Thursday, September 8, 2016

Comparative Technology

I feel the need to be nerdier than usual.

A video on YouTube has sparked a topic that I think about from time to time. Many fans wonder, seriously or in jest, how the technology of various science fiction universes compares. I thought I might delve into four of my favorites. Oh, and when it comes to who would win, the answer is always the Doctor. But technology is a different matter.

I'll tackle Star Trek first. They set out from the beginning to have a higher level of technology so you have phasers and photon torpedoes for weapons. The ships carry a variety of deflector and shield systems designed to go from avoiding space debris to protecting from weapons. This elevates the level of damage these weapons can do to a different level.

Then came Star Wars. While Lucas refers to lasers and laser swords, in universe they are rarely referred to in that way. Also, the effects do not correspond to the way lasers works leading me to have a different explanation. The weapons are called basters or turbo lasers and we can see the beam travel leading me to believe they are a plasma based weapon very similar in effect to a laser, but more powerful. We do get some description of deflectors and shields but don't really get to see much of them. There is also armor plating. What you do get is a sense that the larger ships are heavily built.

Battlestar Galactica (the original - the only one I've seen) basically copied Star Wars for the level of technology, omitting lightsabers. But basically the same effects as Star Wars and the same solid designs. Not surprising since Ralph MacQuarrie was behind the conceptual design of both. This places Battlestar Galactica and Star Wars on nearly equal footing.

Then there is Babylon 5. This gets more dicey because we aren't dealing with just one technology. There are really three levels. first you have the Earth Alliance. These are lower level weapons solidly built ships. Then you have the Centari, Narn, and Mimbari at the mid level. They are pretty equally matched in most ways and superior to the Earth Alliance. But they are inferior to the Vorlons and Shadows. They represent an entirely new level, one that has more firepower at their fingertips than anyone else.

When you start to pit these various technologies against each other you get some pretty varied results depending on who is doing it. My outlook is to take the level of damage into account and the size of the ships and the damage weapons do. Then I look for parallels. One parallel is the merchant ship at the start of Star Trek III and the Millennium Falcon. They are similar in size, both appear to land on planets. The Falcon has armor plating and deflectors. The other ship seems to have been caught with its guard down. The Klingon Bird of Prey destroys the ship with one volley of fire from its phaser-like weapons (often called disruptors but that name doesn't always seem to fit the effect). So, what would a Bird of Prey do to the Falcon? I think the results would be similar, but it would take more shots to cut through the armor plating. Now, in Star Wars we see the Falcon take a lot of hits on the deflectors and suffer no real damage (other than some overloaded systems) so if the deflectors were up, it would take the Klingon ship some work. But the Falcon's weapons are no match for the Bird of Prey's shields.

As I continue to put the pieces together, I come to realize that the Star Wars weapons are almost as powerful as the Star Trek ones. Similarly compatible to the Mimbari weapons from Babylon 5. So in terms of dealing out damage, they are all quite similar. But it is when you get to shields that things become more clear. The Star Wars ships seem to rely on ruggedness and armor rather than shields. Their shields are weaker than the Star Trek or Mimbari ones. And Battlestar Galactica doesn't seem to have any shields except around the bridge. So when it comes to damage they are almost all equal. But when it comes to the ability to sustain damage, they are not.

I would put the Earth Alliance as the weakest. They've got the spirit and tactics, but not the equipment. They need luck and skill to even hold their own with the others and a hell of a lot of both to beat them.

Then Battlestar Galactica. They have no defensive systems. Their capital ships have missiles that can blow the others away, but bringing them to bear would be difficult.

The Mimbari, Star Trek, and Star Wars all seem to be pretty equivalent. Star Trek ships have stronger shields, but they rely on those shields for most of their defense. The ships can't take much damage. the Star Wars ships are hearty and can take a pounding. The Mimbari seem to have the best technology and make use of fighters. That seems to be a key difference in Star Trek and Star Wars tactics. Star Trek lacks fighters. If those ships focus too much on the fighters they could put to much effort into the small targets and neglect he larger targets and lose the battle. All things considered, I think the Mimbari would come out on top.

But then there is something else to consider. The Death Star is an order of magnitude higher than the rest. But so are the Vorlons and Shadows. The Death Star can blow apart a planet, something the Vorlons and Shadows can't quite match. But the Death Star is easy to take out. Since the Vorlons and Shadows were loathe to act unless things became serious and really were only in the mood to fight each other, this pretty much negates any need to really consider them (they'd win if you did).

What it boils down to is what ships could take the pounding from the others and still dish it out. The Galactica took more hits than any Star Destroyer we witnessed so for capital ships, I'd vote her the winner for endurance. But Star Trek ships have pretty powerful weapons and advanced shields. Unless an enemy can take such a pounding and still dish it out, the Star Trek universe would have to win as the most powerful. It would be a tough battle between them and a fleet of Battlestars, but I think a TNG era Federation fleet would win. They are fast, maneuverable, with the firepower to do the job. The Battlestars and Baseships would have a hard time dealing out any damage, but they could take a huge amount and that might give them the time to get in shots to take down the Federation shields. After that the Federation ships wouldn't stand a chance, but I don't think it would go that far.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Black Holes Aren't All That Complicated

Seriously, they aren't. Some physicists make them out to be these incredible things, but really they are just hugely massive gravitational bodies and they act in very predictable ways. The recent detection of Gravitational Waves and what they detected just proves my point.

There is this big question among those who study black holes as to what happens when matter is sucked in. Some say it is destroyed and some say it cannot be destroyed because of the law of conservation of information. Well, both points are ridiculous and pointless. Might as well talk about how many angels can dance on the head of a pin. Why do I say this? Well, the mass. When matter gets sucked into a black hole, the black hole gains mass. Not all matter may get sucked in, some may get converted to energy and some may be flung away before it enters the event horizon.

One scientist was so desperate to prove that information was not lost that they resorted to measuring the surface area of the black hole, noting, much as the known increase in mass, that the size also increases and so the surface area goes up. Sometimes I think these specialists scientists get too focused on the minutiae and forget to let logic and reason in.

Okay, so what proof do I have. Well, the math. Now, I'm not going to put down how all this is calculated, or even what the precise final equations are that can be compared. For one it is hard to do in a blog. Another, either you are a physicist and can look them up or you aren't and they wouldn't make sense to you even if you saw them. Michio Kaku covered it well in his book Hyperspace. But anyway, I digress. When you calculate what a black hole should look like you get a strange result. It doesn't make a lot of sense even if you are an expert. Interestingly enough, you get a very similar result when you do the same calculations for the big bang singularity.

So what does this mean. Well, that depends all on the theory of the Big Bang you follow. I find string theory compelling. The added dimensions make a lot of sense. When you look at it that way, in the moments after the big bang, new dimensions come into being and matter is created from those dimensions. Generally it is described as the vibration of a string, which is why they call it string theory. But the crux of the idea is the the change in the dimensional nature of the universe leads to the creation of matter, first at the quantum level, then at the atomic level. From the nature of the math results, I have concluded that the process inside a black hole is so similar to the conditions during the big bang, just moving in the opposite direction, that the dimensions get crushed. This answers the conservation of information conundrum because it means that a state that started with the Big Bang is being reversed on a small scale. Yes that means matter would cease to exist, but not the dimensions and vibrations that created it in the first place. It is hardly different than the observable states of matter - gas, liquid, and solid and the change between them. It is just a more fundamental change under conditions that are hard for us to comprehend. The temperatures and pressures within a black hole are extreme.

As a result, black holes become quite easy to understand. They are just mini-reverse-big-bangs. Nothing hard to comprehend and nothing that requires a great mind to figure out. Black holes are not gateways to other places, they are just huge chunks of matter that gobble up any matter that gets too close. They convert matter back into its constituent components and grow in mass and in the diameter of their event horizon. Now, as a gravitational body off extreme size there are bound to be some interesting things going that could produce some of the interesting tales SF authors have proposed, but the only thing you'll get by crossing the event horizon is absorbed into the black hole and your matter converted into a higher state.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Is Science Fiction Dead? or Merely Asleep

Some have lamented the death of Science Fiction. The great pioneers of the 30's and 40's predicted a lot of things that are now a part of our daily lives. The visions of the future have largely come to pass, with the exception of space exploration which we now know will take longer than any of those early visionaries thought. There also seems to a trend to stick to the facts and not really push the boundaries of technology when telling a story (this has traditionally been called Hard Science Fiction).

So, is Science Fiction dead? Well, that depends on the fans and the writers. For some it may well be, but those people lack imagination. They tend to be fans of Hard Science Fiction and eschew the softer, and previously greatly popular, side of the genre. Don't get me wrong, there is a place for Hard Science Fiction, but let's face it, that is not where Science Fiction came from. It may be hard to grasp when you go back today and read the works of the Golden Age that most of that stuff was not even considered possible. Today it seems like they knew what they were talking about. Heinlein's description of zero gravity in Orphans of the Sky was frighteningly accurate and written decades before anyone had experienced it. Traveling to the moon, much less another planet, was so far fetched in the world that read the Golden Age books that it could not be considered anything but Soft Science Fiction. The Golden Age was full of dreams of the future that few thought would actually come to pass.

But today, with so many of those inventions of the imagination a reality and some of the dreams pushed further into the future, it must seem like the genre is dead. But it isn't. We have just forgotten to dream. One set of dreams came true and we need to find new ones. There are still many possibilities out there, we just need to dream them up and write about them. Science has advanced so far that some feel that we know too much and there is no room left for dreams, but we still do not have humaniform robots, we still don't have space colonies, theories concerning faster than light travel have advanced taking relativity into account, science has investigated the transporter, and then there are the many social issues that we have yet to deal with. We are not where we could be and it is up to Science Fiction to show us where we can still go. To do that, we need to dream. We can't stick to the facts of Hard Science Fiction, we have to push the boundaries and question what can and can't be done. If we don't question our understanding of things as they did in the Golden Age, it leaves no room for imagination. We are only limited by our imagination and if we reign that in, we have no place to go.

While I greatly respect the efforts of the Hard Science Fiction community, they do not represent true Science Fiction. The heart of the Genre is imagining the impossible possible and that goes against the very nature of Hard Science Fiction, but it lies at the core of all Golden Age stories. We need to dream and dream big. We need to write stories that inspire the imagination and let young readers dream big. For only by dreaming big and being inspired to discover what is possible do we get that gleaming core of scientists who take the stories they grew up with and make them reality. Science Fiction writers need to get back to dreaming big so that the inspiration of our imagination can inspire the science of a new generation. That is what Science Fiction really is. And I'd have to say that if we can't find that voice of dreams again, that the genre might be truly dead. But I don't think it is. I dream and aspire to inspire and I know others writers do as well.