For Science!
Astronomer Reveals The Truth Behind Civilization: Beyond Earth's Exoplanets

CJ Miozzi | 4 Sep 2014 04:00
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Civilization: Beyond Earth Box Art

Firaxis' upcoming turn-based 4X strategy game Civilization: Beyond Earth takes Sid Meier's famous series in a unique direction: the far future. After a catastrophic event known as "The Great Mistake," humanity must set out into the universe and found colonies on distant planets. But one strength of the series has always been its firm rooting in actual history and technological accuracy - setting aside concessions made in the name of fun, of course. How can Beyond Earth hope to retain that same semblance of being grounded in reality?

Enter Dr. Stephen Kane, Assistant Professor in the Physics & Astronomy Department at San Francisco State University. His research focuses on the detection of exoplanets - planets outside of our solar system. For the curious, he maintains a handy website that keeps track of the number of exoplanets we've officially found and how many reside within their star's habitable zone - the region in which temperatures are just right for water to exist in a liquid state. In other words, he keeps a close eye on the planets that we could potentially colonize one day.

In April, Dr. Kane announced the confirmation of a new exoplanet: Kepler-186f. At the time, Firaxis was working on including exoplanets in Beyond Earth, and the announcement got the developers' attention. They contacted Dr. Kane, and since then, there's been an ongoing dialogue about making the information in Beyond Earth as accurate as possible and finding more planets to include in the game. We spoke to Dr. Kane about his work and how it relates to Beyond Earth.

The intersection between science fiction and science fact

A fair amount of old science fiction dealt with the mysteries of our solar system. We knew other planets were out there, and we had names for them, but we knew little else. Fiction allowed us to speculate - until science started giving us real answers. H. G. Wells' The War of the Worlds depicts an invading alien army from Mars - today, we know there are no alien civilizations in our solar system. Ray Bradbury's "All Summer in a Day" depicts Venus as a world of constant rainstorms, where the sun is only visible for one hour every seven years - today, we know that no rainfall hits Venus' surface. Many of Isaac Asimov's stories show Mercury as a world with one permanent "day side" and one permanent "night side" - today, we know the planet isn't tidally locked like our moon.

"I think that adds an enormous extra layer of imagination for the players, knowing that these planets are out there."

So sci-fi authors that wanted stories with aliens and wanted the freedom to craft their own extraterrestrial landscapes had to move more and more towards entirely fictional worlds set in other galaxies - or even other universes entirely. But, just as there's a certain appeal to knowing that Civilization's historical settings are grounded in reality, so too is there a similar appeal in a reality-grounded sci-fi setting. The recent bounty of newly discovered exoplanets may just usher us into a new era of sci-fi.

"This is an exciting time when science fiction and science fact overlap," said Dr. Kane. "We've finally reached a point that we're able to talk about these planets in real terms." The past two years have seen tremendous advances in the discovery of exoplanets - almost 800 were confirmed earlier this year, which almost doubled the total number of confirmed exoplanets. Both Dr. Kane and Firaxis are looking to include a number of these actual planets in Beyond Earth, and the current pre-order bonus pack for the game includes six maps based on actual exoplanets.

"Being able to put these planets into the game is something which is really exciting," said Dr. Kane. "Instead of having planets that are randomly generated, players will be able to pick and choose the planet that they go to, knowing that that planet actually exists, and they can look up all kinds of information about the planet discovery.

"I think that adds an enormous extra layer of imagination for the players, knowing that these planets are out there. This is an incredible enhancement to the gaming experience and, in general, for science fiction."

Dr. Kane pointed to how Star Trek and other sci-fi, for years, has had humans visiting random, fictional planets. But exoplanet discoveries may change that. "I think what we'll start to see over the next decades is that more and more science fiction will include real planet discoveries, and that's an exciting thing to see."

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