There’s a new video game in development for all you science nerds, and it has an advisor you might recognize. No, not me—just another one of your favorite physicists-turned-science educators, Neil deGrasse Tyson. The game is Space Odyssey, a space exploration caper that takes you on a journey to explore and settle new planets. Currently, the game is a Kickstarter project with an estimated completion date of December 2018.
Now, we all know that sometimes crowdfunded games just don’t work out. But even if Space Odyssey doesn’t see the light of day—which, depending on which side of your tidally-locked exoplanet you choose to colonize, might be the case!—I still wanted to talk to Tyson about the game, science education, and how video games can be a great way to explore concepts in physics.
Space Odyssey is about space exploration, but how is it different than something like Kerbal Space Program, where you get to build and test-fly your own spacecraft?
Kerbal has precise, like over the top precise orbital mechanics in it. So that’s kind of fun to see: what it takes to launch something, get a right trajectory to intersect with destinations. The beautiful physics in Kerbal is orbital physics.
In Space Odyssey, our goal is basically world building. Initially the target is known exoplanets. We know enough to know where they are and what their approximate masses are, what kind of orbits they have. And beyond that we, we also know if they are in the Goldilocks zone. Beyond that, we don’t know. You will continue to use laws of physics to build on that planet, to explore it, to establish geology, atmospherics. You can even build out the materials there—it will build on accurate material sciences. It’s the physics of living and exploring.
Why did you decide to promote these physics ideas in a video game?
Video games are such a huge source of interest for so many people. It’s a place that is largely devoid of meaningful science, and I think we could possibly make an important mark here. We spend time on video games when we should be spending time doing something else, and that ratio is different for different people. At the end of the day, it would be nice know that if you should have been doing something else, at least playing this video game you will have boosted your level of science literacy. There’s something you can claim for having participated.
So how much real physics is in the game? How does the game handle faster-than-light travel and communications, or is it more realistic in that you can’t do that?
That’s a great question. I’m still on the fence. So, the question is should the user be allowed to tweak laws of physics? It’s like, holy shit, that could have unintended consequences. If you want to change the constant of gravity, for example, well that has secondary impact on the luminosity of stars. This is a level of power that I don’t think is necessary to wield in this universe.
It could be fun, however, if instead of saying we’re going faster than the speed of light, we could change the speed of light to be something much lower. Let’s say 100 mph. So now as you approach 100 mph, all these relativistic effects start taking place. So you don’t have to build some super atomic machine that nobody knows how to build yet to go that fast. And then you get to see all the effects of relativity—and that would be really fun to notice.
If we didn’t go there, if you just keep the speed of light as it is, and then we find planets that might be orbiting black holes. Objects that were once stars became black holes but they still have planets orbiting around them. That would be possibly dangerous, you would need an energy source, but you would see amazing relativistic effects. Akin to what you may remember was portrayed in the movie Interstellar.
There was a game or an educational app that does greatly reduce the speed of light. I love that idea.
What I do know is the famous physicist from the 20th century George Gamow, he authored a series of books called Mr. Tompkins in Wonderland, and it was for adults and kids. What it did was it imagined worlds with the various constants of nature changed so that phenomena would take place in everyday life that would otherwise require exotic physics situations to experience. So, for example, if you change Planck’s constant to something large, then all of a sudden things that go on in your life would be a match for what currently goes on in the world of particles. You would walk through a doorway and you would diffract through the doorway the way light does through a slit in quantum physics.
It’s a fascinating way to learn. Because when you put exotic physics in everyday life then you get to see what’s actually going on with objects and phenomenon that are otherwise familiar to you. So yeah, that’s a way to take the game. But I think the anchoring in the real physics and then having the creativity based on in the end will pay more dividends in terms of people’s enjoyment.
So maybe there should be two games: Space Odyssey based on real physics, and let’s mess up physics bad and see what happens, as another game.
Space Odyssey: Rogue edition. How about that?