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

By Stephen Cass | March 20, 2009 11:10 pm

screenshot from Battlestar GalacticaKevin Grazier is, among other things, the science advisor to Battlestar Galactica. With the show wrapping up tonight, Science Not Fiction talked to him about some of the science behind the science fiction. Warning — unless you’ve seen the finale, what follows below contains LOTS OF SPOILERS!

Before we get into the science, what did you think of the mystical idea of “angels/demons” on the show, like Kara and Head Six and Head Baltar?

Kevin Grazier: Well, there have been angels all along since day one on the show. I said something at a convention in 2007 that I was sorry I said afterwards, because even if you’re speculating it can come off as an informed decision, so I didn’t speculate at conventions any more… What I said was that Ron [Moore, co-creator of BSG] tends honor the original and knowing that the Beings of Light were an integral part of the original story I’m thinking would Ron honor that but put it in our face, [so we would be] blinded by proximity, and he did.

I thought the Beings of Light might pop up, but in a spaceship, as in the original.

Grazier: I don’t think that’s their style! There were a few chosen ones to interact with them and that was pretty much it. I like that, even being the science dude who deals in the left brainy things. I did like the whole resolution of that, I thought it was cool.

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

Grazier: There have been cases where we can see clearly [the Orion constellation], and you can use Orion to find Taurus. I had no input into that! I didn’t know it was done until I saw it, so I don’t know if that was a red herring, if that was somebody in special effects having fun, or if Ron suggested that. I have no idea where the whole Orion thing came from.

And in a recent episode, you see Boomer jump near a planet that looks remarkably like Jupiter. A lot like Jupiter. I didn’t know that [was coming]. It was a pleasant surprise for me as well. I thought it was really cool. So some of the star fields that people have seen, or thought they seen, was a surprise to me too.

At the same time [when the fleet arrived at the destroyed original Earth] I emphasized in my notes to the writers that Gaeta should say “visible stars are a match,” because they were close to the planet and it was obscuring half the sky. You can be in a line between a few constellations and they look perfectly fine, but the rest of the sky looks absolutely messed up because constellations are 3-d structures projected onto 2-d. So it was important that only a couple of constellations be seen [at the original Earth location] and they kinda matched. And I saw you’d written about how [there couldn’t be a second Earth], and that they wouldn’t do that to us would they? Yeah, well we did! In fact we had discussed it before season three.

I got called over to Universal and they said “okay, we’re going to start getting serious about finding Earth, what kind of things can we use for signs, portents, land marks, etc?” So I did a whole PowerPoint on that. The one thing I said was that stars and constellations make crappy landmarks. Constellations are crappy because they change – move a few light years and your constellations change. And also pattern matching is difficult. The human eye can see patterns in the sky with the atmosphere’s help, but when you’re in space there’s a lot more stars to see. We have spacecraft that orient themselves by looking at certain stars, they have a database of about 50-60 stars that they can find and determine their attitude, but they have fixed stars and positions that look the same wherever they are in the solar system. It’s a much different problem when you don’t know where things are. You can’t just hold a database of stars that you got from the planetarium on Kobol and match that in a computer, that kind of problem is what mathematicians in computer science call NP-complete. It’s not an exaggeration to say that it would take our fastest computers a sizeable fraction of the age of the universe to solve it. In my PowerPoint presentation it said “Landmark stars suck.” Unless they’re something unusual like Betelgeuse or Antares, because those are rare, so if you had a constellation, and here’s a red supergiant, that might be okay. I encouraged them to use constellations and stars only as a final check.

How realistic is the idea of having the cylon colony orbit a black hole?

Grazier: The idea to use a black hole was Ron’s. But yes, it’s a fallacy that black holes are these big all-sucking objects—you can orbit a black hole if you’re far enough away. In fact I actually had a discussion in one of my notes about the implications of being within the event horizon for FTL-capable ships (faster than light capable), because the event horizon is the point at which the escape velocity becomes the speed of light. If you can fold space and jump that might not be an absolute anymore. It could work as a uni-directional time machine, but you have to make sure that tidal effects don’t pull you apart.

And as far as calling it a naked singularity instead of a black hole in the script… I think Ron kind of wanted to avoid the term “black hole.” They do use the term once in the episode I think and only once. Otherwise it’s called a singularity or a naked singularity. A naked singularity is simply a black hole that’s spinning so fast it doesn’t have an event horizon. I believe it’s a frame dragging effect.

Speaking of FTL travel, how much of the mechanics of it did you work out for the show?

Grazier: I’ll start answering this a little obliquely! A few years ago I heard an interview on the radio with a scientist, and the beginning of every single answer was “Well in my new book I say…” Having said that, in my new book The Science of Battlestar Galactica with Partick DiJusto, we discuss the mechanics of the FTL, and one of the things we say is that if we really knew in great detail how it works we wouldn’t be writing a book, we’d be packing for Stockholm! Having said that, I was on my way to Vancouver to watch a couple of days of filming [a few years ago] and I got an email from the Galactica office saying contact [producer] Bradley Thompson immediately. I called Bradley and he said, “well, we’re rewriting 2×17. Now we need you to figure out how the FTL works, so we know what components it has, so we know it can get battle damaged, so in a last minute Wrath of Khan-like manoeuver, the captain can go down to engineering and save the ship.” And he says, “I get in tomorrow at 10:30, that’s your deadline.” So I got two hours sleep, and paced and pondered and I kinda figured out how it works. It turned out there was a previous blog entry from Ron saying how he envisioned it worked, and they just happened to be exactly the same idea, fortunately.

The way they work is along the lines of they way the Heighliners in Dune worked. Tthey fold space ahead of them and essentially pull your destination to you. You move through it and when space snaps back you’re on the other side. That’s the quick and dirty version. … Interestingly, right after I submitted those notes on how FTL works, I said to Bradley, “I figured out a great way how why can take out a cylon baseship without firing a shot, though you may not want to use it, it may be too Trekish.” I suggested pulling up to the baseship and jumping just past it so the spatial distortion would tear it apart. Bradley’s comment was “good idea…nah, you’re right, that’s too Star Trek.” Fast forward to a year ago, my phone rings and it’s Bradley. He asks me “remember that idea you had for destroying a cylon baseship? What do you think would happen if a raptor jumped before it cleared the bay?” I said it would take part of Galactica with it. And he said “Exactly what I was hoping you’d say!

Is there anything else that you have worked out, even if we didn’t see it on screen?

Grazier: In the book we’re going to have a whole chapter on cylon biology. People have taken me to task on cylon biology saying, that’s impossible, and that’s impossible and that’s impossible. In fact, while it’s a little bit of a stretch we’re actually able to explain things pretty simply. If we assume different software in the brain that can be programmed and if we assume one small mofification to the human form, you actually come up with a cylon.

Overall, how do you felt the show did with the accuracy of the science?

Grazier: There’s a couple of caveats. Any science fiction show is allowed a couple of conceits. Without FTL we’d never see another planet within our lifetimes. Artifical gravity is a filming constraint [and so on]. If you accept those conceits and relative to any science fiction series or movie relative to date, I think we get an A. Because the writers listened to their science dude! Even in a couple of cases where they may or may have done what I asked, I felt I was listened to. With the exception of Home Part 2 [which featured the Kobol planetarium].

Is there anything you wish you could change?

Grazier: There’s two. There’s one that I recognized too late. That was when the explosion in Water blew out the side of the [Galactica] and we have a big venting of water. [Galactica] was connected to the Virgon Express. That would have imparted a pretty healthy delta v [change in velocity], meaning it would have yanked the Virgon Express with [the Galactica] and probably broken the water lines. I didn’t think of that until too late, and I called and said “hang on!” and they said “that ship’s sailed, sorry.” That was the second episode and I was a baby science advisor then. The other one is I wish I would have been more instant with the constellations in Home Part 2. Because when you start thinking about those constellations, who put them there? Wasn’t the Kobolians. Those aren’t seen from the original Earth, so where did those constellations come from?

Those constellations were a big part of why was I sure the show had to be set in the future!

Grazier: Right. I wish I had been more insistent on “we really need to rethink this.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Astronomy, TV

Comments (26)

  1. For me, too, my whole interpretation of the show was based on the Tomb of Athena planetarium. How could the flags of the tribes be constellations from Earth’s Zodiac unless the colonial and Kobolian culture originated on Earth. How could Adama call the Lagoon Nebula by its 18th century number M8? That scene made it 100% certain to be in the future which was of course not how it got written at all. So it is indeed appropriate as a greatest regret.

    However, I do need to call Dr. Grazier to task for something much worse, in a way. As an advocate for science education, he should have taken his name off the Creationist “Ark” style ending, where all of humanity is descended from an alien human and a synthetic cybernetic being who landed in an Ark 150,000 years ago — such interbreeding being possible because God created designed creatures to have the same DNA on entirely different worlds.

    (The better explanation, that the God abducted humans from our Earth long before the story and seeded them on Kobol, is never so much as hinted at.)

    Hardworking scientists have spent decades of lost time debunking all the crazy theories of DNA being designed by external forces, or life being descended (even in just in part) from an Ark that arrived in recent geologic time. He knows why they have spent that effort. It is a shame that BSG should give these ideas more credit and possibly help those who want to push them into our science education. Good SF shows (which BSG was until its final episode) have a lot of influence in public understanding of science, but BSG’s greatest science errors came not in its physics or astronomy, but in fields of genetics, archeology and anthropology. I realize that Dr Grazier is not the same level of expert in those areas.

    But now let me question something he is an expert on. I do not believe the problem of finding yourself in the galaxy from stellar landmarks in np-complete at all. Here I, as a computer scientist, have some expertise. If you look at astrometry.net’s software, it takes a star map and breaks it up into defined quadrangles of stars. Given a test quandrangle, it is trivial to see if that quadrangle is found in your list, and where. I would guess faster than order logN, possibly just order 1 with appropriate hashing tricks.

    Given a 3-D star map (which is easy to get if you have a space telescope and an FTL jump that lets you view the universe from several vantage points light years apart at the same “time”) it is also very simple to generate the star map with apparent magnitudes for any given star in your database. You may have a few million stars in your database, but sorted properly you can generate the new map quickly, and then generate quadrangles (for example) and see if any match the star pattern (such as a constellation from a star map, or from a photo taken from a magic Viper).

    Nobody has ever needed such a program but I think it could be written quickly. Give it an accurate star arrangement, such as the photos from Starbuck’s 13th colony trip, and a 3-D database of the stars in a zone of space (including position, absolute magnitude and proper motion) and it should be able to tell you which star the photo was taken from quite quickly.

  2. Jerry Wickey made a first step towards the star location problem in three dimensions here:

    http://www.galactica-science.com/battlestar/blog/astronomy/interstellar-navigation/

    However, his program requires that you know the identities of some of the stars, from which the program determines the viewing location in space. So, it would be similar to Kevin Grazier’s idea of using unusual stars as landmarks.

    In the comment above, Brad mentions the Astrometry.net program, which works quickly for 2D star location (i.e., it takes a photo of the Earth’s night sky and tells you where it came from), but that’s because it spends a lot of time beforehand creating an index (of quadruples of stars.)

    Now for a gripe of mine… Most probably noticed the Big Dipper at Earth in Daybreak. One would hope that at least this constellation would make sense. But then the caption says “150,000 years later” and they show what appears to be present day New York City. The problem is that 150,000 years ago, the Big Dipper was not recognizable as such:

    http://www.astronomy.ohio-state.edu/~pogge/Ast162/Movies/proper.html

    And there are lots of other scientific implausibilities in the ending that have nothing to do with the stars. I hope that either we are to understand this is all in a virtual reality universe, in which case anything goes, or this is all just a fairy tale like Peter Pan (“All of this has happened before, and all of it will happen again”), which of course, on some level, it is.

  3. Frank

    The attack on the Cylon colony had the raptors jumping directly from the museum/hangar deck to their attack positions. What happened to the spatial distortions? That hangar deck (not to mention the other raptors) should have been torn to shreds!

  4. Alex

    Gotta love how folks seem to be conveniently ignoring the fact Grazier gave the show an A for its science…

  5. @Frank — the hanger deck was was torn to shreds — that’s why they jumped from the “gift shop” instead of the functioning hanger pod — you can see things being whipped around behind the glass, and then whole side of the pod blows out.

  6. Pace

    The scientific gaffe that got me in the last episode was at the very end when six said that mitochondrial Eve was “the name scientists have given to the most recent common ancestor for all human beings now living on Earth.” But that’s something different (MRCA), and much more recent than mitochondrial Eve. (That’s in fact the #1 misconception about mitochondrial eve in it’s wikipedia article http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mitochondrial_eve ).

  7. Jake

    Artistic license people, it’s a show. There’s bound to be mistakes and errors.

    To the guy who said it promotes a creationist view, no it doesn’t. It promotes a “Chariots of the Gods” view that Aliens built the pyramids and were here with humans. Not God.

  8. The creationist view, which could have been easily remedied with some side comments, was Baltar’s proclamation that the impossible coincidence of the natives and the alien colonials having the same DNA is the result of the hand of god. He could have fixed it by proposing that the Kobolians must have been taken from this planet originally.

    We have no alien DNA. We share all our genes with our cousins right here on the planet.

    Chariots of the gods has no DNA manipulation going on, nor do the aliens breed with natives to become the ancestors of modern humans.

    Not that promoting Chariots of the Gods would have been better!

  9. Frank

    To Stephen Cass: thanks for clearing that up; I’ll have to watch it again…

  10. Brian

    I’m not sure “God” as presented in the finale requires any sort of supernatural being. Modern human evolved nearly 50,000 years before the events depicted in Daybreak. The Colonials only think they evolved on Kobol – but Colonial history at best only goes back 10,000 years to a period of time they lived on Kobol with some sort of advanced beings (The Lords), plenty of time for said beings to have picked up humans and other animals from Earth and “uplifted” them in some fashion (with apologies to David Brin). For me, a big clue for this is the FTL drives, which seems much more like a “found” technology – as it is way more advanced than anything else seen in the show.

  11. coolstar

    BT has corrected a lot of the bad science from the “science adviser” along with other comments about the DNA stupidities. A few others that haven’t been mentioned: Adama saying the last jump was 1 million light years is of course nonsense, and any science adviser should be ashamed it made it into the script. And of course, everyone is ignoring stellar proper motion, which would have made most all constellations unrecognizable 150 -200 thousand years ago (much sooner for many). The accretion disk was also nonsense: no stable orbits, by defintion!, in an accretion disk along with the temps of millions of kelvins wouldn’t make it a very nice place to live. Oh, and real accretion disks do NOT look like every science illiterates’s convention for an asteroid belt. Saying the creators wanted to HONOR the original by keeping in all the religious BS is actually the worst indictment I’ve ever heard of this series as the original was of course total crap (we used to laugh at it around the tv room in my grad school science dorm).
    John Scalzi, take this as an example of how bad things can get for a science adviser in your work on the new Stargate!
    (oh, MH did mention proper motions, just saw it. Pulsars would make good beacons for locating yourself also, but over that short a period of time (in astronomical terms) it’s not a hard problem locating yourself using visible light giants and supergiants, as long as you’re within 10,000 light years or so. Further than that, pulsars are the way to go. Of course, as someone mentioned, bootstrapping locations doing FTL jumps using visible light also works easily. So many stupidities, so little time……

  12. Bro

    It’s a TV show maybe you should just relax.

  13. Desslok’s Ship

    Desslok’s first flagship is little more than an escape craft which was originally part of the command center that hung from Gamilon’s outer shelf. It has a small wave motion gun called the Desslok Cannon.

  14. better than lost

    you gotta admit the ending was way way better than lost’s ending

  15. So many good blogs, so few hours in the day

  16. You covered some engaging points here. I found it by searching Bing and I’ve got to confess that I already subscribed to the website, it is very good :D

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