Captain’s Board

image06

The Captain’s Board is a double hexagon table at the very center of the CIC.  This board serves as a combination of podium and status dashboard for the ship’s Captain.  Often, the ship’s XO or other senior officers will move forward and use a grease pen or replacement transparency sheet to update information on the board.

image05For example, after jumping from their initial position to the fleet supply base in the nebula, Colonel Tigh replaces the map on the ‘left’ side of the board with a new map of the location that the Galactica had just jumped to.  This implies that the Galactica has a cache of maps in the CIC of various parts of the galaxy, or can quickly print them on the fly.

After getting hit by a Cylon fighter’s nuclear missile, Tigh focuses on a central section of the board with a grease pen to mark the parts of the Galactica suffering damage or decompression. The center section of the board has a schematic, top-down view of the Galactica.

During the initial fighting, Lt. Gaeda is called forward to plot the location of Galactica’s combat squadrons on the board.  This hand-drawn method is explicitly used, even when the Dradis system is shown to be functioning.

image07

The transparency sheets are labeled with both a region and a sector: in this case, “Caprica Region, SECT OEL”.  More text fills the bottom of the label: “Battlestar Galactica Starchart…”

Several panels of physical keys and low-resolution displays ring the board, but we never see any characters interacting with them.  They do not appear to change during major events or during shifts in the ship status.

The best use of these small displays would be to access reference data with a quick search or wikipedia-style database.  Given what we see in the show, it is likely that it was just intended as fuigetry.

 

Old School

Charts and maps are an old interface that has been well developed over the course of human history.  Modern ships still use paper charts and maps to track their current location as a backup to GPS.

Given the Galactica’s mission to stay active even in the face of complete technological superiority of the opponent, a map-based backup to the Dradis makes sense in spite of the lack of detailed information it might need to provide.  It is best as, and should be, a worst-case backup.  

Here, the issue becomes the 3-dimensional space that the Galactica inhabits.  The maps do an excellent job of showing relationships in a two dimensional plane, but don’t represent the ‘above’ and ‘below’ at all.  

In those situations, perhaps something like a large fish tank metaphor might work better, but wouldn’t allow for quick plotting of distance and measurements by hand.  Instead, perhaps something more like the Pin Table from the 2000 X-Men movie that could be operated by hand:

image01

It would provide a shake-resistant, physical, no-electricity needed 3-D map of the surrounding area.  Markups could be easily accomplished with a sticky-note-like flag that could attach to the pins.

FTL – Engine Analysis

Desktop_2014_06_20_17_25_34_414

The FTL Jump process on the Galactica has several safeguards, all appropriate for a ship of that size and an action of that danger (late in the series, we see that an inappropriate jump can cause major damage to nearby objects).  Only senior officers can start the process, multiple teams all sign off on the calculations, and dedicated computers are used for potentially damaging computations.

Even the actual ‘jump’ requires a two stage process with an extremely secure key and button combination.  It is doubtful that Lt. Gaeta’s key could be used on any other ship aside from the Galactica.

The process is so effective, and the crew is so well trained at it, that even after two decades of never actually using the FTL system, the Galactica is able to make a pinpoint jump under extreme duress (the beginning of human extinction).

Difficult Confirmation

image02

The one apparent failure in this system is the confirmation process after the FTL jump.  Lt. Gaeta has to run all the way across the CIC and personally check a small screen with less than obvious information.

Of the many problems with the nav’s confirmation screen, three stand out:

  • It is a 2d representation of 3d space, without any clear references to how information has been compacted
  • There are no ‘local zero’ showing the system’s plane or relative inclination of orbits
  • No labels on data

Even the most basic orbital navigation system has a bit more information about Apogee, Perigee, relative orbit, and a gimbal reading. Compare to this chart from the Kerbal Space Program:

image03

(from http://blog.asgaard.co.uk/t/gaming and Kerbal Space Program)

The Galactica would need at least this much information to effectively confirm their location.  For Lt. Gaeta, this isn’t a problem because of his extensive training and knowledge of the Galactica.  

But the Galactica is a warship and would be expected to experience casualties during combat.  Other navigation officers and crew may not be as experienced or have the same training as Lt. Gaeta.  In a situation where he is incapacitated and it falls to a less experienced member of the crew, an effective visual display of location and vector is vital.

Simplicity isn’t always perfect

This is an example of where a bit more information in the right places can make an interface more legible and understandable.  Some information here looks useless, but may be necessary for the Galactica’s navigation crew.  With the extra information, this display could become useful for crew other than Lt. Gaeta.

FTL – Activation

The Battlestar Galactica has at least two Faster-than-Light engines (which might be easier to think of as teleportation engines), activated during a complex sequence. The sequence involves:

  1. An explicit, direct command from Commander Adama
  2. Complex calculations on dedicated computers
  3. Double-checking by a large portion of the CIC staff
  4. and finally, a dedicated key and button to initiate the actual jump

Making an FTL jump is not a standard procedure for the Galactica, and it is implied that it has been decades since the ship carried out an actual jump.  This is because of the danger in landing off-course, the difficulty in the calculations, and wear on what is likely a very expensive component.  We see that many civilian ships do not have FTL capability.

image09

The FTL engine allows the Galactica to instantly travel between one point in the star system, and another point in the star system.  Dense books of pre-made calculations are kept in the Galactica’s CIC to enter into the ship’s FTL computers.

Multiple teams each begin separate calculations, using the Galactica’s FTL computers as giant calculators for their hand-written/typed equations.  The teams then cross-check their answers against each other, using a senior officer (in this case, Lt. Gaeta) as the final confirmation.

image06

Once all teams agree on an FTL jump coordinate, the information is plugged into a separate system to “spool up” the FTL drive.

Lt. Gaeta then pulls out a special key that fits into a dedicated slot in the FTL system in the CIC.  The key has two cylindrical pins that each glow a distinct blue, and are each different lengths.  The handle of the key has a matching shape on the console as well, so that the key can only fit in one way.

Once the key is inserted, Lt. Gaeta turns the key and announces that the FTL drive is active.  Commander Adama then gives the order to jump, and Lt. Gaeta pushes a separate button (which has until now been inactive) that jumps the Galactica to the coordinates entered.

After the Galactica finishes its FTL Jump, Commander Adama asks for confirmation that they have arrived successfully at their destination.  Lt. Gaeta runs across the CIC to a navigation console and checks the screen there for the ship’s location.  From the information on that screen, Lt. Gaeta confirms that the Galactica has re-entered real space at exactly the place they were intended to be. (Or might report an error, but we never see this.)

The entire CIC lets out a breath of relief and begins clapping in celebration.  Lt. Gaeta congratulates his navigation team for their work, and the CIC slowly resumes their task of running the ship.  The CIC crew is clearly unnerved by the jump, and everyone is thankful when they arrive safely at their destination.

The Current Position Screen

image05

image07

image08

This is the screen that Lt. Gaeta uses to confirm that they have successfully landed at their current target: geosynchronous orbit above their target body of mass.  He does not visibly use any of the controls on the console.  The screen autonomously zooms in on the ‘X’ marker, then displays a large, red, blinking triangle with “BSG 75” written above it (The Battlestar Galactica’s registry code).  The red ‘X’ is written inside a large sphere, which appears to be the object the Galactica was attempting to jump to.

All of the lines on this graph describe arcs, and appear to be orbital paths.  The Galactica is marked as being directly on one of these arcs.  Dotted arcs connect many other objects on the screen to each other.  These have no clear purpose or legend.

At the bottom center of the screen are the words “Waypoint Time”, “Waypoint Distance”, and “T.O.T.”  Above those words is a small label: “Synthetic Gravity Field 74.56”.  To the left of those words is an area of data that has been boxed off with the label “Optic Nav System Control.”

More text to the top left lists out information in a table format, but is unreadable to the viewer due to the resolution of the screens in the CIC.  The two rows of data beside the labels do not have column headers or unit indicators.

FTL – A Quick Overview

 

Faster than light travel (FTL) is a(n as-yet) fictional trope that is used to allow stories to happen on scales larger than a single solar system.  Nothing we’ve found so far indicates that faster than light travel is possible, let alone practical, but it makes things like Star Wars, Star Trek, and Battlestar Galactica possible as stories.

As noted on TV Tropes, there are three broad ‘favorites’ when it comes to FTL:

  • “Warp” Drives: the ship distorts space around it to go really fast, so it stays in this universe but breaks the laws of physics in ways we haven’t figured out how to yet. Star Trek has made this a household word.
  • “Jump” Drives: the ship finds itself in a special point in space, does some math, pushes a button, and appears instantly at its destination.  This is the kind that the Galactica uses.
  • “Hyperdrives”: the ship somehow breaks out of our current universe into a place where the ‘speed of light’ is faster.  Star Wars and Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy prefer this type of FTL.

Overall, the actual mechanics don’t effect the story, but it’s an interesting topic in and of itself.  For as much information as you could possibly want, the fantastic website Atomic Rockets has a large page on it: http://www.projectrho.com/public_html/rocket/fasterlight.php

CIC

image06

The Battlestar Galactica’s Combat Information Center, or CIC, is a medical-theater-like room that acts as the military nerve center and brain of the Galactica.  It is located near the center of the ship, is heavily armored and protected by armed guards, and has a staff of between 35-50 people.

The two highest ranking officers on the ship, Commander Adama and Colonel Tigh, typically stand at the center of the auditorium around the Command Board.  This position lets them hear status reports from around the room, and issue orders to the entire ship.

image05

Various pods of workstations provide seating for the rest of the staff.  These stations are grouped by function.  We see Navigation crew sitting near other navigation crew, weapons officers near other combat functions, communications near the center, and engineering given a special area up top.

image07

Phone kiosks are placed throughout the CIC, with two high profile kiosks on the Command Board.  Large display boards and the central Dradis Console provide information to the entire crew of the CIC.

 

Organized Chaos

The CIC is dealing with a lot of information from all over the ship and trying to relate it to the lead officers who are making decisions.  There is a lot of activity related to this information overload, but the design of the CIC has organized it into a reasonably effective flow.

Teams communicate with each other, then that decision flows forward to lead officers, who relate it to Admiral Adama.
image03

Orders flow in the opposite direction.

Admiral Adama can very quickly shout out an order from the center of the CIC and have his lead officers hear it all around him.  It can also act as a failsafe: other officers can also hear the same order and act as a confirmation step.  From there, the officers can organize their teams to distribute more detailed orders to the entire ship.

Large screens show information that the entire CIC needs to know, while smaller screens display information for specific crew or groups.

Overall, the stadium-like construction of the CIC works well for the low tech approach that the Galactica takes after.  Without introducing automation and intelligent computer networks onto the bridge, there is little that could be done to improve the workflow.

Battlestar Galactica Overview

battlestar-galactica.jpg

Battlestar Galactica (here meaning the mini series that launched the show, not the 4-season show itself) is based around an extremely large battleship/carrier spaceship and the crew that serves on her.  The Galactica is a vessel more than 50 years old, and was built during a time when humanity was in a life or death struggle with the Cylons—a species of sentient AI and robots.

And, as usual with these reviews:

BSGspoiler.png

The Cylons haven’t been seen since the end of that war, and the Galactica is one of the few ships from that time still operating.  It’s seemingly backwards and simple technology was dictated by the enemy.  Cylons were able to hack into and take over any networked device, which meant that only the simplest weapons could be used to fight them.

m3it2ywzteicfojkcyni

We catch the Galactica just at the end of its life, as it’s about to be decommissioned and turned into a museum.  It is at that moment that the Cylons strike humanity again by firing nuclear weapons at every major city in the 12 Human Colonies.

The entirety of Humanity’s army is quickly scrambled to fight the Cylons, but they have infiltrated the networks that run all of the current weapons and ships that Humanity has available.  By the end of the first episode, only the Galactica (that survived due to it’s old design) and a small flotilla of civilian ships has survived.

The Galactica and its crew then spend the rest of the miniseries attempting to fight their way out of the Cylon ambush to safety.

Back to the Forbidden Planet

Over the last few posts we’ve covered the Fermi Problem and hypotheses, which of the hypotheses sci-fi likes to write about, and which of the hypotheses it’s strategic to write about. This brings us back around to Forbidden Planet.

ForbiddenPlanet-155

As a species, we’re faced with a number of big problems that need solving. Some feel more abstract than others, but it sure would suck if we were wrong about that. And while sci-fi can be pure escapism, when it does, hopefully it serves as a mild indulgence rather than something which lets us ignore problems in the real world. As I’ve said before, it is part of my mission with this blog to get readers to not just watch sci-fi but to use it; to understand its effects and limitations; to decide how believable its scenarios are; and to think about the lessons you can take back with you to the real world.

This is why Forbidden Planet is such a stellar movie for me.

It is a singular example (in the survey at least) of humans encountering an ancient, vastly advanced, dead civilization through the “ruins” of its technology. There was no tense tête–à–tête diplomacy, or sexily-foreign green aliens to seduce, or any of those other Terran imperialist thrills.

I'm not exactly sure which of those two possibilities this image represents.

I’m not exactly sure which of those two possibilities this image represents.

I don’t want to demean its historical importance. It came at a time in cinematic history after a few decades where Hollywood created little more sci-fi than space opera for kids, and it proved enough of a commercial and critical success that suddenly sci-fi was a serious consideration for big budget attention. That meant broader reach, and more people thinking about speculative futures. (Heck, it meant enough serious sci-fi that I could keep a blog about the genre. So, you know, thanks for that.)

But more than its historical importance is that it’s the best model of a likely future. Just this past May, Adam Frank (an astrophysicist at the University of Rochester) and Woodruff Sullivan published “A New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe.” In the paper they note that the 1,284 new exoplanets discovered by the Kepler observatory scientists puts some lower-limit constraints on a few factors in the Drake equation.

Kepler-11 is a sun-like star around which six planets orbit. At times, two or more planets pass in front of the star at once, as shown in this artist's conception of a simultaneous transit of three planets observed by NASA's Kepler spacecraft on Aug. 26, 2010. Image credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

Image credit: NASA/Tim Pyle

“Three of the seven terms in Drake’s equation are now known. We know the number of stars born each year. We know that the percentage of stars hosting planets is about 100. And we also know that about 20 to 25 percent of those planets are in the right place for life to form. This puts us in a position, for the first time, to say something definitive about extraterrestrial civilizations—if we ask the right question.”

Their work suggests that the odds are in favor of finding alien life—but finding evidence of it long dead. They suggest a shift in our attentions away from contacting a living civilization, towards cosmic archaeology. You know, like Forbidden Planet illustrates.

A graph from "A New Empirical Constraint on the Prevalence of Technological Species in the Universe" showing the lower limit to the number of technological species in the universe as being 2.5x10^-24.

Number of Technological Species Ever in the Universe, from the paper.

Frankly it could stop there and be canonized for that purpose, but the film goes one better

We still don’t have great constraints for the other troubling component of Drake’s equation, and that’s how long technological civilizations tend to last. That question in turn raises the darker question of what tends to doom those civilizations. One possibility is that it is that technology itself is the thing, which is, again, what Forbidden Planet illustrates.

This is a blog about sci-fi interfaces, and I presume that readers are, like me, directly involved in shaping technology. So it is that this 60 year-old film has a one-two punch. It shows us both what the future will probably be like, and then turns our attention to something we can think about—and work to make right—now.

And that’s sci-fi we can use.

ForbiddenPlanet-143

A Fermi strategy

In the first post I gave an overview of the Fermi question and its hypothetical answers. In the second, I reviewed which of the answers sci-fi is given to. In this post I compare the costs of acting on each answer.

Which should we be telling stories about?

Sci-fi likes to tell stories about the Prime Directive Fermi answer. But is it the most useful answer? Keep in mind that most of us are not working in space programs. For us, sci-fi is less direct inspiration to go build the most kick-ass rocketship we can, but rather inform how we think about and support the space program culturally and politically. With that in mind, let’s spend a little bit of time talking about the effects of confronting each hypothesis in our sci-fi. To be able to compare apples to apples, let’s apply the same thinking to each.

  1. What would be the call to action (if any) if this hypothesis is true?
  2. What if this is true, but we fail to act on it?
  3. What if it’s true, and we do act on it?

Warning: This will be long, but if we’re thinking strategy, risk aversion, and opportunity maximization (as we are) we have to be thorough.

Life is rare

635820083795699873-twd-604-gp-0806-0064

All life is precious, Daryl.

These stories tell us to not get our hopes up about thrilling tales of space imperialism. We need to get our shit sorted, since, no, we won’t have peace treaties with Romulan Sith, but we will have our hands full dealing with our own worst natures and the weirdness of natural space problems like black holes and special relativity. While we go about this, we should take advantage of this freakish circumstance by protecting life for the precious thing it is. Continue reading

The Fermi Paradox and Sci-fi

In the prior post we introduced the Fermi paradox—or Fermi question—before an overview of the many hypotheses that try to answer the question, and ended noting that we must consider what we are to do, given the possibilities. In this post I’m going to share which of those hypotheses sci-fi has chosen to tell stories about.

First we should note that screen sci-fi (this is, recall, a blog that concerns itself with sci-fi in movies and television), since the very, very beginning, has embraced questionably imperialist thrills. In Le Voyage dans la Lune, George Melies’ professor-astronomers encounter a “primitive” alien culture on Earth’s moon when they land there, replete with costumes, dances, and violent responses to accidental manslaughter. Hey, we get it, aliens are part of why audiences and writers are in it: As a thin metaphor for speculative human cultures that bring our own into relief. So, many properties are unconcerned with the *yawn* boring question of the Fermi paradox, instead imagining a diegesis with a whole smorgasbord of alien civilizations that are explicitly engaged with humans, at times killing, trading, or kissing us, depending on which story you ask.

image.png

But some screen sci-fi does occasionally concern itself with the Fermi question.

Which are we telling stories about?

Screen sci-fi is a vast library, and more is being produced all the time, so it’s hard to give an exact breakdown, but if Drake can do it for Fermi’s question, we can at least ballpark it, too. To do this, I took a look at every sci-fi in the survey that produced Make It So and has been extended here on scifiinterfaces.com, and I tallied the breakdown between aliens, no aliens, and silent aliens. Here’s the Google Sheet with the data. And here’s what we see. Continue reading

The Fermi Paradox

For its 60th anniversary I hosted a sci-if movie night at the Roxie cinema in San Francisco of the 1951 classic Forbidden Planet. It was delightful to see it on the big screen with the Roxie’s gorgeous projection system and hear that crazy soundtrack through their audio system.

After the show, I broke with my usual tradition of discussing any of the interfaces (after all, I’d already reviewed all of them on the blog years ago, and recently discussed the film in depth with the guys at Decipher Sci-fi) and instead discussed an idea that’s present in the film. In this handful of posts, I’m going to represent that content, but also add some additional content that there just wasn’t time for before we had to leave the cinema to make way for the next show.

Necessary Spoilers: In Forbidden Planet, a platoon travels to Altair IV to figure out why a 19-year old colony of scientists has gone silent. They meet Morbius, the only survivor of the original colony, and his daughter Altaira. They learn that Morbius has discovered the complete knowledge and technological remains of a long-dead, highly advanced civilization called the Krell. Through the Krell’s still-working machines Morbius has greatly enhanced his intelligence, but unwittingly unleashed an invisible “monster from the id” that has violently destroyed everyone but him and his family. Morbius refuses to return to Earth with Captain Adams, and so Adams grounds the mission while his crew uses parts of the ship to construct a communication device to ask for orders. During the downtime, with some truly wince-worthy 1950s slut-shaming courtship, Captain Adams somehow wins the heart of Altaira, who falls for it and defies her father and becomes engaged to the captain. Crushed by the betrayal, Morbius’ control of the monster wanes, and it attacks and defeats him. His world asunder, Morbius decides in his dying moments to scuttle the entire planet, including all traces of the Krell. From a safe observing distance in space, Adams, Altaira, and the surviving crew watch the explosion before heading back to Earth.

The movie presents one answer to a long-standing astronomical question,

“With 400 billion stars in our galaxy, and 400 billion galaxies in the observable universe, and billions of years of time since the start of the universe, even if only a very small fraction of stars produced advanced civilizations, where the hell is everybody? Why does space seem so devoid of life?

This question is commonly known as the Fermi Paradox. It’s not really a paradox in the logical sense, so it works better in discussions to call it the Fermi question. Continue reading