The Sciences

Battlestar Galactica: Watched the Finale? Exclusive Interview With Kevin Grazier, Science Advisor

Science Not FictionBy Stephen CassMar 21, 2009 3:10 AM


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Kevin Grazier is, among other things, the science advisor to Battlestar Galactica. With the show wrapping up tonight, Science Not Fiction talked to him about some of the science behind the science fiction. Warning -- unless you've seen the finale, what follows below contains LOTS OF SPOILERS! Before we get into the science, what did you think of the mystical idea of “angels/demons” on the show, like Kara and Head Six and Head Baltar?Kevin Grazier: Well, there have been angels all along since day one on the show. I said something at a convention in 2007 that I was sorry I said afterwards, because even if you’re speculating it can come off as an informed decision, so I didn't speculate at conventions any more… What I said was that Ron [Moore, co-creator of BSG] tends honor the original and knowing that the Beings of Light were an integral part of the original story I’m thinking would Ron honor that but put it in our face, [so we would be] blinded by proximity, and he did. I thought the Beings of Light might pop up, but in a spaceship, as in the original.Grazier: I don’t think that’s their style! There were a few chosen ones to interact with them and that was pretty much it. I like that, even being the science dude who deals in the left brainy things. I did like the whole resolution of that, I thought it was cool.

When recognizable star fields started showing up, it sparked a lot of discussion online. Where you involved with any of that?

Grazier: There have been cases where we can see clearly [the Orion constellation], and you can use Orion to find Taurus. I had no input into that! I didn’t know it was done until I saw it, so I don’t know if that was a red herring, if that was somebody in special effects having fun, or if Ron suggested that. I have no idea where the whole Orion thing came from. And in a recent episode, you see Boomer jump near a planet that looks remarkably like Jupiter. A lot like Jupiter. I didn’t know that [was coming]. It was a pleasant surprise for me as well. I thought it was really cool. So some of the star fields that people have seen, or thought they seen, was a surprise to me too. At the same time [when the fleet arrived at the destroyed original Earth] I emphasized in my notes to the writers that Gaeta should say “visible stars are a match,” because they were close to the planet and it was obscuring half the sky. You can be in a line between a few constellations and they look perfectly fine, but the rest of the sky looks absolutely messed up because constellations are 3-d structures projected onto 2-d. So it was important that only a couple of constellations be seen [at the original Earth location] and they kinda matched. And I saw you’d written about how [there couldn't be a second Earth], and that they wouldn’t do that to us would they? Yeah, well we did! In fact we had discussed it before season three. I got called over to Universal and they said "okay, we’re going to start getting serious about finding Earth, what kind of things can we use for signs, portents, land marks, etc?" So I did a whole PowerPoint on that. The one thing I said was that stars and constellations make crappy landmarks. Constellations are crappy because they change – move a few light years and your constellations change. And also pattern matching is difficult. The human eye can see patterns in the sky with the atmosphere’s help, but when you’re in space there’s a lot more stars to see. We have spacecraft that orient themselves by looking at certain stars, they have a database of about 50-60 stars that they can find and determine their attitude, but they have fixed stars and positions that look the same wherever they are in the solar system. It's a much different problem when you don’t know where things are. You can’t just hold a database of stars that you got from the planetarium on Kobol and match that in a computer, that kind of problem is what mathematicians in computer science call NP-complete. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it would take our fastest computers a sizeable fraction of the age of the universe to solve it. In my PowerPoint presentation it said “Landmark stars suck.” Unless they’re something unusual like Betelgeuse or Antares, because those are rare, so if you had a constellation, and here’s a red supergiant, that might be okay. I encouraged them to use constellations and stars only as a final check. How realistic is the idea of having the cylon colony orbit a black hole?Grazier: The idea to use a black hole was Ron’s. But yes, it’s a fallacy that black holes are these big all-sucking objects—you can orbit a black hole if you’re far enough away. In fact I actually had a discussion in one of my notes about the implications of being within the event horizon for FTL-capable ships (faster than light capable), because the event horizon is the point at which the escape velocity becomes the speed of light. If you can fold space and jump that might not be an absolute anymore. It could work as a uni-directional time machine, but you have to make sure that tidal effects don’t pull you apart. And as far as calling it a naked singularity instead of a black hole in the script... I think Ron kind of wanted to avoid the term “black hole.” They do use the term once in the episode I think and only once. Otherwise it’s called a singularity or a naked singularity. A naked singularity is simply a black hole that’s spinning so fast it doesn’t have an event horizon. I believe it’s a frame dragging effect. Speaking of FTL travel, how much of the mechanics of it did you work out for the show?Grazier: I'll start answering this a little obliquely! A few years ago I heard an interview on the radio with a scientist, and the beginning of every single answer was “Well in my new book I say…” Having said that, in my new book The Science of Battlestar Galactica with Partick DiJusto, we discuss the mechanics of the FTL, and one of the things we say is that if we really knew in great detail how it works we wouldn’t be writing a book, we’d be packing for Stockholm! Having said that, I was on my way to Vancouver to watch a couple of days of filming [a few years ago] and I got an email from the Galactica office saying contact [producer] Bradley Thompson immediately. I called Bradley and he said, "well, we’re rewriting 2x17. Now we need you to figure out how the FTL works, so we know what components it has, so we know it can get battle damaged, so in a last minute Wrath of Khan-likemanoeuver, the captain can go down to engineering and save the ship." And he says, "I get in tomorrow at 10:30, that’s your deadline." So I got two hours sleep, and paced and pondered and I kinda figured out how it works. It turned out there was a previous blog entry from Ron saying how he envisioned it worked, and they just happened to be exactly the same idea, fortunately. The way they work is along the lines of they way the Heighliners in Dune worked. Tthey fold space ahead of them and essentially pull your destination to you. You move through it and when space snaps back you’re on the other side. That’s the quick and dirty version. ... Interestingly, right after I submitted those notes on how FTL works, I said to Bradley, "I figured out a great way how why can take out a cylon baseship without firing a shot, though you may not want to use it, it may be too Trekish." I suggested pulling up to the baseship and jumping just past it so the spatial distortion would tear it apart. Bradley's comment was "good idea...nah, you’re right, that’s too Star Trek." Fast forward to a year ago, my phone rings and it's Bradley. He asks me "remember that idea you had for destroying a cylon baseship? What do you think would happen if a raptor jumped before it cleared the bay?" I said it would take part of Galactica with it. And he said "Exactly what I was hoping you’d say!" Is there anything else that you have worked out, even if we didn't see it on screen?Grazier: In the book we're going to have a whole chapter on cylon biology. People have taken me to task on cylon biology saying, that’s impossible, and that’s impossible and that’s impossible. In fact, while it’s a little bit of a stretch we’re actually able to explain things pretty simply. If we assume different software in the brain that can be programmed and if we assume one small mofification to the human form, you actually come up with a cylon. Overall, how do you felt the show did with the accuracy of the science?Grazier: There’s a couple of caveats. Any science fiction show is allowed a couple of conceits. Without FTL we’d never see another planet within our lifetimes. Artifical gravity is a filming constraint [and so on]. If you accept those conceits and relative to any science fiction series or movie relative to date, I think we get an A. Because the writers listened to their science dude! Even in a couple of cases where they may or may have done what I asked, I felt I was listened to. With the exception of Home Part 2 [which featured the Kobol planetarium]. Is there anything you wish you could change?Grazier: There’s two. There’s one that I recognized too late. That was when the explosion in Water blew out the side of the [Galactica] and we have a big venting of water. [Galactica] was connected to the Virgon Express. That would have imparted a pretty healthy delta v [change in velocity], meaning it would have yanked the Virgon Express with [the Galactica] and probably broken the water lines. I didn’t think of that until too late, and I called and said "hang on!" and they said "that ship’s sailed, sorry." That was the second episode and I was a baby science advisor then. The other one is I wish I would have been more instant with the constellations in Home Part 2. Because when you start thinking about those constellations, who put them there? Wasn’t the Kobolians. Those aren’t seen from the original Earth, so where did those constellations come from? Those constellations were a big part of why was I sure the show had to be set in the future!Grazier: Right. I wish I had been more insistent on "we really need to rethink this."

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