Posts Tagged ‘television’

Magic Science

Tuesday, December 18th, 2007

Jeffrey Harrell has an interesting post up regarding the realistic science of Battlestar Galactica. I haven’t watched the most recent season of BSG (gonna get the DVD though…), but I do like the relative realism of the science, as far as it goes.

Pretty much any time you have a fictional universe in which people are traveling between solar systems in dramatically interesting periods of time, we’re looking at “magic” technology, in the Clarkian sense that “Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.” In this sense, we’re really not talking about “realism” so much as “verisimilitude”. It doesn’t follow science, but does a good job of seeming to do so.

For example, when the ships “jump” to another point in space, we’re talking about ginormous amounts of physical matter popping out of existence in one place and (instantly?) reappearing some vast distance away. Nothing in modern science can explain this, but that really doesn’t say in any absolute terms that it is _impossible_ — it’s just impossible within the terms of what we know now. Two thousand years from now when we’ve harnessed wormholes for travel (a la Farscape), and are using captured black holes for power sources (a la Doctor Who), today’s “impossible” things are going to be included in science kits for children.

There are two elements of “magical” tech (at least) that we know about in BSG:

1) They can travel faster than light, as exhibited in their “jump” technology.
2) They have harnessed the power of gravity.

Let’s look at that second one for a moment.

We know that to some extent the people of the 12 colonies have gravity control, as evidenced by the simple (televisually convenient) fact that they walk around normally on board their ships. They’re not scooting around in near-freefall going from handhold to handhold — there is a distinct “up” and “down” on board their spacecraft, which appears to pretty consistently equate to their planetary norm.

I referred to this a moment ago as “televisually convenient” because it makes filming the show a lot easier. Without it, virtually every scene not set on a planet (that is, most every scene) would be a special effects shot. Just about every TV show set in outer space ever made follows that same conceit: Star Trek, BSG, Farscape, Doctor Who, Buck Rodgers, you name it. Artificial gravity. People walking around in space ships that conveniently share the same gravity field as, say, a studio lot in L.A.

So we know why they do it. But if we’re going to examine the show as a scientifically plausible universe, as Jeff attempts to do, then this technological feat cannot be easily dismissed. Artificial gravity is a big deal. These people have harnessed a fundamental law of physics. In the universe as we know it, there is only one thing that produces gravity, and that is the presence of mass. It takes a hunk of matter the size of our entire planet to produce the amount of gravity that we think of as “normal”.

That means that if a space craft has an “earth normal” gravity field allowing people to walk around normally, there are only a few possibilities:

  1. There is an incredibly huge or dense chunk of matter somewhere in the middle of your ship, and all decks are arranged roughly concentrically around it. That of course means that to move, you’re pushing around an almost Earth-size mass. In addition, you either must have a really huge ship, or you’re _still_ manipulating gravity to keep that mass from crushing your ship in on itself. (Note: The actual size of the mass to create an Earth-equivalent gravity field varies with the distance of the decks from that mass, as well as its density). Not very practical on multiple levels, and I know of no show that has used this method.
  2. Your decks are all perpendicular to the movement of the ship, and the ship constantly accelerates at a speed that produces one gravity of force. Not entirely implausible, but it would take a long time to get anywhere, and this system would be highly susceptible to turbulence or unexpected course changes. Again I know of no show that uses this method.
  3. Spin the decks around the center of the ship, and have the crew areas oriented so that “down” is concentric away from the center. A false “gravity” is formed by centripetal force. This has been used occasionally in science fiction, probably most famously in the movie 2001: A Space Odyssey. Plausible, but not commonly used. Note you need a pretty big ring to spin, as a too-small ring will do bad things to the people standing in its “gravity”.
  4. Some sort of heretofore unknown, unexplained, or technobabble-ish “magic” science. That is science so advanced that we 21st century Earthlings can’t explain it with what we understand of physics. Most sci-fi shipboard gravity falls into this category. Battlestar Galactica certainly does.

So… as interesting as it can be to try to examine that show in terms of real science, and as much as the show does coincide with real mathematics (as evidenced by Jeff’s post), we are at some level dealing with “magic” science, and the ability to directly manipulate gravity, alone, has significant consequences for Jeff’s discussion.

He talks about G-forces and the limits they impose on acceleration. If you can manipulate gravity, you can effectively eliminate inertia, and thus G-forces. If I want my ship to accelerate forward at 100 gravities (which would be fatal to a human being), I can impose an artificial gravity field within the ship that pulls people forward at that same 100 gravities, and that would have the effect that the people in the ship don’t even feel the acceleration. Again, this seems common in popular sci-fi. (Actually, if you can readily manipulate gravity, you can use that as propulsion by making your ship “fall” towards its destination!)

I remember reading a book somewhere along the line (perhaps one of the Honor Harrington series) in which a saboteur specifically kills the crew of a ship by rigging the inertial dampeners to cut out at the height of acceleration, thus causing them to be instantly crushed into jelly by massive g-forces.

A fun-but-silly example of this same “magic tech” is the show Doctor Who in the 70s, in which the Doctor (as portrayed by actor Jon Pertwee) drove around in a vintage automobile into which he had installed an inertial dampener. There he is in this old open-top roadster accelerating at incredible speeds and stopping on a dime. I always loved that juxtaposition of old technology with advanced future tech — those kinds of touches are one of the reasons I am still a fan of the old show.

Getting back to Battlestar Galactica — Jeff openly admits that the show deals with “magic” tech, in his references to the ships having “magic engines ” and such. I do like it when writers keep within certain pre-defined bounds, I just think that such verisimilitude becomes really dicey as soon as you introduce any unexplained high tech. Larry Niven wrote an essay at one point about the difficulties of writing science fiction mysteries — if it’s a locked-room murder, for example, how do we know some alien didn’t just “psychic” the guy to death, or whatever? This type of thing became a significant weakness in Star Trek — after a while it seemed that they could solve any problem by whipping up some vaguely-plausible-sounding gadget, or making some sort of never-before attempted deathray out of the deflector array. The show lost a lot of tension when you knew the resolution was just a technobabble miracle away.

The aforementioned Honor Harrington series of books (not TV) by David Weber are another excellent example of verisimilitude in science fiction. Throughout the series, he gives solid explanations of how the technology in his universe works, and doesn’t stray out of the boundaries he sets up for himself. The tech becomes intimately tied into the methodologies of warfare in the series, and he manages to keep the battles interesting and diverse at the same time.

Personally I think any science fiction (or fantasy for that matter) does pretty well with this if they manage to be internally consistent. Set the ground rules, and then you can legitimately do “unreal” thinks so long as you follow your own rules. The worst thing a writer can do is to get the characters into a bind and then get them out of it by pulling out some cure-all gadget at the last moment that has no basis in what came before. The worst example I can think of of this is the end of the movie Cool World (a distinctly fantasy movie in the vein of Roger Rabbit) in which the main (human) character is killed in the climactic scene, but then one of the subsidiary characters turns to another and conveniently mentions that if a human is killed by a cartoon, they become cartoons themselves. Voila! Main character is not only saved, but this solves several problems that he’s been trying to over come for the whole movie. This is mentioned only at the critical moment at the end of the movie, but stated as though it’s something commonly known to anybody — yet if anybody had known it at the beginning, they could have skipped the whole movie by doing it at the beginning.

I think this gets into one of the defining factors of what separates good science fiction from the garbage — respect for the intelligence of the viewer, and a solid standard that things have to make logical sense. Science fiction is largely the art of inventing dramatically interesting “facts”, but maintaining the relationships between things in a way that keeps with reality. Okay, some dude makes a time machine — I can accept that. You don’t have to explain precisely how it works; but the consequences of going back millions of years and stepping on a butterfly had better make sense, or you don’t have a story. In the case of Battlestar Galactica, there are several “magic” aspects of the universe, but the glue that holds them all together is strong characters, and a universe that still makes logical sense after you accept the inclusion of the defined impossibilities.