dennis0bauer (dennis0bauer) wrote,

Science in the new Battlestar galactica and why smart people like BSG

Lab Notes
Reach for a Battlestar

By Wil McCarthy
 
 
 
All of this has happened before. All of this will happen again. With this catchy bit of scripture, SCI FI's hit remake of Battlestar Galactica neatly excuses its largest credibility problem: the vast and amazing similarity between modern America and the United Colonies—distant worlds named for the signs of the zodiac. In this scenario, the planets were colonized from a homeworld called Kobol, with the help of powerful beings named after the Greek gods. Earth is the fabled 13th colony, too distant from the other 12 to have maintained any sort of contact—even the knowledge of Earth's location has been lost—so, on the face of it, we'd expect the world of Caprica (for example) to have its own unique cultures and myths, unrelated to ours. We shouldn't expect a carbon copy.

But many Earth cultures, including the Mayans and the Australian Aborigines, believe history is cyclic rather than linear—that the world lives and dies and lives again, a little different every time but always following the same broad historical arc. There's no scientific proof for this—in fact, chaos theory and the archaeological record tell a very different story—but it's possible. We know, for example, that the glaciers of the ice age scoured whole continents down to the bedrock, and when the glaciers melted and sea levels rose by 120 meters, the coastline in some areas was driven inland by dozens of miles. In the process, the artifacts of one or more ancient civilizations could have been buried or drowned or otherwise destroyed, leaving behind traces we haven't found yet, or haven't identified. The fossil evidence does seem pretty clear that human beings were not imported to Earth, but evolved right here. This, too, can be explained if the Lords of Kobol brought Neanderthals from Earth to Kobol and later reseeded the Earth with modern humans, not once but several times. Again, there's no evidence that such a thing ever happened, but there's also no evidence it didn't. In fact, you could argue (and many people have) that Aboriginal and Mayan beliefs are a type of history, and therefore a type of evidence.

I'm not saying it's likely, but it isn't impossible, and that by itself is important, because if that's the biggest leap of faith the show expects us to make, then it's a highly believable story by science-fiction standards.

Going back to camp—not

In the campy 1970s original, the laws of physics were loose guidelines at best. Giant ships could smoothly accelerate to the speed of light with little effort. Fighter planes could bank their turns in hard vacuum, pushing their stubby wings against nothing at all. A different spaceship could crash or blow up every week, without the Galactica ever seeming to run out. Real spaceships do not, of course, behave this way, and this is one area where the new Galactica shines brightly indeed. When a Viper fires its engines, it adds a predictable amount of speed every second, and then keeps that speed until it flips around and fires in the other direction. This "vector movement" is a consequence of Newton's laws of motion, and it isn't optional.

In the same way, turning a real spaceship involves brief fiery puffs from small rocket engines called reaction control system (RCS) or attitude control system (ACS) thrusters. And again, the ship keeps on turning until there's an equivalent toot in the opposite direction. In practice, these are never perfectly matched, so real spaceships are always rotating a little bit, with occasional RCS correction burns to try and stabilize them. We see this clearly when the Colonial Vipers are in flight: Under manual stick-and-pedal control by their pilots, they jerk and puff constantly. That kind of realism goes unnoticed by most viewers, so you have to admire the team at Aces and Eights Productions for taking the trouble to get it right.

Where the old show offered laser beams that were both visible and audible in the vacuum of space, the new show uses high-speed tracer cannons similar to the guns on Earthly fighter planes. Can ordinary bullets fire in the airless void? You bet. In rocket science terms, gunpowder is a "monopropellant," containing both carbon-sulfur fuel and potassium nitrate as an oxidizer. In other words, it already contains everything it needs to ignite and explode, and doesn't need oxygen. And the bullets, leaving a trail of burning gunpowder behind them, could indeed be visible against the inky blackness, although the force of their departure would (again, thanks to laws of motion laid down by Isaac Newton) slow down the ship that fired them. This, I think, is one reason the Vipers' engines are lit most of the time during combat. It's also nice, I think, that both sides of the conflict have smart missiles that know how to hit the broad side of a Battlestar.

Where the old show offered laser beams that were both visible and audible in the vacuum of space, the new show uses high-speed tracer cannons similar to the guns on Earthly fighter planes.
 
Capital ships like the Galactica itself are powered by something called "trillium," which is probably the same thing we call helium-3. This rare gas is an important material for nuclear fusion because when it's combined at high temperature with deuterium—a much commoner substance also known as "heavy hydrogen"—it releases 30 trillion times as much energy as an equivalent mass of chemical fuel, without any harmful neutrons or gamma rays. The byproducts are all charged particles, which can be contained with magnetic fields and expelled as rocket exhaust. This makes it a very good spaceship fuel, and I think if we really needed to, even we backward Earthlings could build engines to exploit it. The Vipers and Raptors may use trillium as well, at least in outer space, but there seems to be some other substance, simply known as "aviation fuel," that they burn in planetary atmospheres. This must also be a monopropellant of some sort, since it works in oxygen-free atmospheres, but we don't know much else about it.

The Cylons have smartened up

The Cylons—mortal enemies and former slaves of the Colonial humans—have gotten a lot smarter since the 1970s. Like the humans, they use cannons and missiles and possibly directed energy weapons as well, although the dialogue is never clear on this. But the greatest threat in the Cylon arsenal is their great skill at cyber warfare. Is this realistic? Most of you reading this column have probably experienced the pain of spyware and computer viruses, and have learned not to hit suspicious Web sites or download strange files. But Galactica's case is interesting, because they seem to have a lot of computers onboard, but a mortal terror of networking them together. Why worry? Unless they're stupid enough to plug in a wireless router with the firewall wide open, you might guess they were immune from cyber attack by spaceships that weren't, you know, cabled in directly. Alas, it isn't so. With powerful electric fields or tightly focused radio waves, it's possible to induce electrical currents in wires and even shielded cables. The longer the cables are, the easier this is, and if you twiddle your signal just right, you can introduce whatever bits you want into the data stream of an enemy network. The obvious countermeasure would be to use optical fibers instead of wires, but the sad truth is that no one has ever built a computer that works by light alone. Sooner or later, the signals have to get converted to electricity, and that point is the Achilles' heel of any electronic warfare defense. The Colonials are right to worry, and the Aces and Eights team are clever to include this threat, since it cranks up the tension and clarifies the conflict of man-vs.-machine. Not nearly so exciting if it were simply our networks fighting theirs.

But this does suggest a method for attacking the Cylons themselves. When one of their humanoid bodies dies, its memories are uploaded to a "resurrection ship" and copied into a fresh clone. This is all well and fine, but the amount of data involved must be huge. It's also interesting that the signal can pass through layers and layers of metal plating and still remain intelligible. Radio waves can't do this. Also, it's interesting that the Cylons don't upload their memories continuously. Why wait for death? The most obvious reason would be that the upload process itself is fatal. My guess would be some sort of nuclear reaction that produced modulated bursts of neutrinos. These ghostly particles can pass right through solid objects—even whole planets—with almost no attenuation. Building a receiver to detect them would be tricky—we couldn't do it here and now—but the Cylons are a clever people. Anyway, if the Colonials could somehow intercept and corrupt this data stream, they could introduce false memories into the resurrected Cylon, leading the Toaster fleet into one ruinous trap after another. With help from his invisible friend Number Six, Dr. Baltar could probably manage this, although I'm not sure he'd want to.

One final element that keeps the show exciting is the "jump drive," a device that can instantly teleport a good-sized spaceship (though evidently not a planet or asteroid) across astronomical distances. There are limits to how far they can go and how often they can do it, but by keeping their drives hot and a set of rendezvous coordinates in memory, the Colonial fleet can escape from almost any ambush, no matter how badly outnumbered they are. This makes their story of endless flight a lot more believable, which is ironic, because the jump drive is the show's second-biggest leap of faith. With current science and technology, no one knows how to build this miraculous engine. We do know that powerful electric fields can distort spacetime in the same way that gravitational fields do, and we also know that every Colonial ship—with the possible exception of the Vipers—is outfitted with artificial gravity, which probably works on a very similar principle. I would expect the energy requirements to be huge, but I don't know enough 25th-century physics to say for sure. Is the jump drive possible? I honestly don't know. But in the hands of writers like Carla Robinson and Ronald D. Moore, it sure sounds good.

Now, some readers may argue that it's fishy for me to sing the praises of the network that owns Science Fiction Weekly, but in the case of bad science (cough cough Ghost Hunters cough cough), the First and Second Laws of Robotics prevent me from pulling any punches. Also, unfortunately, "hard science fiction" has an often-deserved reputation for serving up technically plausible stories that, um, aren't very exciting. Since this show succeeds on both levels, believable and gripping, I'll give it the Golden Lab Note award and let the grumblers say what they like.
Sources:

www.scifi.com/battlestar

The Internet Movie Database, www.imdb.com ("Battlestar Galactica")

The Encyclopedia Britannica, 2004 Edition: ("nuclear fusion")

Wikipedia, http://en.wikipedia.org ("sea level", "gunpowder", "helium-3")

 

Why Smart People Love 'Battlestar Galactica'

'It's The West Wing in space.'

TV's hottest unreality show is the real thing.

By Vanessa Richmond
Published: October 5, 2006
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TheTyee.ca

Robots, low-tech battleships and hot space babes: sounds like a sci-fi B-movie. But somehow, this small, made-in-Vancouver cult TV hit series is seeping into the mainstream.

Why? Apart from predictably attracting sci-fi viewers, fans say it offers the only fresh take on terrorism, religion, gender, abortion, civil liberty, democracy and corporatization to be found on TV. They say it's The West Wing, The Sopranos and Six Feet Under rolled into one.

The sci-fi is only the backdrop, apparently: the soap opera keeps people gossiping and the political allegory is what keeps people coming back.

I've never watched the show. So I asked six über fans to give me, the uninitiated, a guide to the political and emotional lessons available from Battlestar Galactica, just in time for this Saturday's season premiere. What follows are verbatim excerpts from our conversations.

Scott Ian, lead guitar player for Anthrax:

On what got him hooked: The webmaster for Anthrax is a huge fan and he kept raving about it to me in the first season, about how great it was, but I just couldn't get past the title: it's so cheesy. Then he sent me the series on DVD, and he said, just give it 15 minutes, and as soon as I started watching it I was hooked. From the first minute, you see it has nothing to do with the original show except character names.

On info for Battlestar virgins: It's The West Wing in space. It's a searing political drama that just so happens to take place on a spaceship. But for real: take away the fact that they're on a Battlestar and searching for a home. It's what's going on in the world today: deep, dark, brutal politics. I don't have a lot of time to watch TV and it's one of the few shows I watch. It's better than movies.

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On Baghdad in outer space: The cylons (robots) are just an allegory for terrorists, or maybe the humans are the terrorists. There are direct parallels with current events, absolutely. There's bombing by the humans in the show, for example. One of the planets is like Baghdad and there's an insurgency and it's pretty much what's going on in the world today. And the cylons are religious fanatics and they're going to get their way no matter what. And I couldn't imagine anybody not catching all these allegories -- the show is just too smart. People aren't just watching because the space battles are really cool. They are, but there's not enough of that for it to just be that kind of show.

On the hot ladies: The fact that they've got a bunch of hot ladies doesn't hurt either. Tricia Helfer is in Maxim and Playboy. She's getting a lot of the uninitiated to watch.

Madeline Stanionis, Internet advocacy and fundraising consultant, and organizer of Frak Party:

On BSG 411: It's about real people like you and me who suddenly thrust into remarkable circumstances and who deal with that incredibly humanly. I love the complicated yet timeless themes of religion, politics, the search for meaning in life: what we're all trying to understand about ourselves and our role on this planet. Many programs are full of action or about a thing that happened; this show is about the experience of being human. No one is good; no one is bad. Good people make bad decisions; bad people make good decisions.

On frak parties, strangers in the house and civil society: Frak parties came about when a couple of friends and I were away on a political retreat having a couple of beers and it turned out we all like BSG. It turns out that everyone we really respect in the world watches this show. So we put together a house party campaign around it, just for fun, and it sort of took off. The idea is that you have a party at your house and invite other fans -- strangers -- over to watch it. There are now over 100 frak parties across the U.S. and Canada for the season premiere, and some of the cast members have found out about it and are coming. I'm a big believer in the way civil society works. We find each other and connect with each other and that leads to more. Sixteen people have RSVP'd and I have no idea who they are. They're going to ring my doorbell and I'm going to let them in and it's going to be great.

Kris Krug, president of Bryght, builds online communities and social software:

On what's dark and sexy: Battlestar is basically a unique sci-fi show that is dramatic and sexy and dark and interesting and not about spaceships and aliens but about humanity and interpersonal relationships and about a lot of interesting existential sociological issues, that just happens to be set in space.

On genocide and abortion: The show deals with some really tough issues which you couldn't deal with if it was set in 2006 on earth -- like genocide and abortion. But if you depersonalize them and take the subjective and take your own feelings out of it, you can be objective and analyze it and enjoy that. There was one recently where abortion was outlawed for the good of humanity, because there were only 40,000 humans left in the world. They decided the good of the group outweighed the individual. And they need everyone to repopulate the world. It twisted my brain. At what point do the rights of the collective supersede the rights of the individual?

On why über geeks are fans: Part of the reason the show blew up so much and appealed to people like me was because the director does a podcast about what's going on, including his thoughts on the daily tapings. And they've had a blog since the beginning. There are lots of online tools that had never been done. They reached out to the tastemakers and got them into it.

On why this blog works: In general, in the blogorati, people who write and talk about that kind of stuff, we're down on character blogs, like the kind they have on Whistler. We think of blogs as being from a human being: it's authentic and discourse based. A character blog is co-opting the tools of blogging to do marketing. So good luck with that. I'm sure it will be a cool online project. But that's not the same as the director of Snakes on a Plane blogging about the title change, or hearing from the crew and real people. Now if the guy from Whistler was blogging about the Ross Rebagliati thing, that's what I'd want to read. That's where they're going to get big people to link to them.

On Battlestar Aggregatica: For the last year, I've been running a superpowered aggregator on the Internet that monoitors everything to do with Battlestar Galactica, fraks, cylons, all the actors, you name it.

On where he'll be: I'm going to my buddy Bob's house. My friend AJ plays Mr. Gata on the show and he's coming over.

Dawn Buie, director of web technology, TheTyee.ca:

On community in space: I liked Star Trek as a youngster because I fanaticized about being part of the crew. Although Battlestar Galactica is light years more advanced than Star Trekfor showing real human drama, I’m still attracted to that similar sense of the main characters being part of a team. They rely on each other; everyone has a place. Of course, in Battlestar Galactica, doing your job well usually means some one lives, and failing means you or others die, and since there are only 40,000 humans left, that’s a big burden. But it is shared.

On female leaders: I find the female president really fascinating. She suffers behind the scenes, but doesn’t reveal that. She makes people feel comfortable and cares about them but also lays down the law. When she’s made a decision, it’s to be abided by, even when it’s a bad decision. There’s a discussion in the show about what power is, who should be in power, how they should act. I think their assertion is that you have to have someone in power. Life on the Battlestars (Galactica and Pegasus) are modeled after life in the army. Two of the writers served in the US army and the show gets kudos from military people who say the depiction is accurate. The show explores our love hate relationship with our leaders, and the importance and danger of creating social order.

On low tech sci fi: I love how on the Battlestar none of the computers are networked and they use phones with coil chords. This is so the Cylons -- who are machines –- cannot infiltrate the system as easily. This prohibition forces the humans to come up with simple solutions, using the tools at hand. This reminds me of how some open source software like Linux is way better than an operating system designed by a company with vast resources, like Microsoft. The Cylons could take down a Windows operating system in a millisecond.

C. Michael Campbell, science fiction writer, just finished first novel-length manuscript, Jackson Orange:

On why BSG is better than movies: A series has the luxury to meander through character development whereas in a novel, it must be more concise because few will read or publish 1000+ page books of a fictional narrative, which is unfortunate.

On the problem of sci-fi: One of the problems with most sci-fi is there's too much leaning on technology. When writers create technology for sci-fi, it's usually a prototype for something that's actually in the works now. Decades later, people realize that won't work, then the show loses its believability. That's why it's good this show is so low-tech.

Dave Gowans, lead singer of The Buttless Chaps:

On soap in space: I've always liked sci-fi. But my partner has never been a sci-fi fan at all. And she loves it. I think it's converted a lot of people over because it's just like other really good adult soap operas like Six Feet Under. They leave you hanging and you want to know what happens next.

Vanessa Richmond is the managing editor of The Tyee.

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