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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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