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



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.


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.


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.

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 (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:


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.


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.


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.


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


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.


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

8 reasons you (yes, you) should study sci-fi interfaces

In a recent email exchange, Olli Sulopuisto of Nonfiktio (trigger warning: Finnish) asked me a damned fine question. I’m a fan of damned fine questions, and occasionally my answers make it out into the world.

His damned fine question(s) follow(s).

…is studying movie UIs, I dunno, useful? As in—does it function as an exercise, the same as breaking down and analyzing any UI would? Have you learned something from sci-fi interfaces that would’ve been more difficult or impossible to gain by other means?

What follows is a slightly edited version of my response to him. If you’re short on time, the short answer is “Yes,” but the fun comes in the form of this longer answer.

  1. You build necessary skepticism. Scifi is so very cool that—if we watch it but don’t study it—our stupid brains want to believe because it’s so cool that it also must be good and desirable. You might want the stuff you design to be like the stuff you’ve seen in the movies, when in fact even the cool stuff (maybe especially the cool stuff) would cause disasters in the real world. So studying it critically is important to build up your design immune system, your critical eye, so you are not led astray.

I speak about this in the Gorgeous+Catastrophic talk.

Continue reading

Back on

Apologies for the long absence from the blog. I’m working on a book, a white paper, some freelance work, a workshop, some presentations, working on that award idea, being a Dad, trying to edit more blog posts that guest writers have submitted, and having careful conversations with smart people about Next Things.

But, as mentioned previously, this blog is not forgotten. And, per some recent conversations (as well as getting excited about Civil War), I did have some content I wanted to get up to restart the content engine here.

Yes, I still intend to finish The Star Wars Holiday Special. Yes, I need to finish The Avengers. In the meantime, let me post these next super-meta thoughts about Why Study Sci-Fi Interfaces? Then I’ll try and get back to the regular stuff.


A little radio silence

Apologies for the brief radio silence, readers. I’ve moved on from my prior day-job employer, and between talking to folks about a next opportunity, working on a seekrit sci-fi interfaces project in the works, and preparing for some upcoming presentations, I’ve been very strapped for time. Wrapping up SWHS as soon as I’m able, and excited about some upcoming posts from two additional contributors. Stay tuned.