REVIEW: ‘The Science of Battlestar Galactica’

"The Science of Battlestar Galactica" ©Wiley Books and NBC Universal, all rights reserved.

Battlestar Galactica is one of the defining, genre-changing science fiction shows of its, or perhaps any, time. The remake of the 1970s cult classic was sexy, sophisticated, and set a new standard for the science fiction shows and movies that will follow in its path. In addition to exploring staple concepts such as life, survival, politics and war, BSG reawakened its audience to science and its role in moral, ethical, and daily impact in our lives, especially given the technologically-driven era that we live in. “Writers were not allowed to jettison science for the sake of the story,” declares co-executive producer Jane Espenson in her foreword to the book. “Other than in specific instances of intentionally inexplicable phenomena, science was respected.” In an artful afterword, Richard Hatch (the original Apollo and Tom Zarek in the new series) concurs. “BSG used science not as a veneer, but as a key thematic component for driving many of the character stories… which is the art of science fiction.” The sustained use of complex, correct science as a plot element to the degree that was done in Battlestar Galactica is also a hallmark first. This is the topic of the new book The Science of Battlestar Galactica, newly released from Wiley Books, and written by Kevin R. Grazier, the very science advisor who consulted with the BSG writing staff on all things science, with a contribution from Wired writer Patrick DiJusto. Now, for the first time, everyone from casual fans to astrophysicists can gain insight into the research used to construct major stories and technology of the show—and learn some very cool science along the way. Our review of The Science of Battlestar Galactica (and our 100th blog post!) under the “continue reading” cut.

Humanoid Cylon #1, John Cavil: 'I don't want to be human. I want to see gamma rays, I want to hear X-rays, and I want to smell dark matter. Do you see the absurdity of what I am? I can't even express these things properly, because I have to conceptualize complex ideas in this stupid, limiting spoken language, but I know I want to reach out with something other than these prehensile paws, and feel the solar wind of a supernova flowing over me. I'm a machine, and I can know much more.'

What is life? Seriously. I’m not asking one of those hypothetical existential questions that end up discussed ad nauseum in a dorm room at 3 AM. I’m asking the central question that Battlestar Galactica, and much of science fiction, is based around. The shortest section of The Science of Battlestar Galactica, “Life Began Out Here,” is its most poignant. No matter the conflict, subplot or theme explored on BSG, they ultimately reverted back to the idea of what constituted a living being, and what rights, if any, those beings possessed. It all boils down to cylons. What are they made of? How do their brains (potentially) work? How much information can they contain, and how is it processed from one dead cylon to its next incarnation? How could a cylon and a human mate successfully, and is their offspring (Hera Agathon) the Mitochondrial Eve of that society? How did they evolve? What is the biological difference between raiders, centurions, and humanoid cylons? Who can forget the ew gross factor of Boomer plugging her arm into the cylon computer system, but how could she do that, especially when she was made to act, feel and think as a human being? A brief, smart discussion on spontaneous evolution and basic biology gives way to a thoughtful evocation of our own efforts with artificial intelligence, and the responsibilities that it engenders. Take a look at the website of the MIT iGem Program, an annual competition to design biological systems that will operate in living cells from standard toolkits. Do some of their creations, including bacteria that eat industrial pollutants and treat lactose intolerance, constitute life, and are our own Cybernetic Life Nodes not too far away? The section ends in a fascinating debate over who we are more akin to—the humans of the Battlestar universe (as is widely assumed) or cylons. The answer would surprise you.

The middle of The Science of Battlestar Galactica, composed of “The Physics of Battlestar Galactica” and “The Twelve Colonies and The Rest of Space” reads largely like my college physics textbook, only with far cooler sample problems. If Apollo and Starbuck both launch their vipers at the same time and Starbuck coasts past Apollo, according to special relativity, who is moving? In perhaps the greatest implementation of Einstein’s famous theory in science fiction, special relativity explains how Starbuck could explain that she wasn’t a Cylon when she returned unharmed from the dead, and why her viper looked brand new. A special look at radiation particularly interested me, with a chemistry background, as it thoroughly delved into the chemistry and physics of radiation, heat-seeking missile weapons, DNA damage, and the power of nuclear weapons, both with fictional examples (the destruction of Caprica) and real (Japan and Chernobyl). The chapters on relativity (E=mc2) and the Lorentz Contraction reminded me of a seminar on dark energy that we covered at the Hollywood Laserium presented a year ago by Dr. Charles Baltay (NOT Baltar!), the man who was responsible for Pluto losing its planetary status. At the time, a lot of the concepts seemed a bit esoteric, but having read this book, are now elementary. Did you know, for example, that a supernova explosion is so powerful, it can briefly cause iron and other atoms remaining in the star to fuse into every naturally occurring element in the periodic table? Nifty, eh? Astronomy buffs, amateur and experienced, will enjoy the section on space, with a preamble on the formation of our galaxy and star systems to the 12 different planets of the Colonies, and how that many habitable planets could all be packed into such a dense area (see companion map below).

A detailed space map of the 12 colonies of Battlestar Galactica. We strongly recommend exploring this map while reading the chapters on physics and space.

With perfect timing for the publication of The Science of BSG, Kevin R. Grazier and co-executive producer Jane Espenson have teamed up to create a plausible astronomy map of the 12 colonies of Battlestar Galactica. Find a larger, interactive version here.

A viper fighter jet from Battlestar Galactica. All images/content ©NBC Universal, all rights reserved.

One of the more fun aspects to watching BSG was the cornucopia of weapons, toys, and other electronics used by both humans and Cylons, a subject explored in the most meaty section of the whole book, “Battlestar Tech.” This includes a discussion of propulsion and how the Galactica’s jump drive might work, artificial gravity, a great chapter on the vipers and raptors as effective weapons, and positing how it is that Six was able to infiltrate the colonial computer infrastructure… besides the obvious, that is. I really enjoyed learning about Faraday cages, tachyon particles, brane cosmology, and what a back door is in computer programming, terms you can bet I will be throwing out casually at my next hoity-toity dinner party. The next time you rewatch an episode, and hear Mr. Gaeta utter a directive such as “We have a Cylon raider, CBDR, bearing 123 carom 45,” not only will you know exactly what he’s saying relative to the cartesian coordinates of the BSG space universe, but how this information is used to operate the complicated three-dimensional space system that the pilots have to operate in. Finally, critics such as myself of the dilapidated corded phones used aboard the Galactica will be interested to find out why they may have actually been a good idea in protecting the fleet from Cylon detection.

How was Dr. Baltar able to detect Cylons from humans? It has to do with silica, silica, and more silica. All images ©NBC Universal, all rights reserved.

The ultimate selling point of this book is its ability to present material that will appeal to all fractions of a very diverse audience. The writing style is fluid, clever, informative and appropriately humorous in the way one would expect of a geeky sci-fi book (highlighted by a chapter on Cylon composition and detection thereof by Dr. Baltar written in dialogue format between an omniscient scientist and a smart-aleck fanboy). In fact, the co-authors merge their styles well enough so as to imagine that only one person wrote the book. Part textbook, part entertainment, part series companion, The Science of Battlestar Galactica is concomitantly smart, complicated, approachable and difficult—it does not surprise us one bit that in the couple of short months since its wide release, talk of numerous literary awards has already been circling. In between lessons on basic biology, astrophysics, energy and basic engineering are sprinkled delightful vignettes of actual on-set problem solving involving science. My favorites included plausible ways Cylons could download their information as they’re reborn (get ready for some serious computer-speak here!), an excellent explanation of Dr. Baltar’s mysterious Cylon detector, radiation and the difference between uninhabitable ‘dead Earth’ and barely habitable New Caprica, and the revelation by Dr. Grazier of how he had to—in a frantic period of 24 sleepless hours—construct a theory as to how the FTL drive works for an episode-specific reason. Much like the show it is based on, this book asks as many questions as it answers, most notably on social parables within our own world. Are we on our way to building Cylon artificial intelligence? Could our computer infrastructure ever get compromised like the ones on Caprica? Would we ever be able to travel to parallel universes, and what would be the implications of life forms besides our own? How might they even detect our presence?

Read our in-depth interview with Kevin R. Grazier here

Join our our Facebook fan page for a special giveaway commemorating the release of The Science of Battlestar Galactica and our 100th blog post. Now if you’ll excuse me, having read and absorbed this illuminating volume, I have been inspired to go and watch the entire series from start to finish all over again!


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2 thoughts on “REVIEW: ‘The Science of Battlestar Galactica’”

  1. Science of Battlestar Galactica and Star Trek are very much alike. So anyone who watches Television Series or Movies like Battlestar Galactica, Star Trek, Babylon 5, Buck Rodger in 25th Century, and Star Wars grow up to become an astronauts or astronomers! However who watch TV series or movies like Beverly Hills 90210, Friends, and Sex and the City grow up to become pycholosist or tabliod reporters.

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