How a sci-fi novel written in Scotland could help people explore real science and the cosmos


These words are instantly recognizable to most people as the opening setting for the hit Star Wars movie series.

And hardly anyone has heard of Captain Kirk, Ripley or Hal the computer

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The popularity of science fiction films and books is testament to our fascination with the notion of worlds beyond our own.

But how many of our favorite stories are based on scientific facts?

Emma Puranen, a 25-year-old astronomer from Fairfax, Virginia, USA, has been a fan of the genre since childhood.

As a teenager, she began watching the original 1960s Star Trek series, sparking a passion that influenced her entire life.

Now the researcher, who is studying at St Andrews University for a doctorate on exoplanets in science fiction, has come up with a “new” creative project that combines science and literature.

An artist’s impression of recently discovered NGTS-1b, classified as a hot Jupiter but described in public news as Tatooine, Anakin’s homeworld and Luke Skywalker in the Star Wars films

Although filmmakers sometimes consult with an expert in a relevant scientific field, such meetings are usually ad hoc and barely scratch the surface of artistic potential.

Puranen wanted to know what could happen if creative writers and astronomers, geologists and biologists were paired up and challenged to create original science fiction works.

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The resulting book, Around Distant Suns, is an anthology containing short stories, poems and a radio play.

Science fiction fan and astronomer Emma Puranen, a 25-year-old American doctoral student, is working on a doctorate at the Center for Exoplanet Science at the University of St Andrews.

“I have no influence on Hollywood, but I am able to bring together a group of creative writers and a group of exoplanet scientists,” Puranen said.

“I gave very little guidance on what to write.

“I wanted to see what people would find – and my confidence couldn’t have been better. “

She thinks science fiction is a great way to introduce science to a wider population.

Around Distant Suns, edited by Emma Puranen, a student at the University of St Andrews, is the result of an “original” creative project that brings together the worlds of science and literature.

“We all want to know why we are here, what is the meaning of life and if there is anyone else there,” she said.

“Scientists want empirical answers, but writers want to examine how it affects humans.

“It’s a very important thing that science fiction does for us.

“Science communication is one of the most important things.

“I hope the book helps do that.”

Writers speculate on life beyond our solar system long before any evidence of such places was found.

“We only started discovering exoplanets in the 1990s, much more recently than most people would expect,” she said.

“But science fiction writers have been discussing make-believe worlds outside of our solar system for hundreds of years.

“The first mention in literature was probably in Margaret Cavendish’s 1666 work The Blazing World.”

Puranen may have her head in the stars, but she is also very attached to planet Earth and her adopted Scottish homeland on the Fife coast.

“St Andrews is a beautiful place and I can walk the beach whenever I want,” she said.

“I didn’t know it was possible to do a doctorate in science fiction. I like my position here – I pinch myself every day.

Puranen’s studies at the university’s Center for Exoplanet Science span three disciplines – physics and astronomy, modern languages ​​and biology, with the support of advisers Prof Christiane Helling, Dr Emily Finer and Dr V Anne Smith.

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