Many Astronomers Love Sci-Fi, and There’s Evidence to Prove It!

Title: Evidencing the interaction between science fiction enthusiasm and career aspirations in the UK astronomy community

Authors: Elizabeth R. Stanway

First author’s institution: University of Warwick

Status: Open access

If you ask an astronomer what got them into space science, I’d bet the answer is either stargazing as a kid or consuming science fiction. I know that’s true for me at least — I became an exoplanet astronomer since I wanted to explore other planets like in the sci-fi books I read! Astronomers even bake sci-fi references into our work, with software like SAOImage DS9 (named after the Star Trek series) and Python packages named “BATMAN” or “SPIDERMAN.” Although there’s evidence that sci-fi helps to inspire the general public’s interest in science and shape perceptions of the field, no one has really looked into how sci-fi affected professional scientists — until now! 

Today’s paper explores how astronomers in the United Kingdom engage with sci-fi and how it affected their career paths, trying to answer the following questions: does sci-fi really inspire people to become astronomers, and are astronomers really all big sci-fi fans?

So, Star Wars, Star Trek, or Stargate?

The author of this paper completed two surveys: one smaller case study in the University of Warwick’s Astronomy & Astrophysics cluster and one larger anonymous survey at the UK National Astronomy Meeting (NAM 2022)

In the case study, the author posted an informal poll in the group’s Slack workspace, asking the question: “Are you a fan of, or have you been inspired by any of the following Science Fiction?

  1. Star Trek
  2. Star Wars
  3. Doctor Who
  4. Other Sci-fi (feel free to specify in comment)
  5. Not a science fiction fan”

Over 80% of respondents in the informal poll identified as a fan of at least some kind of sci-fi. (And if you’re wondering, Star Wars beat Star Trek, and Stargate wasn’t even mentioned in the paper — I know, it’s upsetting!)

At NAM 2022, the author included a poll (see image below) on her poster about science fiction’s portrayal of different disasters in the Universe. This expanded astronomers’ engagement into two axes: influence and interest. Conference attendees were provided stickers to place on the poster to indicate whether they “loved” or “loathed” sci-fi, and how much it influenced their career choice.

NAM 2022 poster graph with stickers placed on two orthogonal axes (love/loathe and influenced/indifferent). There is a large clump in the "love/influenced" quadrant and sparse responses towards "loathe"
NAM 2022 survey of astronomers’ interest in sci-fi, clearly showing both strong interest and influence. Figure 3 from the paper.

From the Asymptotic Sci-Fi Branch to the Astronomers’ Main Sequence

The author digitized the results from the poster and broke it up into five categories (illustrated below): 

  1. the asymptotic sci-fi lovers branch
  2. the astronomers’ main sequence
  3. the weakly interacting cloud
  4. the science fiction haters’ cooling track
  5. D clump

Clumps #1 and #2 show a large population of astronomers who both love sci-fi and were influenced by it. About ¼ of responses fall in Clump #3, the weakly interacting cloud, who seem to be more casual sci-fi consumers. A small number of respondents disliked sci-fi, yet some of them (the D clump, #5), still claim to be influenced by it. This seems to be a curious response, and would be interesting to investigate further! It’s also worth noting that there are astronomers who dislike sci-fi, and they may feel alienated by assumptions that all astronomers love it.

Graph from the paper showing 5 clumps — a tight blue clump in the upper right, a large green clump in the mid upper right, an orange circular clump in the upper left, a small yellow clump in the lower left, and a tiny red clump in the lower right. The upper left quadrant is labeled "love but not influenced #3", upper right is "love and influenced #1 and #2" lower left is "loathe and not influenced #4" and lower right is "loathe but influenced #5"
Digitized data from the NAM 2022 poster, showing different “clumps” of astronomers based on their relationship to sci-fi. Figure 5 from the paper.

Overall, the NAM 2022 survey showed that about 93% of UK astronomers liked sci-fi, and 69% were influenced by it in their career choices. Although this was an unsupervised and anonymous survey, it is an interesting first step in investigating sci-fi’s relationship to inspiring new generations of astronomers!

Disclaimer: “Beyond astro-ph” articles are not necessarily intended to be representative of the views of the entire Astrobites collaboration, nor do they represent the views of the AAS or all astronomers. While AAS supports Astrobites, Astrobites is editorially independent and content that appears on Astrobites is not reviewed or approved by the AAS. 

Astrobite edited by: Roel Lefever

Featured image credit: Stargate

About Briley Lewis

Briley Lewis is a PhD Candidate and NSF Fellow at the University of California, Los Angeles studying Astronomy & Astrophysics. Her research interests are primarily in planetary systems – both exoplanets and objects in our own solar system, how they form, and how we can create instruments to learn more about them. She has previously pursued her research at the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, and also at Space Telescope Science Institute in Baltimore, MD. Outside of research, she is passionate about teaching and public outreach, and spends her free time bringing together her love of science with her loves of crafting and writing, and playing with her rescue dog Rocky.

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