The Brains Behind Battlestar’s Science: A Conversation With NASA’s Kevin Grazier

Dr. Kevin R. Grazier, NASA scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA and science advisor to television shows Battlestar Galactica, Eureka and Virtuality
Dr. Kevin R. Grazier, NASA scientist at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena, CA and science advisor to television shows "Battlestar Galactica", "Eureka" and "Virtuality"

Remember earlier this summer when covered the Battlestar Galactica cast and crew’s appearance at the Paley Television Festival and promised you a very special look at the science of Battlestar in commemoration of the DVD box set release July 28th? Well, when we promise something, we deliver. was proud and extraordinarily fortunate to sit down with Dr. Kevin Grazier, the man who made the FTL drive and Galactica’s space endeavors possible. In a candid, thorough interview, we talk about the physics of BSG, the inside secrets behind some of your favorite moments from the show, answer burning fan questions and address some of the controversy surrounding the series finale. Honest, witty, and informative, this is an interview you don’t want to miss! To read it, click “Continue Reading”.

ScriptPhD: Tell us a bit about how you transitioned into a science advisor role on television, and particularly on Battlestar Galactica.

Kevin Grazier: It actually started because of Star Trek Voyager. Years ago, my friend Ges and I weren’t really happy with the first couple of seasons of Star Trek Voyager. We thought it had a lot of potential that it just wasn’t living up to. And back then Paramount [Studios] would accept unsolicited manuscripts, meaning you didn’t have to have an agent to represent you, and they were quite honest about the status. They said, “We get about 3,000 a year, and the odds of a good outcome aren’t high. A handful of people every year have a good outcome. What we will promise you is if you send us your script, it’ll get read and you’ll get it back. Beyond that, it depends on the quality of what you write.” So we wrote a script and we sent it off and we thought we had a good story and we waited… and waited… and they said they’d get it back within eight weeks to eight months, but seven months elapsed and we hadn’t heard anything, so we were thinking that it could be pretty good. And I got a call from the executive producer’s assistant [on Voyager] saying, “She loves your story, it goes in a direction we don’t want to go, so we can’t use it. But we think your writing holds promise, so we’d like you invite you to come in and pitch stories.” Which means you stand there in front of a writer and say, “Hey! I think this happens. Or I think this happens.” And it turned out that we did that several times, and two of the people to whom I pitched, all but one time, were Bryan Fuller and Michael Taylor. Bryan Fuller had his first gig in Hollywood [with Star Trek Voyager and Star Trek: Deep Space Nine], and is now huge—he created Dead Like Me, Wonderfalls, Pushing Daisies, is an executive producer on Heroes. Bryan’s amazing! He also spent a lot of time with me. A pitch can last 20 minutes, but he’d spend an hour and a half with me talking about the details of the industry, and maybe how to improve my next pitch. He was amazing. Michael Taylor, I also pitched to him several times, and learned a lot from him as well, very different lessons, but I learned a lot. I generally asked for one these two when I scheduled a pitch, because they were both very different and it was just a very interesting experience with both of them.

Anyway, when Voyager ended, I stayed in contact with both of them to some extent—mostly Bryan—and when I saw Ron [D. Moore] present a little bit about the new Galactica at GalactiCon several years ago, I said “I so want to work on this!” I emailed Bryan and asked, “Hey, could you put in a word for me?” A couple weeks later he had sushi with Ron and said, “Hey, do you need a science advisor? I know this guy…” And so Ron called me in and after about a five minute interview, he hired me. Basically, [he asked], “Are you alive?” You know, it’s the first line of the new version of Galactica. And when I said yes, he said, “OK here’s a series bible, “33” and “Water” [the first two episodes of Season 1], have at it!”

Ironically enough, a couple of days later, Richard Hatch was in [with Ron] talking about his role in Tom Zarek, and as he was leaving, he told Ron, “Oh by the way, if you need a science advisor, I know this guy…” And Ron said that he’d already talked to somebody, and it was, of course, the same person they were referring to. So that’s how I got into the job, and of course, I got the follow-up job on Eureka because basically they were on the same lot and shared an office building. So at lunch one day somebody [from Eureka] asked the question, “How do you solve your technical problems?” Somebody from BSG said, “We have this guy at JPL…” and that led to a phone call.

On BSG I had the opportunity to work with Michael Taylor, who I think is a writing god–up there with Ron and Jane [Espenson]. Michael wrote what I think is the best episode of Star Trek ever, a DS9 episode called “The Visitor”. He, of course, went on to co-create Virtuality and he wrote the pilot episode as well. So having worked with him and Ron on BSG led to Virtuality.

SPhD: And we’re going to talk about Virtuality in a little bit. But before we get to that, what’s your best memory of having worked on BSG?

KG: Oh my God, there are so many! There are some on the set, some at conventions. I can think of two, actually, and they’re both similar because they’re both about the creative process. The first one was a moment where I was on the way to the set in Vancouver. I didn’t go very often because they really didn’t need me to be on the set. So I was in the airport in Portland, and was about to fly out to Vancouver, when I got an email from the BSG office saying, “You need to contact us right now, call Bradley ASAP.” I emailed them and said that I was about to board a plane, and would call Bradley the instant I landed. Bradley Thompson [series writer and producer], was largely my contact. He seemed to have been nominated by the other writers as the “You go talk to Kevin guy.” So I called Bradley the instant I landed. He told me, “You knew this was going to happen eventually. We’re rewriting [episode] 216, [“The Captain’s Hand”], and we need you to figure out how the FTL drive works so we know what components it has, so we know what can get battle damaged, so in a last minute Wrath-of-Khan-like maneuver the Captain can run down to engineering, save the ship, and give his life in the process.”

SPhD: Just that, huh? Very simple.

KG: Yeah! And I said, “Bradley, I’ve been up all night.” He said simply, “I get in tomorrow at 10:30.” I literally got a few hours of sleep and then paced a Vancouver hotel room for hours, and I had other technical issues to address in a most recent draft of that episode as well. But I basically put together an overview of how the FTL drive worked, in generalities. I literally hit SEND at 10:28. I have a book coming up, authored by myself and Patrick Di Justo, entitled “The Science of Battlestar Galactica” which comes out in December. I included the very notes that I sent to Bradley that day in the FTL chapter. From pacing the hotel room, and coming up with the final “I got it!” revelation, and getting it down on paper, and getting it out, and eventually seeing that episode—which is a good episode—was an amazing feeling. Although we didn’t use all the stuff I came up with explicitly, we had it for background information.

And another [great memory] was when they tasked Bradley, myself and [series composer] Bear [McCreary] with essentially creating the climax! You know, the climactic moment was a meld of science and music. How do we encode jump coordinates within “All Along the Watchtower” [the call of the Cylons]?

SPhD: That was really cool, by the way. Watching Starbuck put that together. I kind of figured it was going to have something to do with the final jump, but just watching the notes, and her realization and then [Hera], the hybrid, drawing that out, that was super duper cool! I would love to hear more about that.

KG: Well, that’s what they told us to do, was find a way to encode the jump coordinates within “Watchtower”. We actually, for what was literally a blip of time on the screen, spent a lot of time on that, a lot of effort. I think sometimes people don’t realize how much time we put into some of these issues. There were phone calls with Bear, and it was kind of fun talking to Bear, as he’s sitting down at the piano, and he’s playing the Cylon Call to Arms. And one time, I was listening to Bear, and I closed my eyes, and tried to take a mental snapshot of this moment, because this is a fantastic show, we’re wrapping it up, and there won’t be many more moments like this. So that was moment number two, just working on that project, realizing the series climax is in our hands, and finally working with someone as talented as Bear. I mean, I think Bear is a great guy, and it was cool to work with him in the very end.

SPhD: And I’m glad you gave that example because there’s a lot of studies that show the tremendous link between music and mathematics.

KG: Oh, yeah.

SPhD: And that people who are very talented musically are very talented mathematically—their brain literally works a different way. So it’s so cool to know there are practical situations where those two converge to produce such neat results.

KG: And Bear actually put out a fairly lengthy installment on his blog about that compositional process. [ScriptPhD note: Read it here].

SPhD: So you briefly mentioned the book, which I want to talk about. There is going to be a “Science of Battlestar Galactica” book.

KG: There is!

SPhD: And it’s coming out in December and everybody should buy it for Christmas.

KG: They should!

SPhD: So I want to hear a bit about how that came about and the experience of working on that.

KG: It’s been a lot of work! [laughs] I came in late in the project. The original writer, Patrick Di Justo, had pitched it, got it accepted by Wiley Books, he was working on it and he had asked me several questions about the technical aspects of the Galactica. And eventually, at one point, I said, “Hey look, you’re asking a lot of questions, and I’d actually considered doing this book myself, and I’m giving you my best stuff here, so why don’t we just collaborate?” Surprisingly, the answer came back, “Sure!” There were some legal wrangling between NBC Universal [who own Battlestar Galactica] and Wiley Books, simply because the series wasn’t over, I had access to spoilers, so there were some issues involved, but so far, it’s been a lot of fun. We have literally the last couple of chapter edits to get out the door, which should be done by this weekend. So [the book] is done. The edits, so far, have been few and minor.

SPhD: We had talked a little earlier about some controversy regarding the science content of the finale, with some unfortunate, and rather pugnacious, internet attacks against you personally. I would like to offer you as a forum to address some of these attacks and set the record straight. Go for it!

KG: Okay. There is a saying in Hollywood, “If you make people think they’ve thought they’ll love you, if you make them really think, they’ll hate you.” And I think that’s nowhere better seen than the end of the storyline with Kara [Thrace, “Starbuck”]. Kara, as you know, just literally vanished, and people were upset and saying “Well, we don’t know the end of her story.” Do we know the end of her story any better or worse than we do Lee [Adama]’s? Do we know that Lee didn’t get bit by a tse tse fly or some kind of biting insect and die of some kind of disease two days later? No, we don’t! We don’t know any of those stories. We know that one person’s lineage survived, well arguably three. We know Athena, Helo and Hera’s line survived to some extent. And we also know that various human religions and literature are full of supernatural or spiritual characters who took corporeal form to perform a task or “set things right”, only to disappear after: Jesus Christ, Vishnu, Obi-Wan Kenobi (I mean really, was he there in “Star Wars” or a projection of the Force?). So, we don’t know their [projected] stories, but people hated that. They were so angry. And of course, one group of people guaranteed to hate that were the shippers. Do you know who shippers are?

SPhD: I am WELL aware of the shippers.

KG: Yeah, they’re the Lee/Kara shippers–they’re all about the “ship”, the relationship— and there was the Sam/Kara shippers, and instead of one group being able to go “Na na na na, [our relationship won]”, instead they were both furious! When Ron made you think—because it was Ron’s story—when there’s ambiguity, people get all angry! I couldn’t believe that. I thought—OK, let me say this upfront, I thought the ending was fantastic. I am totally on board with the ending. I loved it. But it kind of goes to show you how quickly people are willing to nitpick and to be really, vehemently, furiously upset and to go off.

Over the span of the series, people have been perfectly willing to go off on things like the science, or other aspects of the show, and sometimes when it comes to the science, I’ll set the focus a little bit more, oftentimes, their questions are snarky, they’re also full of entitlement, like they deserve their answer. And sometimes, the questions themselves aren’t informed. And I’ll give you a good example, because I have one here. Somebody complained, “I can’t get over how Galactica, with their cumulative structural damage, just could survive at the end when she rammed the giant Colony while Pegasus goes to pieces when she rams an ordinary base ship. No fair!” Would the fact that the Pegasus had a full head of steam matter here? Kinetic energy is 1/2mv2, that energy dissipates upon impact, Pegasus is going full speed into something upon impact. As opposed to Galactica, which, I’m sorry, even at flank speed (which is even faster than full speed), do you think it got anywhere close to full speed in the 100 meters or so it had to accelerate before impacting the Colony? I mean, that answer is pretty obvious, and there is, I would argue, a high-school level physics answer to that. It surprises me how quick people are to jump on things. And sometimes, like in this example, they’re wholly uninformed.

In fact, sometimes I get a little upset by these things, and I’ve actually done a little research on this. There’s a great 1999 [scholarly] paper [in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology] by two psychologists from Cornell, Justin Kruger and David Dunning. Basically it’s about expertise, and they said that people who don’t have expertise in a subject also do not recognize expertise, and don’t realize how far they are from attaining expertise. So, it’s actually an interesting paper and it explains a lot of the uninformed questions, as well as a lot of the snarkiness. [ScriptPhD note: Read about the Kruger-Dunning effect here]. Again, the whole entitlement that people have sometimes bothers me as well. I write a blog, and I don’t update it as regularly as I should, the BSG Tech Blog on Cinema Spy. I’ll willingly go to great lengths to answer a polite question, or a particularly insightful question, or a well thought-out question. The snarky ones? Nah, I won’t answer those, because it’s like, who do you think you’re talking to?

One of my driving forces here is that I took martial arts pretty seriously for several years, and it’s pertinent here in two ways. Number one, I believe that if all you learn out of martial arts is how to beat the hell out of someone, you’ve missed a lot of the point [of the art]. And one of the related points is that I believe that if you develop an ego, your sensei owes it to you to beat it out of you. You’re always told that there’s someone badder, and eventually you learn to keep your ego in check. So I’ve been pretty cavalier about admitting, at conventions or online, about places where we or I have screwed up on the show.

SPhD: Yeah, and in fact, I don’t know how many times you have to say about the “Water” episode I feel bad about [the explosions in Galactica’s water storage tanks occurring while she’s replenishing the Virgon Traveler]. You were very humble about it.

KG: Yeah, although it was my second episode, and I was a baby science advisor back then! And more recently I admitted something about the Tomb of Athena episode people were like, “You suck! You suck! You screwed up and you suck! And for that matter, you smell bad and your mother dresses you funny!” And that was going to be my second point, which is that any martial artist will tell you that you know that anytime you throw something you open yourself to a counter. And when I throw out, “Hey, we overlooked something” it’s amazing the flood of negativism that comes back. I say these things to give you insight into the show and what’s my motivation for continuing to do this if people get so negative and so snarky?

Along the same lines of people looking to find flaws, there’s Television Without Pity. Some people thing that criticism is necessarily negative, and I don’t think it need be, but with a name like that I think it kind of forces you into a mindset. And at the end of a series, they list all their concerns or their questions about the show, and one thing that bothered me with them, this goes beyond the case of the previous example, where someone was uninformed and still asked the question. Here, they made the comment regarding Mitochondrial Eve, and Hera, how is she Mitochondrial Eve? It says, “The importance of this human/Cylon hybrid was drilled into our heads ad nauseam over the course of recent seasons, and yet it simply doesn’t make sense that she’s essentially the mother of all humanity on our Earth (and yes, we know we’re greatly simplifying the science here). The last we see of our rag-tag fleet, there are about 30,000 other humans and Cylons scattered across the planet, who will presumably produce plenty of human/human children, human/Cylon children, human/indigenous primitive children, etc. Doesn’t this make all of the sacrifice in Hera’s name a waste of life, not to mention viewers’ time?” And then they go on to make a complaint entirely based on the science they just simplified and edited out! If you know you’re simplifying the science here, then why would you ask a question like that? So you can imagine my frustration when I read things here. I’ve really kind of stopped reading some of these.

There’s another person [ScriptPhD note: we will not publicize his blog on this website] who took it upon himself to write endless essays and topics on the Galactica ending, and said upfront that the Battlestar Galactica ending was the worst ending in the history of screen science fiction. When you say “This is the worst ending of on-screen science fiction history” and that’s the title of your topic, keep two things in mind. First, you’re biased, anything you say is going to be biased and the fact of the matter is that you’ll probably tend to crowbar facts and selectively pick other facts to support that bias. And that’s kind of what I found in some of these writings. But secondly, when you say something like that, obviously you are subject to hyperbole. And so, he and a couple of other people actually said that they were shocked that I, somebody that advocates science teaching and someone who does a lot of public outreach, would be involved with that ending. Again, firstly I love the ending. Secondly, even if I didn’t, like I’m going to suddenly going to say, “Sorry Ron, I don’t buy into this. I quit.” I didn’t suggest many changes for the ending because I liked it.

Also, there were a couple of people that said that the ending had intelligent design implications and also took me for task for that. How could somebody who is a scientist and teaches about evolution and biology be involved with that [storyline] that preached intelligent design? One thing I teach my students is whenever you say something, there are underlying assumptions, and you have to find out what they are. And the underlying assumption of that [statement] is, “My interpretation of the ending is the only correct one and therefore you screwed up.” And that’s not true. The ending was certainly ambiguous. Instead of the interpretation of the ending that a divine being or god (although he doesn’t like that name, remember?) created these people who were genetically similar to humans and the humans happen to have found them and were given a second chance. That is an intelligent design view of things. There’s also the view that atoms combine in only so many ways. And we find water is pretty ubiquitous in the Solar System, in the galaxy and the universe. Amino acids and sugars are found on meteorites. The building blocks of life are out there.

SPhD: That’s absolutely true, and there is a theory that RNA (the precursor to a protein) may have originally come to Earth from a meteorite.

KG: Right, although there are plenty of ways it could have also formed here on Earth. Not in the current atmosphere, not in the current environment, but certainly back 3.8 billion years ago. So to say there is a better argument for the ending, or how I tend to see it, is more of a divine being created these experiments. The being set the wheels in motion and created the laws that govern things, set the experiment in motion and sat back and let it happen. And then when humanity wiped themselves out via their creation, the divine being did guide humanity back to this other place where the experiment was already underway. And that was the second chance, but it’s different than saying these people were created by a divine pattern as a way to give humans a second chance. It happened on its own. And that’s actually bolstered by what Number Six says at the very end, when they’re talking about humanity’s rebirth and they’re in New York City, and she says, “mathematics, law of averages, a lot of these concepts repeat themselves long enough, eventually something surprising will occur.” So obviously this is a similar complex system repeating similar results.

SPhD: It’s happened before and it will happen again. How many times could you have said that over the course of the series?

KG: I’m sure we could say it once more, but the point is, the whole “how did you buy into that intelligent design ending” is pretentious. First of all the hand of the Divine has been seen throughout from the very beginning. And there were parallels to the original Battlestar Galactica series. We had Pegasus, one of my first season one episodes “Act of Contrition” and then subsequently “You Can’t Go Home Again”, that was our version of the “What happened to Starbuck?” episode from Galactica 1980. I’ve never met with Ron or anybody but that’s what I think it was. And our angels were the equivalents of their beings of light. I kind of saw that coming and a couple of years ago, at the Dragon*Con convention, I said, “I think there are parallels that are yet to be divulged and they’ve been right in front of your face all along.” And Jamie Bamber [Apollo], who was sitting next to me, said, “Well obviously Ron is telling you things he’s not telling the rest of us.” But no, it’s just that I watched the original series, and I watched this one and I see a one to one parallel between a lot of things and I thought that Number Six was going to turn out to be a being of light. So we’re drawing a parallel with the original show. So I think a lot of the criticisms about the intelligent design ending are unwarranted and kind of arrogant. In fact, the aforementioned individual who’s been writing diatribes on how bad the BSG finale is said in one of his tomes, “You are much, much more closely related to a mushroom than you are to anything alien.” Given that we know of life on only one planet in the Universe at present, you would know this… how?

SPhD: You mentioned that you did more work for the 2 hour Virtuality pilot than you did for the first half of the last season of BSG. Tell us a bit about your involvement.

KG: I did! Virtuality was a lot of fun! We worked on that a year and a half ago now just before the BSG season 4 finale, and Virtuality was a lot of fun. We incorporated the Orion Drive [based on Project Orion, the first engineering design study of a spacecraft powered by nuclear pulse propulsion], which was something that was researched back in the 1950s and 1960s, and found to work by the way! Only with the Virtuality spacecraft Phaeton, it was antimatter charges instead of nuclear warheads. Essentially you drop a photon torpedo out back. Literally, the description of what those charges were is you have matter and anti-matter in a containment vessel and you turn off the containment and boom! And that’s the description of a photon torpedo from Star Trek. And then, calculations have shown that you can get one of those puppies up to about 0.5 to 0.8 light speed.

SPhD: And you actually had a pretty lucky guess about the star system that they were moving towards. Tell us about that.

KG: We did. I just posted an article recently about what stars should we pick as target candidates [for harboring life]. I picked stars that were kind of plausible for having life and some stars that come up again and again in science fiction because people have made the same kind of conjectures that I made. And this had to be the kind of star that could support a planet with life and then it had to subsequently be reachable within a ten-year round trip, and when you take into account relativistic contraction works, turns out that Epsilon Eridani, the star we eventually picked, is in range if you go at about 0.9 light speed (0.9c). So a little faster than the Orion drive could probably get you, but it’s science fiction and this is still more science based than a lot of things out there. And we actually explain it [on the show]. We were somewhat transparent in the science there. And it turns out that Epsilon Eridani has not one, but likely two planets and a couple of debris disks. So it seems like this is a star that could have an Earth-like planet and it wouldn’t surprise anybody.

SPhD: And you’d mentioned that for a lot of the fans like myself that enjoyed this pilot, what, to your knowledge is the future? You said hope is not dead, so what do you know that we don’t?

KG: Well I know that there are still fans who are trying to create a groundswell of support. I do know that if Virtuality isn’t dead, it’s certainly fourth and long. But there are people looking at other funding sources and I’m not sure of all the details, but what I do know is that you can write, and you can encourage your friends to write to Peter Rice or Kevin Reilly at Fox or alternately Mark Stern and David Howe at Syfy and say, “I love this show and I would love to see more,” and take it from there.

SPhD: And boy are they going to love me publishing their emails on my site!

KG: Yeah, they’re gonna love me too. “Dr. Grazier, your services will no longer be required.”

SPhD: Hey, at least we’re not sending in peanuts, so there you go. Taking away from television before we get to some fan questions, your own work with the Jet Propulsion Laboratory affiliated with Caltech is quite interesting in and of itself, and you’ve written several articles for Discovery magazine. What cool mission are you working on right now?

KG: Currently I’m on the Cassini mission to Saturn. And really have spent most of my career on Cassini. I did work previously at RAND and worked on Mars Observer, but pretty much Cassini has been it. We have just finished planning what is called our “Cassini Solstice Mission” or our “Extended Extended Mission” planning the spacecraft’s orbits out to 2017. And the spacecraft is doing really well right now. It’s really healthy, we have a lot of power, we have a fair amount of fuel, we’re doing well. And we are really literally rewriting the book on Saturn.

SPhD: How so?

KG: Well, before we arrived, the moon Titan had the largest unmapped solid surface in the Solar System. And we could only conjecture about what’s down there. We’re now seeing Titan with our imaging systems and with our radar, we’re seeing the surface. We’re seeing lakes of liquid ethane and liquid methane, the first open bodies of liquid outside of Earth in the Solar System. We’re seeing evidence that Titan may have a sub-surface ocean like Europa. There are some regions of the moon Enceladus that have geysers spewing ice crystals into space, which we believe is fueled by liquid water in the sub-surface. Astrobiologists will tell you that anytime there is liquid water, there is a chance, a possibility—not a probability—a possibility, of life. So we’re studying some really interesting environments here in the outer Solar System. And of course we’re learning about Saturn’s rings. The rings have gotten progressively thinner since we’ve been there. Now, they really haven’t gotten thinner. Our understanding of them has shrunk our estimation of their thickness. We went there thinking they were a kilometer thick, now they’re 100 meters thick, now they’re 100 feet thick, and et cetera. Now, as we approach the equinox, which occurs in August, when the rings are flat when viewed by the Sun, we’re starting to see moons and other structures that project very long shadows onto the rings. So things that we couldn’t see before will hopefully start to reveal themselves.

A couple of questions from our East Coast correspondent PoliSciPoli:

Just what was it that could differentiate Cylons from humans? It took a long time for Dr. Baltar to figure it out on a molecular level with his Cylon detector. What was he looking for? Yet a few years later, they were able to immediately recognize the bones on “Earth v. 1.0” as those of Cylons. What were they looking for there?

KG: I’m kind of hesitant to go over that, simply because we do cover that in the book. It is covered in the book, and that’s another thing that people have complained about, is the Cylon biology, how this doesn’t work, et cetera et cetera. I claim, and I think I persuaded my co-author eventually to agree, that you don’t have to modify the human form a whole lot to get a Cylon. One thing that is out there, we talk about the Cylons having silica pathways. That was determined in the first episode—in the miniseries. So silica means SiO2, which means glass. Glass tends to be inert. Doesn’t react with a whole lot of things. That’s why you can store acid into glass [which is SiO2]. So if there’s silica in the silica pathways, then a Cylon would show an anomalously high level of silica in a mass spectrometer. And it also may not be detectable by other methods that we give when we’re giving a physical exam. So therefore once they knew what to look for in the Cylon detector—and by the way, let’s remember, Baltar’s Cylon detector did work. It just wasn’t in his interest to tell Sharon that she was a Cylon. It worked. And so therefore, if we assume that years later, when we’re at Earth v. 1.0, and they analyzed the bones, that he said, “Look, it worked. I don’t have a reason to hide this anymore. Let’s run this through my detector, let’s see what it comes up with.” Ka-blam. Cylons. There you go.

SPhD: Excellent! And again, the book comes out in December, buy it for Christmas, find out more!

KG: By the way, I should point out that for the chapter where we discuss the Cylon biology, my co-author and I discussed Cylon biology in a series of email exchanges. He took those and that chapter is a master stroke. It indirectly touches on a topic we’ve already dealt with and that is my frustration with fan questions. What he did with that chapter was frakking brilliant!

Robert Birge suggests that the human brain has a capacity of between 1 and 10 terabytes, with most people using about 3 TB of that. She’s wondering what sort of bandwidth, storage, and compression algorithms we’re supposed to believe exist in the Caprica universe to allow all of that to fit on a thumb drive.

[Distiguished biophysical chemist] Robert Birge suggests that the human brain has a capacity of between 1 and 10 terabytes, with most people using about 3 TB of that. She’s wondering what sort of bandwidth, storage, and compression algorithms we’re supposed to believe exist in the Caprica universe to allow all of that to fit on a thumb drive.

KG: Firstly, the estimate is a lot of data, and that’s not the estimate that Zoe gave. I’m not sure where [the show runners] got their estimate, but remember that Zoe Greystone’s avatar, said, “the human brain holds about 300 MB, not very much really.” So that was the number they were using. So I don’t know where Birge’s storage estimate comes from or where the Caprica writers’ estimate comes from. There’s a big difference between those two numbers. The 300 MB I could easily see fitting onto the device that they put into the Cylon at the end of the pilot. Certainly data storage devices are getting smaller and smaller and smaller over time. Also there’s the point that on spacecraft, we often compress our data from deep space. If, in fact, if the data is compressed, then there’s a lot more data that can fit on your 300 MB thumb drive than when uncompressed. So data compression of a third, which isn’t particularly good for a compression algorithm, gets 1 Tb down to about 300 Gb, which could in theory fit on a thumb drive. A REALLY GOOD one.

And now… questions from the fans!

Grey asks: How could just eight nukes have pushed the gigantic Cylon Colony into the singularity? It seems way too big for that.

KG: It is big, and certainly if a nuke hit the exterior of the colony, it would vaporize material and impart a change of velocity ∆v, which is the term we use in the space program. If you think back to the Orion Drive from Virtuality, you vaporize stuff and it causes ∆v. Very similar. But also, in that environment, there were rocks floating around them, there was constant pressure impacts and gas drag, they would have had to have been constantly thrusting to maintain their attitude and their orbit. They would have had to make constant adjustments. If you take out the thrusters…

Catie asks: How hard was it to create the Centurions?

KG: I really have no idea because those were created for us back in the original series. The Centurions we used for the show were obviously just modernized versions of the ’78 Centurions and in fact, the ones we used towards the end were in fact the ’78 Centurions. That’s special effects people. They just elaborated on the original Cylon design. In fact at JPL, in my office, I have sitting next to me a life-size Cylon Centurion poster [see picture].

Somebody named ScienceTim (who apparently knows you very well!) asks: Yo, Kev, I’ve been wondering — how come there were no birds or other animals on any of the botanically-inhabited planets visited by the Fleet? Did the mysterious and God-like forces wipe out animal life on all planets except for Earth, just to keep the plot focused? Seems kinda cruel, man.

KG: Yeah, I think I might know who Tim is. [laughs]

SPhD: I think he was just being funny, not mean.

KG: Yeah, I think he was being funny, because we certainly had animals on the Earth on which we’re living right now. And as far as the original Earth, I think they went the same way as the Cylons and were vaporized. Or died of radiation sickness. Yeah. I definitely think that was just being funny.

Fflav asks: This has probably been asked before and it probably will be asked again! There are two obvious ‘impossibilities’ that jump at you but are nevertheless necessary for the plot of one such show: FTL, of course, and also artificial gravity on the ships (even on a ship like Galactica, people would be floating around, not walking with their feet firmly on the ‘ground’, etc). Was there any conceptualization, especially on the latter, on how it could be achieved, or was it just left open and unexplained since it was necessary and inevitable?

KG: And in the book [“The Science of Battlestar Galactica”] we actually have chapters on both of these topics. The first thing I say upfront is, “If we knew how this worked in detail, we wouldn’t be writing this book, we would be packing for Stockholm [where the Nobel Prizes are awarded].” So but we can talk about some of the physics that can lead to FTL travel, or artificial gravity. And I do write about the Zephyr, the ring ship, how quickly that would have to spin and some of the problems with centrifugal gravity. And we also talk about what happens to your body when you’re not in gravity. And then I talk about, let’s say you create a theoretical artificial gravity generator. The gravity of a planet, a sun or any spherical body falls of as 1/r2—we learned that as Newton’s Law of Universal Gravitation—but if you had a line of generators down the centerline of the floor, you have a cylindrical field and essentially your gravity is falling off as 1/r, and probably what would happen is the floors in your hallways would be bowed—you’d be facing outwards from the center line because the that’s the direction of the gravity gradient. So that’s probably not what they do and realistically, the long and the short of it is, it’s a production consideration because to simulate zero gravity would be financially impossible from a production standpoint. From a basic physics standpoint, what I always enjoyed in the original series were those little carts that took the warriors to their Vipers. Remember those little carts, the trains they stood in? One penny on a track and they all go flying!

SPhD: So the bottom line, Fflav, is buy the book and try using a bit of suspension of disbelief!

KG: Pretty much, yeah.

Jess asks: How hard do you tend to push for accuracy when the writers want to go for flashy effects? What can you tell all the hardcore science nerds who find it difficult to engage in willful suspension of disbelief during sci-fi shows?

KG: That’s a good question! And so, firstly, how hard do I push? It depends on how strongly I feel about an issue, and sometimes you also just have to pick your battles. A couple of examples, and I tend to use these over and over again. The “belly flop”, as fans refer to it, when Galactica plunged into the atmosphere of New Caprica. I essentially said, “I’d be remiss in my job as a science advisor if I didn’t point out that Galactica would probably break up.” I don’t care what it’s made of, any unobtanium that you come up with, it’s a mile-long spacecraft, plunging into an atmosphere, it’s going to do what Columbia did, it’s going to break up. But then I said, “However, owing to the high ‘coolness factor’, go for it!” I like exciting sci-fi and I wanted to see that. And it’s, like, the coolest space battle ever! So look, I work in the space program, science is what I do for a living, so getting into the second question, if I can deal with it, you can! And besides, did I mention that it was cool? But at the same time, it depends on how strongly I feel about something. How egregious of an error I think a script detail might be. Really, these writers were pretty good. There were very few things that I said, “No, no no, don’t do that!” So these writers were good, and the ones who tend to write the more tech-heavy episodes, which were like Bradley Thompson and David Weddle, often consulted me from the onset. They talked to me before they even wrote. So that alleviated some of the issues before they started. And again, those two guys were pretty savvy, so they would have done their research even without me.

SPhD: And as to her second point? Which we’ve talked about a lot, you run into it all the time. People just can’t handle it, but at the end of the day, it’s entertainment folks! Deal with it!

KG: And a couple of answers for that. In the book again, we have one of the laws of the “Science of Battlestar Galactica” is “It’s just a show, please relax.” And secondly, if you look at the science in our show, compared to some of the other sci-fi that’s out there, or certainly in the past, it’s way better. BSG actually had a science advisor AND they actually listened to him, more often than not. But rarely did I think something was just awful and needed changes. And if there was something I felt strongly about, I’d write a second note. Sometimes, I sent two, three sets of notes on scripts. By the time the third one went out, it probably wasn’t going to change ever again.

SPhD: And honestly? If you find it that difficult to engage in willful suspension of disbelief, maybe you shouldn’t be watching a fictitious entertainment show. Then tune in to NOVA on PBS. As mean as it sounds, that’s kind of the bottom line, is that you have to almost, to make it work and to make it entertaining.

KG: And like you said, sometimes I find that the people who are the most scientifically literate, the scientists, are the most willing to cut us some slack.

SPhD: Absolutely, I know I am! So we are actually looking forward to next week’s [Comic-Con convention in San Diego]. I have a press pass and we’re going to be doing tons of Comic-Con coverage on the site. You personally are participating in two very exciting panels on Thursday.

KG: Yes, we have the panel in the early afternoon. We’ve done this panel for the past few years, it’s Richard Hatch’s panel, the core members are Richard, Bear McCreary and myself. And there are special guests. Last year we had Tom DeSanto, and this year we have Michael Taylor. Yay! So theoretically, Virtuality could be on the table as well. Somebody else may stop by, but it’s not for certain so I don’t want to say anything.

SPhD: Later on that night, you are participating in what I think is an absolutely fantastic Discovery Channel panel.

KG: The Discovery Channel and the National Academy of Sciences!

SPhD: Which is the Science and Entertainment Exchange, headed by Jennifer Ouellette across the street from me here at UCLA. She’s absolutely terrific! She already told me about it. I’m going to be there with bells on my toes. I hope we have an opportunity to say hi.

KG: That’s going to be a fun panel. Last year, it was packed. It was wall-to-wall humanity in that room, and it was a lot of fun! Steven Cass of Discover, who has since moved on to greener pastures, moderated, and it was myself, Jaime Paglia from Eureka, and [astronomer] Phil Plait.

SPhD: Who is very funny, by the way! I follow his Twitter.

KG: Yeah, Phil is fun. We’ve been friends for a while. And we were actually both science advisors on a children’s show called The Zula Patrol. I got him that gig. Which I rub into his face regularly. But it’s going to be us, there are going to be writers from Fringe, and Jane Espenson. Need I say more?

SPhD: What kinds of things are you guys going to cover?

KG: This year, the title of the panel is “Mad Science”. Essentially, I think the theme is going to be, “Is science inherently good or evil?” We’ve got the people who do the science, and we’ve got the people who take that science and turn it into science fiction on the panel!

SPhD: I will see you next Thursday. I want to thank you for your time and for joining us, and so say we all!

KG: So say we all!

An enormous thanks to Dr. Grazier for generously taking time away from his busy schedule to talk to us and answer fan questions and an extra special thanks to all of you who submitted questions. (Sorry if we weren’t able to answer everyone’s.) The box set of Battlestar Galactica is available on DVD and Blu-Ray on July 28th, 2009, and The Science of Battlestar Galactica is out in stores.


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9 thoughts on “The Brains Behind Battlestar’s Science: A Conversation With NASA’s Kevin Grazier”

  1. Great interview, and thanks so much for answering my question!

    I think “if you take out the thrusters…” is the sort of thing that needed to have been onscreen to be 100% believable, but it does make much more sense than the Colony being pushed in by the nukes (but then, why don’t all the rocks and gas, which obviously don’t have thrusters to make constant adjustments with, fall into the singularity as well? And why weren’t Galactica and the Vipers making constant adjustments in order to stay out of it? Oh, well, it’s probably time to stop overthinking this! 🙂

    Hopefully the DVD will have some extra footage for that scene… I’d love to see some spiffy CGI for the Colony’s demise!

  2. Thank you for a great interview. You touched on several interesting topics and Dr. Grazier’s comments were very informative. And of course I am now intrigued by the forth coming book.

    I will say that I am disappointed by the way that Dr Grazier and others associated with Battlestar Galactica continue to dismiss anyone who didn’t love the finale.

  3. Glad this guy liked the ending, I guess he is the type that believes if he liked it then everyone else should like it as well.
    Hate to tell him but there are many more than just a few”shippers” that disliked the finale.

  4. I would like to kindly point out that there is a HUGE difference between automatically dissing somebody becasue they didn’t like the finale (which was absolutely not the case in this interview), and criticizing some of the arguments and motivations of some who, themselves, UNFAIRLY criticized the finale.

    Just as fans have been given an outlet on multitudinous portals on the internet to voice their opinions (comprising a wide spectrum), so, too, does the creative talent responsible for giving us these shows deserve an opportunity to voice their interpretation of their creation.

    We are grateful to Dr. Grazier for his time and are grateful to you, the fans, for following the show and leaving us your comments!

  5. “there is a HUGE difference between automatically dissing somebody becasue they didn’t like the finale (which was absolutely not the case in this interview), and criticizing some of the arguments and motivations of some who, themselves, UNFAIRLY criticized the finale.”

    This is my problem: how can someone possibly know the motivations of people who criticized the finale? There seems to be quite a bit of mindreading going on in this interview, not to mention sweeping generalizations. Shippers (though hardly the only group who voiced strong objections, as noted above) didn’t like Kara’s ending because they don’t like being ‘forced to think’? People wrote negative essays because they were already biased? That’s attacking the person, not the argument. It’s doesn’t do anything to advance his point.

    We all have our own opinions, and we can choose to support them with detailed explanations or not; but in terms of dramatic rather than scientific choices like Kara’s poof ending, they’re not right or wrong — they’re entirely subjective. We can express disagreement about that, but we can’t tell other viewers what’s fair to feel (or assume we know the ‘real’ reason why they feel it).

    Dr. Grazier can and should express his love and defense of the finale, but if he wanted to rebut his critics, I wish he’d responded to arguments about the science on the show instead of engaging in the kind of ad hominem attacks he claims he deplores.

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