Brain Bugs

Written: 2002-04-27
Last Revised: 2002-05-27

"Brain bugs" is my personal term for ideas which are implanted in the collective consciousness of sci-fi fans. They enter through the ears ... and warp themselves around the cerebral cortex. This has the effect of making the victim extremely susceptible to ... suggestion. As they grow ... follows madness. And- oh, I'm sorry, am I quoting Khan again? Anyway, these ideas start as an insignificant microbe and then grow of their own accord, gradually infecting the mind like a malignant tumour.

This is generally not a problem with a sci-fi series that is authored (or at least closely directed) by one man. However, Star Trek is a collaborative effort spanning several decades and dozens (perhaps hundreds) of different writers, not to mention different producers. In many cases, the writers grew up as fans of earlier series, which meant that throw-away items from those earlier series became brain bugs in their minds. They infected the minds of the viewing public (including these writers), where they grew and festered for years into bloated, monstrous masses of diseased tissue. The result was that with each spin-off, minor elements of earlier series were blown completely out of proportion and became self-sustaining mythologies in their own right. In this document, I will discuss some of these brain bugs.

Jeffries Tubes

In the original show, we discovered that some of the ship's systems could only be accessed through a cumbersome "Jeffries tube". The transporters appeared to be chief among these systems, and there were several episodes in which Scotty or Spock laboured feverishly in the tube in order to beat a deadline. This in itself was not too objectionable, and could perhaps be chalked up to a design oversight. After all, we saw numerous systems which were not located in tubes, particularly in Main Engineering, the phaser control room, etc.

However, unimaginative fans saw this one damned tube and leapt to the ridiculous conclusion that all important systems in a Star Trek ship were accessed through such tubes. Some of those fans were writers, and 20 years later when TNG hit the airwaves, the little brain bug had grown ... and grown ... and grown. Throughout TNG, DS9, and Voyager, we were continually treated to the sight of high-ranking officers (where the hell are all the technicians?) crawling through 24th century ductwork, looking for "access panels" through which virtually the entirety of the ship's systems were routed. By the time we were done, any truly important maintenance could only be done in those damned tubes.

Think about it; why would you put access panels to most of the ship's systems in these ridiculous tubes? Why not have them in large rooms where they could be easily accessed, easily guarded, and maintenance activities could be easily overseen by on-duty personnel and/or security cameras? How much harder would be to sabotage a Federation ship if important "access panels" were invariably in guarded and fully manned rooms rather than unguarded, narrow crawlspaces snaking all throughout the ship? How much would this "shapeshifter threat" in DS9 have been worth if not for these idiotic tubes?

Is there a logical reason to envision Star Trek ships this way? Of course not; it's a gigantic brain bug, grown from the insignificant tick of the lone access tube seen in the original show.

Exploding Bridge Consoles

In the beginning of Star Trek 2, we see the Kobayashi Maru training simulation in the pre-holodeck era. In the simulation, battle damage was simulated by having bridge consoles explode in a spectacular but harmless shower of sparks. Bridge officers would recoil from the flash and pretend to die. Of course, we all knew that this was not a very realistic simulation. After all, numerous battles in the original series caused casualties throughout the rest of the ship, but the consoles never exploded! Electric shock was about the most somebody might have possibly expected. Surely no one would be stupid enough to watch the Kobayashi Maru combat simulation in ST2 and conclude that exploding consoles are the principal cause of death for bridge personnel, would they?

Unfortunately, nobody thought to explain this to the writers. Fast forward to TNG. The seemingly harmless brain bug has grown into the bizarre design concept that every bridge console appears to be lined with C-4. In combat, bridge consoles routinely explode and spray their users with lethal shrapnel. Does this make sense? Of course not. It's such an obviously silly idea that lethal exploding bridge consoles have become a running joke among Trekkies. But it's also become Trek tradition, so in the Berman era, the most dangerous explosive in the galaxy seems to be a bridge console. Chalk up another victory for the brain bugs!

Starfleet Academy

In the original series, we hear numerous references to Kirk's days at Starfleet Academy. He's the captain of the ship, so he obviously went through officer training, and that means he must have gone to the Academy, right? Of course. The writers never explicitly mentioned anyone going through basic training, but surely no one would be stupid enough to assume that there's no such thing as basic training just because no one mentioned it, right?

No such luck. In TNG and beyond, every single member of the crew went to the Academy! No more basic training in the 24th century. Chief petty officer Miles O'Brien, for example, went through Starfleet Academy, but chief petty officer is an enlisted rating, not a commissioned officer's rank. Nobody thought to mention basic training in the original series, and the brain bug that resulted from that omission led to a ridiculous state of affairs in TNG and beyond, where the entire crew of the ship apparently had to go through the Academy.

Klingon Vikings

In the original series, the Klingons were an aggressive military superpower with expansionist ambitions. In the Cold War politics of the time, they obviously represented the USSR, while the Romulans just as obviously represented Red China. They appeared little different from us; they could be violent, aggressive, sly, cloying, or deceptive, just like us. But at the end of "Errand of Mercy", Kor reflected wistfully upon the grand battle that never was: "it would have been glorious!" Oh, from such humble beginnings did such a vast mythology grow ...

For some 20 years, it was widely understood that the Klingons were symbolically Russian communists, and throughout even the TOS movies, this theme remained clear. Kor's single line of dialogue did not figure too prominently in the fans' assessment of Klingon culture. But the TNG writers got it in their heads that Cold War politics were no longer appropriate in the politically correct 1990s, so they decided to rewrite the Klingons. What did they base the rewrite on? Kor's single line of dialogue. Kor mentioned his wistful desire for a "glorious" battle royale, and the ancient Vikings believed that death in battle was "glorious". That's enough of a connection for a brain bug; the writers decided that the Klingons had a similar history to our own, and that there were ancient Vikings in their past too. Naturally, the fans went along for the ride.

Time for this brain bug to start growing. In "Heart of Glory", Worf ran into Korris, a Klingon social reactionary who wanted to return to the bygone era of ancient warrior values. No big deal, right? This brain bug has grown as far as it's going to grow, right?

Wrong. Nobody seemed to notice that Korris was a dinosaur even among his own people. They noticed only that this was a cool new aspect of Klingon culture, so the writers grabbed this assumption and ran with it. They proceeded to construct an entire society around the notion that the Klingons were futuristic Vikings. The Viking contempt for a "straw death" became the Klingon contempt for a straw death (peaceful death away from battle). The Viking glorification of death in battle became the Klingon glorification of death in battle. The Viking raider ships became the Klingon Birds of Prey (which rapidly became the Klingons' principal combat vessel). Valhalla, the great hall of Viking warriors in the afterlife, became Stovokor, the great hall of Klingon warriors in the afterlife. The great feasts in Valhalla became the great feasts of Stovokor. They somewhat liberalized Klingon government (in which the Chancellor's daughter took control of the Empire in ST6) reverted to the Vikings' strict patriarchal society in which women were treated as chattel and not permitted to hold rank or power (the only two that tried were the Duras sisters, who were naturally portrayed as evil). The Vikings' patriarchal religion, with its patriarchal pantheon, became the Klingons' patriarchal religion (albeit mutated to conform to Judeo-Christian values, so it centred on a lone male prophet). The militarization of their society became so exaggerated that their battle armour became everyday clothes; while Klingon dignitaries wore leather in ST6, Klingon politicians wear full military body armour even in the highest offices of their own government in TNG.

The writers even resurrected the Vikings' primitive melee weapons, arming Klingons with large, gleaming bladed weapons that became more and more prominent in their fighting style until they seemed to constitute the Klingons' primary combat weapon by the time of DS9. Even the animism associated with some of the ancient Nordic pagan rituals returned. The Klingons were transformed from civilized people into animalistic predators who ate raw meat, growled ferally during lovemaking or when threatened, and treated the act of hunting not as a method of gathering food or as a sport, but as an eroticized ritual. Their appearance, altered for the TOS movies in order to make them look more alien, was altered again, in order to further this sub-human characterization. Look carefully at the teeth of Klingons in the TOS movies ST3 and ST6; they look just like human teeth, don't they? But in TNG, they began to look more and more like the teeth of wolves: sharp, jagged, and pointed every which way. From one scene in ST6 where a Klingon eats something with his hands (something which is entirely appropriate today with certain types of foods, and which can be easily chalked up to cultural awkwardness), the writers decided that Klingons are feral eaters too, and TNG-era Klingons eat the way my dog would, if only he had opposable thumbs.

What started as an enemy superpower with a mysterious but familiar alien culture became a farcical one-note alien society concocted around comic-book interpretations of ancient Norsemen and a not-so-subtle, rather disturbing white supremacist theme of subhuman, dark-skinned uncivilized savages. Before too long, it became a caricature of itself: Worf's pathetic obsession with the most garish aspects of Klingon history became the entirety of Klingon culture. It got so bad that we eventually saw the leadership of the entire Klingon Empire decided by a knife fight! I personally nominate this particular brain bug as a strong competitor for the Jeffries tubes' position as the most powerful brain bug in Star Trek.

Greedy, Cowardly Ferengi

In "The Last Outpost", we were introduced to the Ferengi. Gene Roddenberry originally envisioned the Ferengi as the Federation's primary foe, to take the place of the Klingons and Romulans. This was part of the sea change in Star Trek's underlying theme, which was being revised from the 1960's Cold War to a left-wing liberal tirade against consumerism and capitalism. But the Ferengi were not simply greedy; they were powerful, mysterious, and dangerous. The very first Ferengi warship we ever saw was powerful enough to dice with the Federation's biggest, most powerful battleship, and its crew was highly aggressive. Despite their small stature, they were able to surprise and defeat a Federation landing party on the ground. Their appearance may have been odd, but these were clearly not people to be trifled with.

When they reappeared in "Peak Performance", they were similarly threatening. They dropped out of warp at point blank range, opened fire on the USS Enterprise, and promptly disabled most of its combat systems. They demanded the surrender of the derelict USS Hathaway, and when Picard (seemingly) destroyed it rather than surrender it, the Ferengi captain grudgingly complimented him by saying that "I did not think the Federation had such iron!" A rather warrior-like sentiment, is it not? Similarly, Picard once recounted the story of how he lost his previous command, after his ship was reduced to a flaming wreck by a Ferengi warship. This is a far cry from the cowardly Ferengi of DS9, isn't it? But in every appearance, the Ferengi made reference to a profit motive, and that was more than enough to plant the brain bug.

By the time the Ferengi showed up on DS9, their interest in profit had grown to encompass their entire culture. They were suddenly interested in nothing but the accumulation of wealth, and the writers' desire to simplify every alien society into a one-note joke meant that any non-financial elements of their society (including the strong martial tradition that was obvious from their initial appearance in TNG) vanished without a trace. Now, they were a laughingstock in combat, and they made frequent disparaging references to their own combat ineptitude. When Nog elected to join the Federation military, the decision was treated with shock, contempt, and derision by his relatives because Ferengi are businessmen, not soldiers. When Quark went on a mission to rescue his mother, they found a single Ferengi mercenary who was good with weapons, and the others acted as if he was some kind of freakish anomaly. What happened to the heavily armed Ferengi warships we saw in TNG? Did the writers suffer a massive collective amnesia attack?

As time went by, this brain bug continued to grow. Not only was greed now the only defining characteristic of Ferengi society, but the writers figured they were on a roll, so they even made it the Ferengi religion! Instead of the Ten Commandments, the Ferengi had the "Rules of Acquisition", with which the viewers were bludgeoned with constant reminders of Ferengi greed. Instead of "astral plane" or "holy ghost", they had the "Great Material Continuum". We were told that the Ferengi had no loyalty to anything but money; not to friends, not to family, not to king and country. No one ever managed to explain how a society could possibly function along these lines, but no matter; the writers obviously had no interest in constructing an interesting or multi-faceted alien society for the Ferengi. Far from it; instead, they seemed to be interested in reducing it to a single element, just as they had done for the Klingons. By the time they were done, another society had been transformed into a farcical one-note caricature by the unfettered growth of a brain bug. Planted in TNG, and grown to the proportions of Jack's famous beanstalk in DS9.

Borg Assimilation

When we were first introduced to the Borg in "Q Who", they appeared to be a race of cyborg techno-scavengers. There was no hint of assimilation; we saw birthing rooms where baby drones were being grown in incubators, and Q explained that they were not interested in humans, or the Federation. They wanted only the Enterprise. They were technological "users", who apparently wandered space in search of useful technology to take from its owners by force. They validated Q's claims in that episode by demonstrating their interest in technology over organic life, when their only reaction to the death of a comrade was to take some important bits of his technology back with them.

But in "Best of Both Worlds", one of the writers had the bright idea of making the Borg kidnap Picard and then assimilate him while aboard their ship, thus setting up one of the best best cliff-hangers in Star Trek history. The situation was resolved (although Star Trek: Insurrection suggests that there may have been lasting brain damage from the incident), but the brain bug was planted. The Borg assimilate people! Of course, they only did it to one person, and they had to beam onto the Enterprise, knock him out, beam him back to their ship, and then surgically alter him in order to make it happen, but they did it nonetheless, and that was more than enough for the brain bug.

Fast forward to STFC: the writers get the bright idea that if a little bit of assimilation is good, then a lot of assimilation will be better. Where once they were interested in assimilating Federation technology, they were now interested only in assimilating people. Consider the plot of the film; when their attack failed and they were forced to go to plan B, they tried to prevent the technological development of the human race in order to assimilate it! They would have erased the very technology that they were supposedly interested in! But of course, their interest in technology was just part of their original concept, and all of that was washed away by the big brain bug.

Now, instead of assimilating key personnel in order to facilitate their goal of turning humans into a slave race ("to service us") and stealing all of the Federation's technology, assimilation is the entire raison d'etre of their society! All of a sudden, they're friggin' vampires! They lurch through the corridors of the Enterprise-E like extras from Night of the Living Dead, and when they seize their prey, they sink their fangs, er- "assimilation tubules" into their necks, leaving two nice little fang-marks, er- "assimilation tubule punctures". Instead of assimilating their victims through surgical procedures (as in "Best of Both Worlds"), they pollute your blood with nanoprobes (more parallels with vampires, who drink some of your blood and leave the rest in an undead state). Best of all, when you kill the head vampire, er- "Borg Queen", all of the other vampires, er- "drones" die too.

By the time the Voyager writers were done, the Borg were utterly useless, unable to learn or analyze or think for themselves. Their only means of technological advancement was to assimilate technology that they did not already have, and if they could not assimilate (eg- Species 8472), they were totally helpless. They actually needed Voyager to defeat Species 8472 for them! Yet another case of a brain bug turning an alien society into a farcical one-note joke.

Whither Trek Brain Bugs?

So why does this happen? Why do brain bugs grow like that? What makes them move in the directions that they do? My personal suspicion is that it's an inevitable side-effect of having so many writers. When one man creates a fictional universe himself, as is the case with authors such as Heinlein, Tolkien, or Herbert and writer-filmmakers such as George Lucas, this doesn't tend to happen. The universe doesn't start to model itself after the lowest common fan denominator.

But when you have armies of writers and successive groups of producers, you get a writers' version of the old "telephone game". Do you remember the telephone game from grade-school? All of the kids would sit in a circle. The first kid would whisper something in the second kid's ear, who would turn around and whisper it to the third kid, and so on. By the time it came back to the first kid, the message had completely changed. Similarly, when you have many writers working on one show, each new writer tries to interpret the work of the writers that came before, and then extrapolate from it.

It's easy to see how this works like that old grade-school telephone game. Writer #1 creates a fictional universe. Writer #2 creates a story set in his interpretation of Writer #1's fictional universe. Writer #3 creates a story which is set in his interpretation of Writer #1's fictional universe, and which attempts to continue his interpretation of the story written by Writer #2. Writer #4 tries to write a story which is consistent with the story written by Writer #3, and which is set in his interpretation of Writer #1's fictional universe, but he's not too familiar with the story made by Writer #2 because he never saw it. It's pretty obvious that by the time you get to writer #50, you've got a real mess on your hands.

But this mess is not entirely random, unlike the telephone game. People have a tendency to simplify concepts in their minds because, well, it's easier that way. We see this most prominently in the case of racial stereotyping, where racists simplify an entire human race into one or two key characteristics. It seems to be an innate tendency that can only be solved through education, which may help explain why racism tends to be inversely correlated to education level. The same mentality which drives racism seems to drive many of these brain bugs. Rather than think critically or thoroughly, it's easier to seize upon the most visible or interesting characteristic and then simplify the situation so that nothing remains but that lone characteristic. And in the Berman-Braga age, simple-minded thinking is the order of the day.

General Sci-fi Brain Bugs

Of course, brain bugs aren't unique to Star Trek. Sci-fi writers from various genres and franchises tend to notice each others' work and emulate certain themes, and the result is very similar: an idea sprouts, gets simplified into a parody of itself, grows out of control, and then becomes universally accepted even though it's stupid.

Organic technology

In sci-fi nowadays, virtually all truly advanced technology seems to be "organic". From Tin Man in Star Trek to the Vorlons and Shadows in B5 and now, the latest additions to the Star Wars "extended universe" (which has obviously been polluted by sci-fi chic), the theme is omnipresent and inescapable: bio-technology is vastly superior to primitive heavy metal technologies. The motivation for this theme is tinged with human conceit; could it be that we simply want to believe that organic life is vastly superior to any piece of technology, because we refuse to accept that we are an insignificant organic speck in the history of the universe? Because like it or not, we are an insignificant speck in the history of the universe. If the time between the Big Bang and the formation of our solar system were one day, the entirety of human history would take place in less than one second, before lunch on the second day.

Either way, the popularity of the organic technology myth is somewhat baffling. One of the most baffling parts is the fact that it is assumed to be more "advanced". Here's a question for you: when did we produce the first armoured vehicle? Was it in World War 1, with the tank? Or was it centuries earlier, with the mounted knight? Did you know that the mounted knight was made possible through selective horse breeding (ie- organic technology), which produced horses big and strong enough to carry the heavy armoured riders into battle? Do you believe that sheepdogs were always like that? Dogs and horses could both be described as examples of bio-technological tools, engineered by humans for specific tasks through the use of applied evolutionary scientific principles (even if they didn't have a name for them at the time). Bio-weapons are nothing new either, having been used since at least medieval times (besieging armies would catapult diseased carcasses into a fortress). And what about bio-armour? Sorry, but all I can say is "been there, done that". Wooden ships had bio-armour, remember? Would you seriously want to pit bio-armour against the 120mm smoothbore gun of an M-1 Abrams? There is a reason we switched to steel, people! Think about it.

At no time have we ever seen a shred of evidence that biological systems can realistically supplant wholly artificial technologies in applications such as large-scale power generation, armour, naval or aircraft propulsion, military weaponry, bridges and buildings, etc. In fact, all of those technologies were developed to replace biological systems! Biological systems are chemically reactive and structurally feeble in comparison to metals and ceramics, and both of these characteristics can spell doom for a starship. Furthermore, there are strict limits to how much this will ever change, because chemical reactivity is a prerequisite for life! Moreover, living cells requires a constant supply of nutrients, which means that all living cells must always be semi-permeable. Compare this to a massive, inert piece of metallic or ceramic/metal composite armour, and you can quickly see the problem for organics.

"But biological organisms can self-repair!" some might say. However, they are far more easily injured in the first place, and the kind of attack that a biological organism can repair won't even scratch the surface of a metallic armoured vehicle. "But biology is the most powerful force this planet has ever known!" some might say. Sorry, but that's one of those non-literal figures of speech, like "the pen is mightier than the sword" or "faith can move mountains". Nuclear fusion (particularly from the Sun) is far more powerful. "But the roots of a tree can push up sidewalks!" some might say. Sorry, but it's no big deal to push up a sidewalk. A sidewalk is just stones laying on gravel and dirt, and the routine thermal contraction and expansion of the ground every winter destroys more sidewalk slabs and miles of pavement than tree roots ever could.

Organic technology is good for medical applications (obviously, since we are organic) and bioweapons are certainly dangerous (although they're also fraught with difficulties). However, the idea of organic space combat vehicles and high-powered propulsion and/or weapons systems is just silly. Even organic computers are a highly questionable idea in sci-fi, since we are already researching quantum computing today, and quantum computing operates on a smaller scale than organics can. Sci-fi writers and fans who tout the omnipotence of organic technology tend to identify areas in which it is superior, while ignoring all of the areas in which it is vastly inferior. As usual, they simplify variables out of the equation, and the remaining oversimplified idea becomes a brain bug.

"Captain, I'm picking up an approaching ship."

"What can you tell me about it?"

"Oh my God, it's organic! What are we going to do, Captain?"

"There's not much we can do, Ensign. Organic technology is so far beyond our grasp that we can't even imagine the power they must have. All we have is high-powered guns, nuclear missiles, and our primitive metallic armour. What are you reading from their incredibly advanced bio-ship?"

"Their ship is soft and flexible. Its construction materials are semi-permeable and laced with a network of delicate circulation passages. Instead of using impermeable high-density materials, it's made from countless tiny thin-walled cells which tend to rapidly break down in the presence of corrosive chemicals or radiation."

"What? And we were supposed to be afraid of this? Open fire!"

SQUISH ...

Evolutionary Transfigurations

Evolution is a slow process: one which is poorly understood by the general population, particularly in America, where more than half of the population expressed support for "creation theory" (a deceptive term which implies that creationism is a scientific theory) in CNN and Time polls. If you're an American and you're offended by that, I don't mean it as a national insult; more of a commiseration. There are a lot of creationists up here in Canada too; in fact, there's one or two in my office (although I can debate them into the ground, so they don't bother trying to convince me).

In any case, any animal population contains significant built-in variation. Over many generations, certain variations will be favoured by natural, artificial, or sexual selection. Those variations will become dominant, thus changing the makeup of the population and also the range of variation. Over a large number of generations and successive changes, major structural change can occur. Sufficiently large changes can make the population intersterile (ie- incapable of breeding) with other populations with which it was once compatible, thus causing evolutionary speciation.

Unfortunately, many science fiction writers seem to have no idea how evolution works, to say nothing of speciation. In their minds, structural change takes place through a miraculous transformation (bathed in white light, of course) rather than a gradual selection of preferred (and pre-existing) variants. In Star Trek, a species "evolves" to the next step in its evolutionary development by undergoing a dramatic transfiguration; in fact, there was a TNG episode called "transfigurations" in which we saw precisely that: a humanoid male who miraculously transformed into a being of white light and then floated away.

Star Trek is not the only offender. Babylon5 had an entire planetary civilization which was about to undergo such a transfiguration, but they were trapped on the cusp of their change by a soul hunter (don't ask). In these cases, we have individuals or whole populations which undergo an abrupt, dramatic change from their forebears, often in the midst of their lives (rather than simply being part of a genetic sub-group which differs from the median). This is not evolution, ladies and gentlemen! In fact, it is the opposite of evolution.

So where does this brain bug come from? Well, to put it bluntly, it comes from creationism. The creationist mentality of scientific ignorance and miracles finds itself a new mouthpiece in sci-fi, where biological change occurs in dramatic, abrupt metamorphoses before your very eyes (and always bathed in white light). It doesn't take a genius to see where this theme comes from. Worse yet, Babylon5 showed us humanity 1 million years in the future, and (surprise, surprise), we have become "energy beings", floating ethereally through space in our transcendent glory. The only thing missing was the harp.

Gravitics

Gravity is an extremely weak force, but you wouldn't know that if you read a lot of sci-fi, where "gravitic technology" typically rules the day. Electromagnetics are "primitive", or so the sci-fi writers would have us believe. If you want to show how powerful your sci-fi civilization really is, then make them use "gravitics" everywhere. Gravitic propulsion, gravitic weapons, gravitics defenses, etc. But does this make sense? Let us compare gravitics with electromagnetism:

Electromagnetics

Gravitics

Affects particles with charge, irrespective of mass

Affects particles with mass, irrespective of charge

From Coulomb's Law, resultant force Is proportional to the product of charges divided by r² and then multiplied by the constant value of 8.99E9 N·m²/C². Two charges of 1 C, separated by 1 m, will produce 9E9 N of force.

From Newton's Law of Gravitation, resultant force is proportional to the product of masses divided by r² and then multiplied by the constant value of 6.67E-11 m³/(s²·kg). Two masses of 5.68E-12 kg (1 coulomb worth of electrons), separated by 1 m, will produce 2.15E-33 N of force.


No, that second row is not a misprint. One coulomb worth of electrons will generate an astounding 4.2E42 times more force through electromagnetism than gravity! Of course, electrons have a very high ratio of charge to mass so you might be tempted to call that an anomaly, but the ratio is huge for protons too: 1.2E36.

You need not crunch numbers like this in order to appreciate the power of electromagnetics. Simply look at the world around you; why do solid objects exist? Why do we have enormous rocky structures such as Mount Everest, that tower five miles above sea level despite the pull of gravity? Simply by existing, Mount Everest is defying gravity, to the tune of suspending billions of tons of rock miles above sea level. And what allows it to do this? Why, its solidity, of course. And what gives it solidity? Electromagnetics.

Think about it: the only reason your body holds together instead of dispersing into a cloud of gas is electromagnetism. Solid matter is characterized by particular kinds of chemical bonds (ionic, covalent, metallic), and these bonds are electromagnetic phenomena, based on the attraction of protons to electrons. In fact, the only reason solid objects can't pass through one another is the mutual electrostatic repulsion between their electrons at close range! As Feynman pointed out, when you throw yourself off a tall building, gravity accelerates you downwards at 1 G, but when you hit the ground, electromagnetism will abruptly decelerate you at many thousands of G (a rate which would be even higher if not for the flexibility of your body and the ground). As the old saying goes, the fall doesn't kill you, but the landing will.

So where does this brain bug come from? Paradoxically, the only reason people think gravity is stronger than electromagnetism is that gravity is so weak. It is so weak that a human being can easily overcome the gravitational attraction of an entire planet, eg- by throwing a ball up in the air and watching gravity pull it back down, so we intuitively perceive its action. We do not intuitively perceive the action of electromagnetism in the natural world because of its sheer pervasiveness and strength: its manifestations (eg- solidity, chemical reactions) seem immutable to us, so we assume that they are not the result of invisible forces.

In fact, much of the scientifically ignorant lay population is incapable of intellectually grasping the concept of constant applied force without work (they insist on anthropomorphisizing physics, by assuming that if it takes effort for a human to exert force, it must take effort for atoms to do it too). This throws up yet another burdle to public understanding of the power of electromagnetism. The average person is either unwilling or unable to recognize that he owes his solidity to invisible forces constantly pushing and pulling against all of the tiny particles in his body. But make no mistake: electromagnetism is what gives us substance. Every time we build a skyscraper, we are using electromagnetism to defeat gravity, even if we don't realize it.

So if electromagnetism is so great, why can't we electromagnetically generate artificial gravity? The answer is that electric charge can be either positive or negative, so the protons and electrons in a typical object cancel out at long distances. At microscopic ranges they are imbalanced because the electrons of adjacent atoms are closer together than the protons, hence solidity and all other chemical interactions. Gravity, on the other hand, acts on mass regardless of charge (and we have never observed negative mass), so if you have billions upon billions of tons of matter, you will exert significant force. But there's the rub: you need billions upon billions of tons of matter. The relationship between mass and gravitational attraction is fundamental; there is no evidence whatsoever that it can be arbitrarily altered, any more than we can arbitrarily change the strength of electromagnetic force to effortlessly convert solid objects into plasma.

In sci-fi, it is presumed that if you could focus and reshape gravitational fields, you would be nigh-omnipotent. One person wrote to me once to mention something called a "gravitic wedge" (I'm guessing it was portrayed as some kind of "ultimate weapon" in some cheesy techno-masturbatory sci-fi novel or fanfic). But even if you could arbitrarily focus and reshape gravitational fields, a starship simply doesn't have enough mass to generate gravitational fields of sufficient strength to be noticeable.

If we're going to grant ourselves the ability to focus and manipulate forcefields to such a fine degree, why not use electromagnetism instead? If you could generate a negatively charged plane wall, even with a tiny fraction of the total charge bound up in a typical starship's mass, it would cleanly slice any solid object in half. Similarly, gravitic "shields" are a silly idea; even the gravity field of an entire planet or star will only decelerate incoming objects at a few G, but if we could make a negatively charged "bubble" around a starship, incoming missiles would crash into it just as if it were a solid object. And even artificial gravity need not be based on actual gravity; the rotating-ship concept uses simple kinematics, and our imaginary sci-fi race with fine control over electromagnetism could slightly polarize objects in order to make them respond more strongly to magnetic fields (believe it or not, electrically neutral atoms or even neutrons have tiny magnetic moments which can be used in order to confine them electromagnetically; see Wolfgang Paul's Nobel Lecture of December 8, 1989).

In short, if we had the power to arbitrarily manipulate gravitational or electromagnetic fields with the precision and flexibility typically described in sci-fi, I'd rather have the electromagnetic fields. As a weapon, it would be absolutely devastating, and it wouldn't require billions upon billions of tons of mass. Unfortunately, it's not exotic enough. Familiarity breeds contempt, and the existence of real electromagnetic technology seems to disqualify it for sci-fi. This was not always the case; in fact, the 1950s classic "War of the Worlds" portrayed Martians who made use of an "electromagnetic blister" shield system. But modern sci-fi chic has latched onto "gravitic" technology for precisely the same reasons that it shouldn't be taken seriously: it doesn't make sense. And since it doesn't make sense, sci-fi fans seem to believe that it must be better (think of it as Arthur C. Clarke's law in reverse).

Star Wars has historically avoided these kinds of pitfalls for the simple reason that no one in the canon movies ever talks about how the technology works. Say what you will about Star Wars dialogue, but no Star Wars character will ever force the audience to endure one of Lt. Cmdr. Data's long-winded explanations of how to use a meaningless technobabble solution to solve a meaningless technobabble problem. There was also a time that Babylon 5 seemed to be ahead of the pack in terms of realism, but somewhere between its beginning and end, it adopted the same "organic ships" and "gravitic propulsion" nonsense that you'll find everywhere else.

Exploding Fusion Reactors

Why do fusion reactors explode? This brain bug is virtually universal to all science fiction. Whether it's Star Wars, Star Trek, Babylon 5, or Aliens, the consistent message is that reactors are bombs in disguise. Damage them, and you'll get an enormous multi-megaton explosion. You might even get many hours of warning (thanks to the Ticking Time Bomb™ cliché).

But why would this happen? Does anyone stop to ask why fusion reactors should be so volatile? It is extremely difficult to maintain a fusion reaction, and it requires an enormous input of energy to do so. In fact, thermonuclear weapons must use a nuclear fission bomb in order to cause the fusion reaction! The Sun must use enormous pressure (from gravity) to compress plasma to many times the density of lead! Why would these conditions intensify on their own if the reactor is damaged, when the biggest engineering hurdle to nuclear fusion is achieving them in the first place?

This brain bug is incredibly pervasive; ships in sci-fi always explode when severely damaged. To be honest, I'm at something of a loss to know why. There is certainly no parallel in real life; naval vessels very rarely explode. The infamous HMS Hood is the only example that springs to mind; most warships sink from taking in water, but they don't explode. The same is true for nuclear vessels; even a nuclear submarine which suffers an absolutely devastating catastrophe (such as a torpedo going off inside the tube) doesn't explode like a nuclear bomb; it just sinks.
So where does this brain bug come from? I don't think it's from real life, and I see no techno-masturbatory or religious angle. Therefore, I can only imagine that its roots lie in fiction clichés. But if you look back through the history of action and sci-fi movies, this isn't a constant by any means. The cheesiest Flash Gordon movies had ships exploding like firecrackers of course, but if you look at big-budget movies such as War of the Worlds, crippled ships simply stop working. Perhaps it started with James Bond, in which the Exploding Supervillain Lair™ has become a standard. In any case, it's become a rather tiresome cliché, and it would be nice to see some variation from this theme.


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