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Learning about our own universe by modeling it in  Elite: Dangerous
Learning about our own universe by modeling it in Elite: Dangerous
July 11, 2014 | By Alex Wawro

"In the game, every single star in the real night sky is present, some hundred and fifty thousand of them, and you can visit each one."
- Frontier Developments CEO David Braben explains how Elite: Dangerous uses contemporary astronomical data.

The New Yorker has published an interesting feature this week about how the procedurally-generated universe of Frontier Developments' upcoming Elite: Dangerous offers astronomers new insights into how our actual universe works.

The idea is that since Elite: Dangerous attempts to algorithmically simulate an accurate virtual facsimile of our entire universe using real, up-to-date astronomical data as a starting point, we can look at the model it generates to better understand how the universe might look from someplace other than Earth.

"Our night sky is based on real data...but the Milky Way and many of the stars around it are simply too bright and too uniform when compared to the real observable night sky," said Frontier Developments CEO David Braben, who went on to postulate that this discrepancy between his simulation and contemporary astronomical observations might be due to Earth being in the middle of a large cloud of space dust.

"The dust-cloud theory only became apparent when all the stellar information was included in the simulation," said Braben.

"Computer simulations have played a very important role in astronomy for many decades," said Dr. Floor van Leeuwen, a researcher at the Cambridge Institute of Astronomy who helps run the Gaia satellite project to map the Milky Way. "There’s a continuously evolving and developing understanding of space, in which both models and observations play important roles."

To be clear, nobody quoted in the article suggests that the virtual universe simulated by Elite: Dangerous is going to be perfect, or even lead to any revolutionary new astronomical theories -- rather, Frontier Developments is being lauded for attempting to accurately model aspects of the universe we don't yet understand based on the data we know so far.

“If there is any practical application, then it is largely educational,” said Braben. You can -- and should -- read the rest of his comments, including more examples of how Elite: Dangerous is evoking new questions about how our universe is laid out, over on The New Yorker website.

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Michael Joseph
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The Total War series and other historical war simulations (air, sea, land) have evoked questions from users for decades and not just geographical or military and political history, but also cultural anthropological questions. They may not necessarily be new questions to historians and scientists, but they may be new areas of inquiry for many users. And that's pretty cool.

edit: simulations in general whether they be empire building, city building (Sim City, Banished), evolutionary biology or anything in between have always been perfect fits for mixing fun and education and encouraging exploration of concepts and ideas outside of the game.

Bart Stewart
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I've been working for some time on my own game that, like Elite: Dangerous, uses the Hipparcos dataset of roughly 118,000 stars visible from Earth. One of the features I added was to draw lines between stars as our known constellations.

The moment I first started the program, flew to Earth, and saw all the stars we see exactly where they should be -- the Big Dipper, the Southern Cross, the instantly recognizable Orion the Hunter -- was a terrifically pleasant shock. I was *home*.

And it was almost equally shocking when I flew away from Earth, and the constellations instantly fractured into a jumble of spikes pointing at our tiny homeworld.

Beyond the gameplay value of this effect, where "home" is safe and becoming lost among alien stars is disturbing, might be a warning for future astronauts.