatively broad, before and after 1995, Furanen and her colleagues could see that after that year, the representation of extrasolar planets in the MDB changed.

"Traditionally, there was a high percentage of Earth-like planets in the Mediterranean Sea," explains Foranen, and the logic of this is clear because the works are cultural products created by humans for other humans. But what has changed since the discovery of real extrasolar planets is that the fictional stars have actually become a little less Earth-like."

Indeed, the vast majority of the many extrasolar planets actually observed by scientists to date are very different from Earth, and are rarely found in what scientists define as the habitable zone, where conditions may be friendlier to life as we know it. This scientific reality, says Foranen, seeped into the representation in the MDB.

"I think that the MDB responds to scientific discoveries, and reflects what was in science at the time it was written," she concludes. "That's why I think it's possible to integrate the MDB into the explanation of science as a starting point. He can present ideas to people."

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