THE FINAL FRONTIER

Neil deGrasse Tyson Talks Joining Forces With George R.R. Martin on a Space Video Game

‘Space Odyssey’ allows users to explore space and colonize planets. The astrophysicist discusses the new game, the controversial Space Corps, and why he’s ‘fearless’ of A.I.

“You can build planets!” exclaims Neil deGrasse Tyson.

On this day, the renowned astrophysicist is even more enthusiastic than usual—which, in Spinal Tap terms, brings him to an 11—as he chats via Skype from Australia, where he’s hosting a series of shows. The reason why is that, in addition to his duties as director of New York City’s Hayden Planetarium, hosting his popular podcast StarTalk, and lecturing around the world, he is helping guide the development of a new video game, Space Odyssey, that’s raising financing on Kickstarter.

Space Odyssey, which describes itself as “an awe-inspiring gaming experience of galactic exploration and colonization” in which users can “explore space, colonize planets, and create and mod in real time,” has quite the team behind it. In addition to Tyson, who is serving as the game’s scientific expert, there are the concept artists behind games like God of War and Final Fantasy, as well as a few people you may know by the names of Bill Nye, Neil Gaiman, and George R.R. Martin, the architect of Game of Thrones, who are aiding in the creation of several of the game’s galaxies.

“The out-of-the-box version of this, as we currently see it, is a visit to an exoplanet where we have basic knowledge of the exoplanet—but not total knowledge—and you’re going to bring your creativity to it,” Tyson tells me.

And he’s just getting started.

So sell me on your new video game you’re sciencing, Space Odyssey.

The goal here—the simplest way for me to say it—is you might allocate time to play a video game, and you might play a video game when you really should’ve been doing something else, and so if that is how you’re spending your time, why not grow your science literacy while you’re doing it? You come for the gameplay, and you stay for the science.

There’s a community—and cooperative—element to the game, too. Users can join forces on their science-based missions and planet modding/colonizing.

One of the concepts that we’re putting on the table is you’d either share the planet with someone—or not. See, it can’t be your planet unless you can control every part of it, and that would be very hard given the fact that the laws of physics are telling you at what rate you can acquire resources or build resources. If you’re worried that people are coming onto your planet that are evil and empire-building and you want to build defenses, what kind of defenses would they be? And what materials do you have access to? The physics part is relatively easy compared to higher levels of science that in principle we can infuse into the game. For example, there’s no understanding of modern chemistry without physics, and there’s no understanding of modern biology without chemistry, so these are layers and layers on top of the basic physics that would enable you to world-build on these known exoplanets.

Interesting…

If you’re on an exoplanet where the gravity is a little bit higher, maybe twice that of Earth, then if you create life, that life is going to have to be structurally sound to function in that gravity. Legs would have to be stockier, you’d have to be shorter, and life would have to look a little different. So the laws of physics then constrain what kind of life would ever evolve under one condition versus another. The blue people of Avatar would not be able to function biologically in a planet that had two or three times the Earth’s gravity. They’re just too long, skinny, and lanky for that. So to explore biology, I don’t know if that’s going to be in the first release, but it’s a thing that, in principle, you would be able to control once you had access and the ability to bring together materials available to you using the laws of physics that are known.

You’ve compared the game to Minecraft. How is it similar? And I’m curious about Space Odyssey’s use of in-game currency, and how that will work.

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With the in-game currency, I’ve always had mixed feelings about it, but it’s there and we live with it. There are people who are part of this team who have thought more deeply about it than I have. The in-game currency could manifest in a way where there’s some cargo ship that visits the exoplanets, and you need materials and you’re too lazy to dig for it in the soils or in the crust of the planet you’re on, so you wait for the ship to come along and just buy materials. That’s the lazy way to do it—I’m thinking it’ll be more fun to not do it that way—but then you don’t get the revenue of an in-game purchase. So, I don’t know. We’ll have people who will be thinking deeply about that.

With Minecraft, look at the creativity that simple systems enabled you to do. The difference here is you’re on exotic planets that are actually real, and we will be slavishly connected with the laws of physics. And when that happens, you end up becoming an engineer on the planet, saying, “I want to gap this chasm. How will I do it? Either I gotta build a bridge, or I’ll need materials. I need access to materials. What are the materials? Structurally, can I build it out of rocks or do I build it out of metal? Do I have access to metal? No? Then I need access to a metallic asteroid. Is it iron? Is it nickel? Is it steel? Do I have heat to smelt it?” Depending on what your particular interest is, it can manifest in this game—and it can all abide by the laws of physics. I can imagine a future where you might have access to quantum physics, but that will be in a later release.

Is it your wish to have Space Odyssey be taught in schools someday?

That’s a great question. Education is local not national—as you may know in the United States—which means you can’t just bust into a school and say, “Teach this! This is fun,” because the school board established a curriculum, and a syllabus, and what books they have to buy. There’s no one more constrained in this world than a schoolteacher, which is a curious fact because it means the schoolteacher can’t teach to the full limits of their own educational creativity. That’s a tragedy, in a way.

Not a fan of Common Core, I take it.

Don’t get me started on it, because it will become a whole thing. But, if you look at what happened with Bill Nye’s show or Cosmos, if you have a piece of something that is parcelable—five minutes, 10 minutes, 20 minutes—and there’s a good bit of science that happens in it, there will be teachers that will grab it and fold it into their curriculum. So I can imagine cases where if someone in the game built a bridge and they did an awesome job of it, and we have a gaming community where people boast of what it is they built and we know you used the correct laws of physics because that’s the foundation of the game, then that could be a module that gets used in schools—how to build a bridge over this distance with only these materials, as an example. So I could see parcels of this getting used in schools, but that would not be because we are forcing it onto the school system because that simply doesn’t work.

In a recent episode of your podcast StarTalk, you discussed the science behind Game of Thrones. And I know Thrones author George R.R. Martin is involved in Space Odyssey as a world-builder. What did you think of the premiere episode?

I’m Down Under and I had to, like, hack into three different computer systems to see the thing. No, but we did see it legitimately. It is fascinating how much they’re investing in this world that they’ve created. Interestingly, it had no boobs in it! I think the best part was the end just because that sets up the whole season right there—coming back to the castle [Daenerys returning to Dragonstone] and everyone gazing upon it. Initially, I thought the scene was a little too extended, like alright I get it everyone’s coming back, but you need that to develop the mood for future episodes.

For me, Game of Thrones is not so much why everyone else likes it, but I like that they’re creating a world that needs to be self-consistent. Winter is coming, so what does that mean? I’m thinking about it as an astrophysicist: What kind of planet would that be? What kind of orbit would it have? What kind of star is it? It’s clearly not Earth, although they’re all humans—well, except for the dragons!

Do you have any predictions for this season of Thrones, and how do you feel the show does at world-building? 

No predictions. I’m bad at that. Evidence: From the original Star Trek series, which I saw in real-time, I was confident in the future of warp drives, photon torpedoes, transporters, but those doors that magically opened just by approaching them was an impossible thing to me. So don’t come to me for predictions. Love their “world.” Especially their “winter,” the wall of ice, and other climactic (ab)normalities. Also, that the dragons are anatomically correct, with forelimbs becoming the wings (as in bats), rather than having separate wings sprouting from their backs, which has no precedent in Earth’s biodiversity. Create any world you want, just make it self-consistent, and base it on something accessible. I’m a big fan of mark Twain’s quote: “First get your facts straight. Then distort them at your leisure.”

The House recently approved a defense authorization bill that would create a new military branch called the Space Corps. Apparently, it would still answer to the Air Force and they say that its main goal would be to oversee military satellites. What are your thoughts on the Space Corps?

I don’t know what’s different about it relative to what the military was already doing in space. The Air Force, for example, was responsible for all the GPS satellites, so the military has been into space in a big way ever since the second Gulf War. I’d have to read more about the charter of this entity, but I can tell you that what we’ll likely be doing in the long run is organizing the activities that are already going on that are considered in the nation’s security interests.

They say it’s in response to the way Russia and China have gained “peer status” in space in recent years, and is meant to counteract the way they’re weaponizing space.

Well, one of the great motivators for security is feeling a threat by somebody else. That’s why we have NASA in the first place—a response to Sputnik, which, okay it was just a radio transmitter just beeping, but it was inserted in a hollowed-out intercontinental ballistic missile shell.

A lot of people expressed excitement about China “teleporting” photons 300 miles into space, but I’ve seen a lot of media outlets describing this as “teleporting” when it’s really not. I’m wondering if you can clear up some of the confusion on this.

An unfortunate use of words, bordering on clickbait. A more accurate headline would be, “China sets the distance record (ground to orbit) for Quantum Entanglement”—itself a common laboratory experiment, where two particles are created together in a shared quantum “state.” And the measurement of one instantly establishes the identity of the other, no matter where it is in the universe. The challenge is maintaining the entanglement over large distances. This may have applications in networked quantum computing in the future.

President Trump has discussed how he desires to have his coveted border wall with Mexico be both solar paneled and “transparent,” so that you can literally see whether or not drugs are being thrown over it. But I’m curious what you think of this concept from a scientific standpoint. It seems… far-fetched, to say the least? 

I stopped long ago commenting on things that President Trump says.

I see. Lastly, Elon Musk recently said that artificial intelligence poses the “biggest risk” to society. Do you feel the same? Or what, in your opinion, poses the biggest risk to humankind? 

I’m familiar with all the concerns expressed by Elon. But I remain fearless of AI. Bring it on. In my opinion, the biggest risk to society is our absence of wisdom to properly shepherd the survival of life on the very planet that sustains us.