LifestyleScientists Discover Exoplanets: How Sci-Fi Writers Are Rethinking Alien Worlds

Scientists Discover Exoplanets: How Sci-Fi Writers Are Rethinking Alien Worlds

A New Era in Science Fiction Depiction of Exoplanets

The evolution of depictions of exoplanets in science fiction (sf) has undergone significant changes since the groundbreaking discovery of the first exoplanet around a sun-like star in 1995, according to a recent study conducted by researchers at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

Before the confirmation of planets orbiting other stars, science fiction served as our window into these distant worlds. Whether through iconic space explorations like those of the Enterprise, the adventures of Rebels in “Star Wars,” or the imaginative novels of Asimov, Le Guin, and Frank Herbert, these narratives painted vivid pictures of diverse planetary systems teeming with alien life and habitable worlds akin to Earth.

However, the paradigm shifted in 1995 when Michel Mayor and Didier Queloz of the Geneva Observatory identified 51 Pegasi b, marking the first known exoplanet orbiting a sun-like star. This monumental discovery transformed science fiction from speculative imagination to a realm grounded in tangible data. Since then, constant influxes of new information have continued to reshape our understanding of exoplanets. As of March 12, 2024, NASA has cataloged a staggering 5,595 exoplanets across 4,160 planetary systems, with an additional 10,000 candidates awaiting verification.

In light of these advancements, a team of researchers led by Emma Puranen, Emily Finer, Christiane Helling, and V. Anne Smith from St. Andrews delved into the evolving landscape of sf in response to these scientific revelations. By analyzing a curated database of 142 fictional planets, split evenly between pre- and post-1995 discoveries, the researchers sought to explore how science fiction has adapted to reflect the progress in exoplanet research and its potential as a tool for science communication.

To compile this database, the team curated fictional planets sourced from a combination of their own selection and a crowdsourced Google form distributed through social media and esteemed events like the annual World Science Fiction Convention (WorldCon). Fictional universes like “Star Trek” and “Star Wars” were deliberately restricted to prevent them from overshadowing the dataset, showcasing a diverse array of planets from seminal works such as Frank Herbert’s “Dune,” which has enjoyed a recent resurgence in popularity with its film adaptation.

Employing a comprehensive approach, Puranen’s team delineated each fictional planet based on nine distinct variables, subsequently subjecting this data to Bayesian network analysis to unveil patterns and trends in sf depictions of exoplanets post-1995. This analytical framework sheds new light on how science fiction has incorporated and adapted to the evolving understanding of exoplanets, paving the way for enriched narratives that resonate with contemporary scientific discoveries.

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