Archive for January, 2013

You Will Not Come Home From Space Today

2013/01/31 Leave a comment

Since the 10th anniversary of the Space Shuttle Columbia accident is coming up, and I’ve been reading the accident report, it seemed fitting to write up a discussion on the subject.  I’ve learned a rather large number of things about the disaster that I hadn’t previously realized.  So, we’ll do a dissection backwards — we’ll consider reality first, and then how fiction tends to get disasters wrong.

No spoiler alerts here — we all know how this one ended — but I will put up a warning for depressing tragedy.  Don’t read this if you want something to cheer you up.

[Note:  The title here references Up Goer Five.]


February 1st, 2003.  Saturday.  I don’t remember exactly what was going on that day, but it was only my mother and me at home.  I think my dad and brothers were all out getting their hair cut.  It was a nice sunny day, but I was inside, flipping through the channels for some reason.  Maybe I was just putting off homework.  Regardless, the image I found playing on the TV looked like this:

First, you think it's the pretty breakup of a nice, big meteor.  And then you realize it's actually a Space Shuttle.  With people in it.

First, you think it’s the pretty breakup of a nice, big meteor. And then you realize it’s actually a Space Shuttle. With people in it.

Oh crap.

The System

Let’s back up a bit, and address how this all started.

The Space Shuttle program was originally conceived as providing a medium-sized vehicle for getting to and from a series of low-Earth orbit space stations, as the initial post-Apollo plan.  The shuttle was to be reusable, to save on cost.  The space stations obviously didn’t happen, and NASA only got funding for the shuttle.  Which meant they had to make a reason for the vehicle.  To economically justify the shuttle, it ended up needing to be all things to all people — reusable, cheap, fast turn-around, cargo, crew.  It had to be able to launch satellites and do experiments about weightlessness in orbit.  Unfortunately, this combination resulted in a “jack of all trades, master of none” consequence.  Safety ended up being stacked against budget and schedule pressure, partly because NASA lacked a truly independent safety organization.

The pressure to stick to schedule with satellite launches earlier in the program strongly contributed to the Challenger accident in 1986.  Concerns voiced about the O-rings, untested in cold weather and showing strain in previous launches, were ignored.

There was some reorganization thereafter, including the cessation of using the Shuttle to launch commercial satellites and a reduced launch rate.  However, in the 1990s NASA again suffered budget cuts, massive reorganization mandated by Congress and new leadership to attempt to “privatize” the space program.  Further schedule strain due to being the only vehicle capable of launching some of the larger International Space Station (ISS) modules.

Safety was, again, not truly independent of the people pressured to stick to schedule.  In this case, STS-107, Columbia’s mission, had been repeatedly delayed.  While this was a science mission, studying things like biology in zero-g and observing high-atmosphere lightning, further delays were very undesirable because they would affect the schedule for the next shuttle launch.  The next mission would deliver a major component to the ISS, and everyone was worried about getting it up by a certain date in February.

Meanwhile, the issues with foam on previous mission where gradually being considered less and less of a problem, despite being far from design specifications… to the point that, between miscommunications and problematic culture and pressure to stick to schedule, foam loss was judged to be not a “safety-of-flight” issue.  Apparently, this kind of reaction is common enough to have a name — “go fever.”

The Foam

Foam loss was the proximate cause of the accident.  When the Shuttle launched, it had three main components.  There was the orbiter itself, which was connected to the External Tank.  The External Tank contained liquid hydrogen and oxygen in separate compartments, which were additional fuel for the launch.  The first rockets lit, however, were the two solid-state boosters.  These were attached one on each side of the ET.  (See the picture for what this looks like.)  The boosters and the orbiter were reusable; the ET was not, and a new ET was built for each launch.

This is the final launch of Columbia.  The orbiter is on the right.  The big red thing is the external tank, and the white thing on the left is the left solid state booster.  The on the right can't be seen here.

This is the final launch of Columbia. The orbiter is on the right. The big red thing is the external tank, and the white thing on the left is the left solid state booster. The on the right can’t be seen here.  The foam that impacted the left wing will come from where the orbiter is connected to the external tank, below the orbiter’s nose.

Because the ET contained cryogenic materials, it was covered in foam on the outside.  This prevented ice from forming, which could otherwise have fallen off during launch and posed a danger to the orbiter.  The potential danger was that the falling ice could damage the tiles on the underside of the orbiter.  These tiles were the heat shield for the orbiter on re-entry, protecting the wings and the contents and crew of the orbiter.  The parts that got hottest were the leading edges of the wing.  These had a different kind of tiles, called reinforced carbon-carbon (RCC) tiles.  According to the specs, the tiles were not designed to withstand any impacts.  There was concern about micrometeorite damage, but that generally was not a significant problem.  Tiles that experienced some damage would be repaired or replaced after re-entry.

Unfortunately, while ice generally wasn’t a problem, the foam itself was.  The foam had a history of shedding from the ET, despite design specifications that said it shouldn’t.  (Examination after the Columbia disaster indicates that the shedding was due to thermal contraction of the foam after the ET was filled with cryogens, leading to cracking.)  Earlier in the Shuttle program, this was considered a serious concern.  However, over time, foam shedding and strikes against the orbiter’s tiles or other parts of the launch system were normalized.  Two flights before Columbia’s last, a particularly large chunk of foam fell off the connector between the orbiter and the ET.  This chunk of foam caused significant damage to one of the solid rocket boosters.  Despite this, the orbiter launched okay, and re-entered okay.  After this incident, foam strikes were downgraded from something closely checked after each flight to being not a significant issue — a “known risk” which was, nonetheless, far outside of design specifications.

For STS-107, the final flight of Columbia, another large chunk of foam fell from the same area, but this time, struck the underside of the orbiter’s left wing.  Due to bad camera placement and focus, it wasn’t clear from launch video how bad the strike was.  Engineers were concerned that it could damage the tiles, enough to permit excess heating on re-entry.  They were especially worried that the excess heat might cause damage to the left landing gear and wheel.

A committee was formed to look into possible damage, while Columbia orbited the Earth.  They made three requests for on-orbit imaging to examine the wing.  All three requests went through unofficial or otherwise non-standard channels, and all were eventually refused.  The refusal was due partly to confusion about how serious the issue was.  The risk was not well communicated to higher management, who inferred that the foam strike wasn’t a problem.  The foam impact committee interpreted the refusal as absolute, particularly given that they were asked to demonstrate that the issue was serious before they could get imaging, and they needed imaging to show the issue was serious…

They also did some testing with a computer program called Crater, which simulated impacts on the tiles.  It was a “conservative tool”, which meant that it would over-predict the amount of damage to the tiles.  They did the best they could, estimating the size, speed and location of the foam piece at impact.  The simulation wasn’t calibrated for such large pieces of foam (it was a factor of several hundred times larger than anything that had been tested), but the predicted penetration depth was greater than the thickness of the tile.  This result was watered down — Crater overpredicts depth, and given differences between the real and simulated tiles, the engineers thought probably wouldn’t actually penetrate the tile.  As a consequence, the message that got out was “this is going to be okay, not an issue.”

Later testing by the Columbia Accident Investigation Board actually shot a piece of foam at actual RCC tiles.  The foam not only penetrated, but punched a hole more than a foot across.  This explained the patterns of damage found in the debris recovered later and the in-flight telemetry.

One other item that was overlooked during the mission was an object tracked by the US Air Force’s space situational awareness units.  They keep track of essentially everything the size of a golf ball or larger in near-Earth orbit, since space junk can pose a hazard to satellites.  A piece of something was tracked moving away from the orbiter, entering the atmosphere and burning up a couple of days after the launch.  In hindsight, this is likely be a piece of tile that broke off at impact, got stuck inside the wing for the rest of the launch, and later floated out and away.

What If?

Columbia’s mission in orbit was just over two weeks.  Had on-orbit imaging been taken, and the serious damage actually been observed, there were a couple of options.

The riskier option would have been to attempt an emergency EVA, and attempt to repair the tile while in orbit.  This would be done by placing thick metal material scavenged from the orbiter in the hole, and holding it in place with a bag of water allowed to expand and freeze in the cold of space.

The other option was to speed up the prep of space shuttle Atlantis for its own launch.  Rather than sending up the next piece of the ISS, it would go up with a minimal crew and no cargo, and pick up the Columbia crew.  They would then go back down to Earth in Atlantis.  Of course, this had the same risk from when foam-meets-tile, but had a higher chance of success than the emergency repair if the launch of Atlantis could be done before Columbia ran out of consumable supplies for life support.  In this case, Columbia could be left in orbit for possible future repairs.

But by the time Columbia was entering the atmosphere, it was too late.

The Fall

February 1st was the date for re-entry.  For any Space Shuttle, the orbiter is initially orbiting tail-first, then does a burn to go into a reentry trajectory.  Then it turns around, with the nose and all the heat-resistant parts facing forward.

In the case of Columbia, this all went fine.  Serious heating from reentry starting as it was over California.  It then flew east to where it would have landed in Florida.  As it went, sensors in the left wing started behaving strangely.  Heat sensors went to “off-scale”, pressure sensors failed.  Not all the telemetry made it to ground control, but they started wondering.  Meanwhile, not sent to the ground was the fact that the orbiter was making large automatic corrections for extra drag from the left wing.  People on the ground started to see pieces coming off of the orbiter.  Ground control wasn’t watching the orbiter with cameras, so they didn’t know about the debris.

The superheated air had penetrated the wing and started tear it apart.

Communications between ground and the orbiter cut off, but this was a typical event due to interference when the orbiter was going through the hottest part of reentry.  Communications never resumed.  Meanwhile, hot air thoroughly penetrated the left wing.  More pieces flew off the orbiter, and eventually the control systems ceased to be able to compensate for the extra drag.  The orbiter spun out of control and disintegrated over Texas and Louisiana.

No one in the control room knew anything more serious than a communications malfunction had happened until a friend of one of the operators called.

Issues in Fiction

Of course, complicated issues like these are often overlooked in fictional media.  It’s always a giant robot made by one mad scientist going horribly wrong from the start, or the ethically compromised cybernetics guy experimenting on unwilling humans, or a CEO making the big, stupid decision, loudly overriding the warnings of the heroic representative engineer.

When considering examples, Michael suggested “Every Star Trek episode ever.”  This… is pretty much true.  Red shirts die all over the place due to poor procedure, problems with the ship are always simple, and the bridge is made of explodium.  And the warp drive is made out of explodium, with far too few safeguards.  A lot of other shows —   The Death Star of Star Wars may or may not be a good example — after all, having a small exhaust port lead to the explodium that powers is just the kind of unexpected connection between systems that could crop up and cause trouble.  Though, if the Empire’s engineers didn’t spot the connection, it’s surprising that the rebels did… then again, maybe the engineers were still trying to convince other folks that it was a potential problem.

Real life is not so simple as just plugging in few new components.  It’s not just one guy, doing one thing very wrong.  For Columbia, it was a series of individually smaller problems — the falling foam, the degree of resistance of the tiles, and the various systemic cultural and communications failures that prevented the issue from being corrected.

And on the technical rather than social side, it’s still not just one thing going wrong.  Especially for well-constructed systems, there generally must be several things that go wrong in sequence for disaster to strike.  For the shuttle, the falling foam wasn’t a problem unless a big enough piece hit a critical spot — which took until the 113th mission to happen.  The Chernobyl disaster is another example of this.  It required an older, less-safe design, being operated at night by inexperienced technicians doing a stupid test with most of the safety systems deliberately turned off and combined with a generator failure.

Shared blame is problematic.  We want one monster to be at fault, so the hero can just deal with that guy.  We don’t want to consider the larger cultural problems (as at NASA), or acknowledge that all the people involved were doing their best, or that everyone made mistakes.  Or that a decent, sane person might contribute to those fatal mistakes.


Superheroes Round 5: Batman

2013/01/21 6 comments

Holy Plot Holes, Batman!

Since I finally saw The Dark Knight Rises (on a plane!) I’ll be hitting the full Christopher Nolan trilogy for this one.  Naturally… here be many epic spoilers.

This is not Batman.  And, now that I think about it, I don't remember seeing this particular view in the film.

This is not Batman. And, now that I think about it, I don’t remember seeing this particular view in the film.

Super Medical Bills

I hope Bruce Wayne has good health insurance.  As we’ve discussed before, being a superhero is hard on the flesh and bones.  This is emphasized to at least some degree in all the films.  We see Bruce Wayne stitching up his own dog bites in the second film.  In the third, he starts out walking around on a cane, and has a doctor advise him against heliskiing due to the fact that he’s got basically no cartilage left in his knees.  Of course, he gets a powered exoskeleton to compensate for that and add to his strength…

The part in the Dark Knight Rises where this doesn’t work well happens after Bane breaks Batman’s back.  In the absence of medical care, one character hauls Wayne up into a standing position, and kicks him to “push the vertebra back into place.”  And then Wayne gets better.  DO NOT TRY THIS AT HOME, KIDS.  Or anywhere.  Even if you’re not kids.  Spines don’t grow back like that — if a vertebra is so far out of place that you’re paralyzed, and you don’t get immediate medical care, you’re going to be paralyzed for life.  And probably even with good medical care, depending on just how bad the nerve damage is.  Plus, kicking the vertebra back into place would probably just cause more damage.

Maybe Batman is related to Wolverine, who has super-healing powers… and they do have similar on-the-job voices.  Interesting.

On a more positive note, Alfred expresses honest concern about not wanting to bury another Wayne, and dreaming about his charge settling down to a nice, safe, happy life where crazy people aren’t going after him.

Villainous Motivations

Back many years ago, there was an animated Batman TV series.  My favorite villain from that show is Mr. Freeze.

He was the well-intentioned extremist, the hero gone wrong.  All he really wanted to do was save the life of his wife… and what made him a villain was his use of any means to reach his ends, and not his ends themselves.  The audience empathizes with his singular goal, even while being horrified by his methods.

The villains of Nolan’s Batman films?  Ra’s Al Ghul.  Destroying the city in order to save it?  Wiping it out like a modern Sodom or Gomorrah?  Talia and Bane’s motivations in the third film are similar.  The Joker, of course, just wants chaos everywhere because he thinks its funny, which doesn’t seem that different in effect from the Al Ghul plots.

These villains are very difficult to see as sympathetic.  Ra’s Al Ghul is probably the closest, being consistently portrayed as concerned about Gotham’s corruption.  Removing the cancer by destroying Gotham by drugging everyone with panic-inducing toxin… is a bit much.  Perhaps understandable from a very warped perspective.  Talia Al Ghul and company have similar motivations, but they’re not as well explained.  Plus, they evidently don’t mind going down when the city burns.

And the Joker… well.  He may not make much sense, but he is very effectively scary.

I would have loved to see a Mr. Freeze-like villain.  The fact that the destruction he causes is merely collateral damage, rather than his actual goal, makes him more interesting in my mind.  For instance, there actually exists a possibility of negotiation.  The villains we actually get just don’t really work.

Somebody Fell Asleep in Nuclear Physics

In terms of physics, I feel the urge to rant about one serious science problem in the Dark Knight Rises specifically.

The reactor.



Nuclear reactors don’t work that way.  And, for bonus points, the best fusion we can do these days doesn’t work that way, either.

Problem 1:  Nuclear fission reactors that can power a city are not really portable.  They’ll be sitting in a nice big building, with lots of coolant and shielding.  There will also be a moderator, which slows the neutrons released by radioactive decay so that they can hit more nuclei and trigger more decays, and control rods made from a neutron poison (or absorber), which catch loose neutrons.  These two things are used to control the chain reaction and the amount of power.  The control rods in particular are important for shutting the reaction down if stuff goes wrong.  These all take space.

Reactors used to make medical isotopes may be smaller, and the reactors that power submarines and some larger vessels such as air carriers are obviously portable.  But those are big ships.  Anything that makes a Gotham City-sized quantity of power (Gigawatts) is going to be too big to fit in a truck.  And there will be some issues if you disconnect it from its sources of coolant.  And I didn’t see anything that looked like control rods.  But then, it sounds like this isn’t a nuclear fission reactor…

Problem 2:  Fusion?  Really?  The current state of nuclear fusion is something like what’s done at the National Ignition Facility.  The basics setup is to use a bunch of really big lasers to compress a very small target until the target atoms fuse.  It’s a huge, non-portable facility, with a target smaller than your fingertip.  It definitely consumes power, rather than producing it.  And, for bonus points, as of September 2012 (according to Wikipedia), it hasn’t been able to confirm “ignition” — the start of a fusion chain reaction.  There are other designs that involve magnetic confinement to force nuclei together (such as ITER) which at least break even in terms of energy.  ITER itself should produce power on the net, but it won’t be finished until 2020 and costs €10 billion for only 500 megawatts of power.  (A typical nuclear fission plant that produces 1 GW will take a few billion dollars to build, and is probably less expensive to operate.)  As yet there’s nothing really suitable for power generation, particularly relative to the nuclear fission plants we already have.

Problem 3:  Plus, if it’s really fusion, there’s another thing… why will the core randomly explode a few months later even if not triggered?  For NIF and other fusion ideas, the fuel in the typical teeny-tiny target consists of a mixture of deuterium and tritium, two different isotopes of hydrogen.  Deuterium is stable, and won’t undergo radioactive decay.  Tritium is unstable, but has a half-life of about twelve years.  After five months, only about 3% of the tritium will have decayed into helium.  The decay is very low energy, so the radiation isn’t dangerous unless you’ve actually eaten the tritium.  So it won’t go off just by sitting there.

To make a fusion bomb (better described as a thermonuclear weapon or H-bomb) out of this anyway, you need a fission bomb to set it off.  Otherwise, you can’t get high enough temperature and pressure for fusion.  Plus, it requires other engineering specifications to get the fusion to happen (detailed at that second link), such as lithium deuteride rather just a mix of deuterium and tritium.  Regardless of those details — who would build a fusion reactor with a fission bomb right next to it??  And let’s not even get into the regulatory aspects that apply to nuclear reactors, or how Wayne is keeping the success of the project and the reactor’s existence secret.

Problem 4:  Okay fine, it exploded.  Where’s the fricking fallout?

The largest bomb detonated by the US was the Castle Bravo test, a thermonuclear device set off at Bikini Atoll in 1954.  It was equivalent to 15 megatons of TNT, more than twice the expected yield, and resulted in an impressively nasty case of fallout contamination.  The crater alone was over a mile in diameter, and the fireball was larger by a factor of a few.  Some sailors on a nearby US carrier received burns from the radiation alone; a few nearby Japanese sailors received significant doses as well from the fallout.  More seriously, islanders living in the area received doses from the fallout moved around by wind and water.  And that’s not even the biggest bomb ever set off.

Gotham should have similar issues with fallout, depending on the prevailing wind patterns.  Maybe they got lucky, and the fallout was all blown out to sea.  That said… assuming the explosion is roughly the same size as Bravo, to avoid both the fireball and the prompt radiation exposure to Gotham, Batman must have taken the reactor-bomb more than a few miles out over the ocean.  In the few seconds left on the clock.

Then again, it was on autopilot, so for once we don’t have to worry about the g-forces on Batman while the day is getting saved.

SciFi Round Ten: Aliens and Religion

Despite having developed in entirely different environments, with entirely different histories, fictional cultures very often believe things that are similar to one or more human religions.  Sometimes the similarity is nearly perfect.  TVTropes calls that the Lowest Cosmic Denominator. For the particular case of Christianity being duplicated, it becomes “Crystal Dragon Jesus“.  But does this make sense?

Note that there is a hard distinction between ethics and religion.  Ethics is prescriptive statements about behavior.  Religion is descriptive statements about the universe that assert some supernatural element.  “I undertake the training rule to abstain from taking life” is an ethical statement.  “If you murder, your self will spend its next incarnation in one of the Naraka realms” is a religious one.

Fantastic Religions

Some things about religions in the fantasy literature make an abundant amount of sense.  If there are zombies running around that a priest can turn back by waving a particular symbol,  or if the armies of the Valar are fighting Morgoth across a continent, or if there is a reincarnating elemental-power kung-fu master saving the world every generation, it is quite obvious that something important is going on.

This is Aang.  He is a reincarnated martial arts master with Elemental Superpowers accessed by martial arts and enlightenment.

This is Aang. He is a many-times-reincarnated martial arts master with Elemental Superpowers accessed by enlightenment.  So in this story, reincarnation is amply demonstrated and there is always a super-powered avatar hanging around to ‘keep the world in balance’.  But why does he dress like a Buddhist monk in a world with no Buddha and no Buddhism?

But this does raise a question of terminology: I have defined religion as characterized by belief in something supernatural.  But if Aslan is running around the landscape fighting Tash, isn’t that automatically now part of the normal world?   Belief in something we would call supernatural is irrelevant if it is an everyday occurrence.  And religion no longer applies.

Terry Pratchett plays with this in Discworld.  In that setting, gods exist, many of them.  But they only have as much power as they have true believers.  The Great God Om is significantly inconvenienced when he comes down to the Disc and finds that he only has one faithful follower left, leaving him incarnated as a maimed tortoise.  Because most of the Discworld gods are gratuitously cruel, much of the population of the Disc is quietly Nay Theistic to avoid giving them more power than they have (“Of course they exist.  But don’t go around believe’n in ’em.  It only encourages ’em”).  It’s rather like being in a city dominated by rival mafia dons: either you get one to protect you, or you keep your head down to avoid the attention.  Vocal atheists tend to get hit by lightning by the gods that do have power, and so the surviving population of them are mainly fireproof golems.  This being Pratchett, the social commentary is of course quite deliberate.

Human Religions in SciFi

When an author has incorporated religion(s) into a science fiction setting, particularly those set in the future, human societies tend to have those religions either be current ones or be similar in many ways.  This makes sense if there has indeed been historical continuity, but it is important to remember that all real religions change dramatically over decades and centuries.  Special mention here goes to Dune, where Frank Herbert took some liberties with Zen Buddhism and Sunni Islam to create the Zensunni adepts.  Furthermore, Dune has the Bene Gesserit, who exploit religion for their own political ends – deliberately seeding legends on planets for the protection of their agents.

Herbert also did something very important with Dune: he did the research.  Herbert was raised Catholic and became an atheistic Zen Buddhist later in life, but he took care to incorporate Muslim and Jewish as well as Christian and Buddhist elements into his world-building.  That level of preparation is rare.  It is far too easy to fall into Write What You Know while not doing the research and also into Author Appeal, and produce a fictional culture that is dominated by only a single religion that the author is familiar with or professes themselves or a complete lack of religion if the author is an agnostic or atheist. I do not have the statistics to back up the statement, but it seems to me that there is an excess of Christian themes in at least the English-language scifi and fantasy literature as compared to the actual worldwide distribution of religions (although this is perhaps offset by religion or the lack thereof not being that important in many scifi and fantasy works).

There is a related problem, where a fictional culture that is supposed to be one specific religion is portrayed as something else entirely.  In Buffy: The Vampire Slayer and a lot of other works, Wicca is misrepresented.  Going back a few decades and somewhat more abstracted, James Blish was significantly confused about 1950s Catholic doctrine when he wrote “A Case of Conscience“.  There are far too many badly-intentioned examples.  Some misrepresentation is people not doing the research.  Some is people wanting to make a religion look as bad (or good) as possible.

Alien Religions

For scifi aliens, there shouldn’t be anything exactly identical in an alien religion as compared to any human religion – there are two entirely different histories.  Again, this is religion and not ethics.  There are two themes that work as an excuse for there being too many identical elements: ancient astronauts or time travel.  In Babylon 5, everyone thinks that the Vorlons look like angels.  That was deliberately engineered by the Vorlons, who liked to go around the galaxy hacking the genetics of non-technological races so that they would like flying bilaterally-symmetric glowing figures.  Babylon 5 also had a messianic religion centered around Valen, a Minbari prophet who said that he would return in the future.  That was explained by Valen being a time traveler, Jeffrey Sinclair, who was born a thousand years later.

Vorlons from Babylon 5.  The resemblance to angels is not coincidental.  These two are working with Valen, the guy in the middle.  He started as Jeffrey Sinclair, sometime commander of Babylon 5.  He went back in time a few years, stole the older station, and flew in back a thousand years to make sure that the Minbari messiah actually had existed.

Vorlons from Babylon 5. The resemblance to angels is not coincidental. These two are working with Valen, the guy in the middle. He will have started as Jeffrey Sinclair, sometime commander of Babylon 5, but has will get a makeover to become a Human Alien Minbari. He will has gone back in time a few years, will have stolen the Babylon 4 station, and flew it back a thousand years to make sure that the Minbari messiah would actually had existed.  This is J. Michael Straczynski invoking Ancient Astronauts and Time Travelers explain why things so like human religions occur in space.

Other times there is a partial excuse for Crystal Dragon Jesus.  If the religion of an alien culture is defined by the needs of the plot the writer wants to do, they will slant the world-building appropriately.  Taking one more from Babylon 5: the Centauri were themed like the Roman Empire, so they have an extensive pantheon of various misbehaving gods and an imperial cult where emperors are elevated to godhood.  In Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, the writers wanted to make the Captain into an actual messiah, so Bajor has a religion based around dual gods – good and evil – who are both actually Starfish Aliens that like to live inside wormholes.  Captain Sisko becomes the emissary of the good ones (“The Prophets”), and disappears into heaven/closed time-like curves inside the wormhole at the end.  Cargo Cults are popular in science fiction too, as a way for otherwise technologically-limited groups to have access to something without being able to replicate it.

But, these excuses for similarities aside, why should aliens have anything like human religions at all?

The origins of many individual human religions are argued.  But a tendency to invoke supernatural explanations to phenomena is obviously common among humans, and has been for a very long time.  Anthropological models of the development of religion describe religions as an emergent property or byproduct of known cognitive biases of human brains.  We tend to assume correlation and causation even where neither exists, tend to falsely assume intelligent intent, and are easily manipulated by even entirely false fears.  We fool ourselves into being more sure of our statements than we actually are, over-estimate how much others agree with us or how much we disagree with them, and like beliefs that we know others hold better.  We also reflexively divide others into people in our group and outsiders, and favor the in-group over the out-group.

And so unless their members are very careful to avoid it, human societies quite rapidly develop numerous elaborate and very specific fictional scenarios to try and explain things that may not even exist.  And things can get very dangerously confused when those different scenarios conflict with each other.  To use TVTropes vocabulary again, religions are very devoted fandoms.

Would intelligent aliens necessarily have any of the same biases that we have?  And if they didn’t have one or another, would religions as humans make them still appear or not?  If not, what else might emerge instead?

An example:

Is some level of in-group favoritism inevitable for an intelligent species?  Or can intelligence develop without it, automatically valuing all members of the species equally?  What society evolves from that, and would something recognizably similar to human religions appear?  Can we say that any religious institutions that do appear would be far less hierarchical, and perhaps far less important in society, if people did not often evaluate the needs of those who share particular beliefs in some supernatural concepts above those of those who do not?

Of course, given such a large difference in cognition, many things other than religion would be different.  I played with this with the ursians, where over-valuing the in-group leads to a genetic diversity crisis quickly and so they have less such favoritism than humans do.  This shows up in their sexual ethics, which are different from human norms because that was what optimized survival.  But I have not considered what religions they might or might not have.

Another example:

Pareidolia makes most of us prone to see human faces and figures and other patterns we consider significant everywhere.  Clouds, sand dunes and hills, the shells of crabs, a colon and a single parentheses (parenthesis?).  Some level of pareidolia is an evolutionary advantage: it is good for any animal to be sensitive to patterns corresponding to its prey, its predators, and others of its species.  But consider an alien species with much less permitting pareidolia than we have.  They would not have emoticons, and very different art.  They would also not have people asserting that random patterns of char on toast was a miraculous appearance of a religious figure, or that the reflection of light off of a polished steel dome was a sign from God.  Would such people still come up with anything we would call a religion?  If so, what might it be like?

And one more:

Agent detection is the tendency to assume an intelligent intent where one does not necessarily exist.  We do it very easily – just consider how we anthropomorphize even relatively simple devices, such as dice or a deck of cards.  Taking a more complex system: when did you last complain that your computer is out to get you?  This can be explained as having a survival advantage: anything that could potentially indicate actions by a predator or an adversary should be approached with caution, and false positives cost far less than false negatives.

I don’t think an intelligent species could evolve without some level of agent detection.  Part of any successful intelligence has to be being able to identify other intelligences; wither to cooperate, confront, or avoid them.  But like pareidolia, we could consider a species where the criteria for what makes them think “there is intent there” are more or less stringent or just different.  How does that change a society, as well as any tendency for religions to appear or not?

Many of these questions may seem a bit abstract, but I think they’re useful to think about.  Truly realistic alien cultures will differ from human norms in ways that are not simply derived from their environments, and recognizing and confronting the biases inherent in how we think shows some possibilities to explore.  I’ve focused on religion or the lack thereof here, but this extends to everything that such aliens might think or do.

I think there is a dearth of good science fiction that explores these themes.  We have space opera, where the aliens are often indistinguishable from humans in how they think.  Other works have aliens whose thought patterns are said to be incomprehensible, but that usually seems to me as as excuse to skimp on the world-building.  There is a large body of literature (including some of my own attempts) that explores how cultures and behaviors can be directly changed by the environment a species lives in, but that usually assumes ‘like humanity unless noted’.  Given that Most Writers Are Human, it is hard to work through the implications of alien cognition consistently.  Does anyone know of such a work?

Fantasy League Round 7: Moon Called

2013/01/11 2 comments

Moon Called is the first book in an urban fantasy series by Patricia Briggs.  So far, it’s kind of like the Dresden Files, except not at all.  (Don’t worry — I’m sure we’ll dissect those in detail later on.)  For bonus points, it’s set around where I’m from, which is cool.

That said, it was a pretty good Christmas gift, so what else should I do but dissect it?  As ever, there are spoilers.  Lots of spoilers.

Mercedes Thompson, the protagonist, is shown here.  She does have the pawprint tattoo.  The other tattoos aren't mentioned particularly, and she definitely doesn't go around dressed like that all the time.  Inconvenient for things like fixing cars and fighting crazy werewolves.

Mercedes Thompson, the protagonist, is shown here. She does have the pawprint tattoo. The other tattoos aren’t mentioned particularly, and she definitely doesn’t go around dressed like that all the time. Inconvenient for things like fixing cars and fighting crazy werewolves.

The Broken Masquerade

We’ve discussed the Masquerade before.  This is another story where the fact that the fae, witches, werewolves, and vampires (oh, my), and various other magical persons keep their abilities hidden from the general public.


Here the Masquerade is far from perfect — and is in the process of shattering.  The Fae, in particular, are largely out, and have been for thirty years — though a significant portion of that population chooses to stay quiet.  While modern society should have been butterflied away into something completely different, it hasn’t — and I’m willing to accept that for the sake of the story.  Meanwhile, the Fae are frequently feared and persecuted, partly due to religious pressure.  It’s still odd that most of them who are “out” have chosen to go off to live on Fae reservations.  As if separating them from everyone else would solve the problem…

The other magical groups aren’t out, yet, due to seeing how badly the Fae have been treated and since they’ve been able to keep quiet so far.  But that’s going to change.

Holy Xanatos Gambit, Batman

There was… an impressive bit of manipulation on the part of the bad guy.  It’s a lot easier to explain the antagonist’s desired results, rather than going through the main plot.  … and there’s too many details to go through, really.  First thing to note:  Werewolfism isn’t genetic.  It’s transmitted only by a werewolf seriously savaging a normal human, and having the human survive the process.  Our bad guy is a werewolf, and has been one for a while.

Now, the bad guy, Gerry, does a bunch of bad stuff (forcing people to become werewolves, experimenting on them, killing people, kidnapping, torture…) in an apparent ploy to force someone to challenge Bran, the Alpha werewolf for all of North America.  Bran knows that the FBI and company have enough information to figure out about werewolves, and he wants to go public so he can control how the werewolves are portrayed.  Other werewolves don’t like this idea, and so, challenging him and replacing him is the plan.

Gerry uses this only as a cover.  He’s doing all this bad stuff so that Bran thinks he’s behind it, and so that his father, who knows him, is convinced that he’d never be involved in it.  The goal is to force his father to fight Bran.  Gerry’s father is a recently-Changed werewolf.  He was talked into it by Gerry, as a means of curing his father’s terminal cancer.  The catch is, he was a soft-hearted guy and isn’t able to “control his wolf” as a consequence.  (If he can’t learn, he’ll be killed by Bran, since he’ll be a danger to himself and anyone around him.)  Gerry is trying to set up a fight, because if his father is forced to fight as his wolf, he’ll gain the control he needs.  Of course, he’s hired a witch so that his father is sure to win.

… yeah.  I keep thinking of Mr. Freeze.  Gerry’s plans are thwarted by our heroes, of course, but I’m still impressed — he had expected to “win” no matter how things turned out for himself personally.  Nonetheless… surely there was a way of doing this that didn’t involve all the associated convolutions of experiments and mercenaries and… stuff.  I suppose that Gerry thought that being accused of something that bad while “innocent” was the only thing that could get his father sufficiently riled up, but still.

Powers As Needed

With all the shapeshifting that happens, at least they bother to lampshade it — change in mass?  “Magic.  How does it work?” is roughly the main character’s response.  And the speed-healing of the werewolves nicely requires lots of input calories.

The increase in Mercy’s apparent powers with time bothers me a bit more.  She’s a skinwalker, able to instantly turn herself into a coyote and with some sensory bonuses.  But there’s more to it than that.  Some of this is foreshadowed — she comments on how she can sense the werewolves’ magic throughout, and only later does it become clear that being able to sense other kinds of magic is unusual.  And then, it turns out that she’s actually immune or highly resistant to most forms of magic — werewolf power, vampire charms, witch’s curses…  (Which is why there are so few skinwalkers — the vampires killed most of them off a good long while ago.)  This becomes an important plot point, and it feels a bit sudden when she does start using the anti-magic stuff.

This happens with the werewolves, too.  While they all clearly have super-strength and speed-healing in whichever form, multiple werewolves have more than that — for instance, at the end, suddenly forcing all werewolves in earshot to come when they call and speak the truth.  This comes completely out of the blue.  Why not use that to find the werewolf nasties you’re looking for earlier?  On the other thand, then the humans they’re with might kill the hostages…

The Soap Opera

There are also parts of the story where I wanted to do a headdesk.  These are mostly the reasons why I don’t like soap operas or comedies much.  By the end, Mercy Thompson has no less than two werewolves who are romantically interested in her.  One of whom is an ex-boyfriend staying at her place for a while until he finds his own.  And she’s dating the other.  And the two of them are a bit… competitive.  Can anybody say, awkward?

Werewolf society, such as it is, is even worse.  It’s mostly men (who are more likely to survive the Change for whatever reason) with a small number of women.  And only the men are ever in charge, because of Alpha/dominant male psychology of werewolves.  Or something like that.  The family/pack structure of the whole thing makes it very soap-opera like, with drama bonus on killing off werewolves who go rogue.  The whole setup forces Mercy to be careful at times about not acting like she’s in charge even when she’s the one who knows what’s going on and what should be done.  Some werewolves would take that the wrong way, as a challenge, and bring out the claws.  As Mercy complains — they need to pay a visit to the 21st century.

And maybe a therapist.

Suggestion Box

This review was brought to you by my brother, who gave me the book for Christmas.  Jumping off from that “suggestion,” we like requests for dissection!  If you’ve got a good speculative fiction item (especially books, but we’re not too picky about medium) that one of us should have a look at and then pull apart, feel free to drop us a line or comment below.

SciFi Round Nine: Portal

2013/01/06 4 comments

Portal and Portal 2 are a couple of the best computer games I’ve ever come across.  I heartily recommend them, especially if you like puzzles and snark.  The basic idea in both is that you’re playing as Chell, a woman trying to escape from a laboratory controlled by a homicidal AI.  To aid you in your escape… or scientific “testing”… you get a device that shoots portals onto walls in pairs.  If you go in one portal, you come out the other one.  Instant wormhole, just add portal gun.

As ever… here, there be spoilers.

This is a portal.  In the words of GLaDOS, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.

This is a portal. In the words of GLaDOS, speedy thing goes in, speedy thing comes out.  The setup above is nice for getting the person pictured to fall at terminal velocity and also break conservation of energy.

Portal Guns Break The Universe

The main physics-breaking part is the Portal Gun itself.  It turns out, Larry Niven wrote a very good essay a while ago, The Theory and Practice of Teleportation, which covers a lot of different ideas in great detail.  I’ll just hit a couple of the main points about Portal’s portals, and then move on.

The first issue is conversation of energy and momentum.  Put a portal on the ceiling, and one on the floor, so that when you go into the one of the floor, you fall out of the ceiling… into the portal on the floor… and this keeps going on indefinitely until something stops you, somehow.  The problem here is that you can now accumulate energy until you hit terminal velocity — and then you keep dumping more energy into all the noise and heat you’re making while going that fast.  You essentially get to move “up” in Earth’s potential for “free” when you go from floor to ceiling.  But all that energy has to go somewhere, and a quick estimate suggests that this would raise the temperature of a room by a few degrees Celsius per second… which would rapidly cook Chell.

The other problem is momentum.  Put both portals on the same wall.  Throw a ball into one portal, and it comes out of the other with momentum in the opposite direction, without transmitting that momentum into any other object.  Oops.

While portals you shoot are limited to light speed travel times, this does suggest a nice way of colonizing other planets.  Or sending stuff to other places in our own solar system.  I’ll leave the exact details to Niven’s essay, but it includes sending fuel through portals to break the rocket equation… but that’s if only if you have to have an artificial surface to shoot onto.  Otherwise… fire, carefully, and wait.

At least there’s an explanation for why all this high-speed portal-hopping doesn’t kill Chell.  In fact, this aspect bothered initial testers of the game so much that Valve added Long-Fall Boots.  These are specifically designed to perfectly kill the wearer’s inertia so that they don’t go splat on the landing, and also ensure that you land feet down.  Nifty, right?  Totally doesn’t violate physics…

All AI is a Crapshoot

This is GLaDOS.  She promises cake and grief counseling.  What you get is a portal gun and deadly neurotoxin...

This is GLaDOS. She promises cake and grief counseling. What you get is a portal gun and deadly neurotoxin…

Your main antagonist in the first game and the first segment of the second is GLaDOS (Genetic Lifeform and Disk Operating System).  As you play, it becomes increasingly clear that something is wrong with the AI.  This is even more clear after you get shunted from regular testing to the android live-fire test range.  And then it gets worse.

How hard is it to program a non-evil AI?  With a strong negative weight on harm to human lives?  And then, rather than simply cutting off its access to the deadly neurotoxin, they just stick a module on GLaDOS to keep it/her from releasing the deadly neurotoxin.  Oy.  Why can’t we downweight killing humans?  Or apply the Laws of Robotics?  That last link is interesting — turns out, there are some real-world guidelines for robot construction.  Obviously a robot?  Check.  Not designed to kill humans [by running them through deadly testing chambers for “science”]?  Fail.

The other antagonist you meet is Wheatley.  He’s friendly.  He’s helpful.  He’s also deliberately constructed to be a total moron (intended to keep GLaDOS in check) and undergoes an epic and hostile personality change when you replace GLaDOS with him.  Oops.  Nice job breaking it, hero.

Cave Johnson Failed Business Planning

As a matter of fast, OSHA came in in 1970, so this matches up with the timeline.  Otherwise, this poster is an epic lampshade.

As a matter of fast, OSHA came in in 1970, so this matches up with the timeline. Yes, this poster is an epic lampshade.

Once Wheatley turns on you in the second game, you get to explore the deeply buried history of Aperture Science.  Ignoring the problem of the absurdly deep mineshaft that’s storing everything, there’s a more serious problem:  Where is Cave Johnson, CEO of Aperture, getting all the money for this?

Millions for moon rocks to make surfaces for portals… which were originally intended to be better shower curtains.  Various other nasty things are tested by and on humans, with no regard for anybody’s safety.  Cave’s idea of science is building random crap and seeing what happens, which ranges from bouncy repulsion gel (intended as a diet product — the food bounces right out!  And does bad things to your stomach…) and things like turning people’s blood into gasoline.  Or making them into an army of mantis-men.  Among other problems too numerous to mention.  WHY HASN’T THE GOVERNMENT SHUT THESE PEOPLE DOWN ALREADY???  Then again, this is all delightfully lampshaded by various signs (such as the one above), and we never see what the exterior used to look like, back in the day.  It’s quite possible that there were protestors all the time outside the facility.  Maybe even a demonstration dedicated to the missing astronauts…

Meanwhile, the game does demonstrate the increasingly dire financial straights of the company.  Since they have trouble marketing their various deadly products.  For instance:  An ad for the long-fall boots.  If you’re bored, you can even try looking for the ad about using turrets for guarding babies.  It’s even worse.  This is not a good business plan… which explains the lack of funding, but I still wonder how they managed to get any funds in the first place.

Cave’s other major problem seems to be that he thinks of science as throwing together a bunch of random stuff, and then seeing what happens when some poor sucker tries to use it.  That’s not science.  That’s cruel and unusual.  And darkly hilarious for the player.

But anyway, Cave, you don’t know what science is.  And don’t get near my house with those combustible lemons.