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Galactica's science guru

How does a naked singularity work? What happens when a spacecraft gets stressed-out? Answering such questions is all in a day's work for Kevin Grazier, the scientific adviser for the critically acclaimed TV series "Battlestar Galactica."

Over the course of five years, the planetary scientist has figured out how to juggle his day job on the Cassini science team at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory as well as his duties for "Battlestar Galactica" and other sci-fi projects. But even though Galactica is gearing up for its last ride tonight, Grazier still hasn't completely figured out how the spaceship manages to travel faster than light.

"If I knew exactly how it worked, I'd be going to Stockholm for my Nobel," Grazier joked.

Actually, Grazier and his co-author, Wired contributing editor Patrick di Justo, are working out the details of Galactica's FTL drive for a book due to come out this fall, titled "The Science of Battlestar Galactica." The book will also delve into how artificial gravity just might work (using graviton generators?) and discuss how low a population can go before it's doomed.

That last point is particularly germane to "Battlestar Galactica" - which is built on the premise that humanity has become an endangered species, hunted down by the very machines created by humans. The current series is a "reimagining" of the 1978 sci-fi TV series by the same name, but with a darker, post-9/11 tone. (Here's a recap from the start of the current season.)

"'Galactica' discussed in a very frank and open way a lot of things that are relevant for today: terrorism, prisoner torture, abuse of power by the government," Grazier said. Neither side is totally good or totally evil. In fact, the humans occasionally come off as badder bad guys than the humanlike Cylon machines they're fighting - which might lead some viewers to wonder whether this species is worth saving.

The show's strains of moral ambivalence have attracted comparisons to the war in Iraq and, more recently, the stalemate in Gaza. That topicality is no doubt why the United Nations invited the stars and fans of "Galactica" to participate in a panel discussion about the show at U.N. headquarters this week.

"We don't like to confront these issues in our lives, but they are real," Robert Orr, the U.N. assistant secretary-general for policy planning, was quoted as saying in io9's account of the event. "If a show can get us thinking about it and talking about it, then amen, because it isn't easy."

By most accounts, tonight's two-hour finale on the Sci Fi Channel brings the series to a satisfying end, although you can also find a dissenting (spoiler-ish) view. For fans, there will be plenty of tears tonight. "Pretty much everybody has been choked up by it," Grazier told me. "It'll definitely be a case of 'Set Tissues to Defcon 1.'"

But it won't be the end of the 13 Colonies' grand saga. In addition to the Grazier-di Justo book, there's a stand-alone TV/DVD movie in the works titled "The Plan," which tells the Cylons' side of the story (and answers some of the questions that couldn't be resolved in the series finale). Sci Fi has also given the green light for a "Galactica" prequel series, titled "Caprica."

Grazier hasn't yet been asked to consult on "Caprica," but he has more than enough to keep him busy. He's consulting on other TV projects such as Sci Fi's "Eureka," in addition to his day job as a scientist and engineer working on the Cassini mission to Saturn. Right now he and his colleagues at JPL are planning the orbiter's trajectory going out to the year 2017.

This week, Grazier took some time out to discuss "Galactica" science, including two of the more recent plot twists: A few episodes ago, Galactica's crew discovered that the battlestar was starting to break apart, and they tried to use a biomaterial developed by the Cylons to strengthen the ship's hull. Then, in last week's installment, scouts from Galactica located the Cylons' main colony, right in the middle of an accretion disk swirling around a naked singularity. All this sets the scene for tonight's series-ending battle.

Here's an edited transcript of the Q&A:

Cosmic Log: Now we know that the Cylon colony is orbiting a naked singularity - is there anything you had to deal with scientifically to get the details right?

Kevin Grazier: The original script I saw from Ron [Moore, the show's executive producer and the writer for the final episodes] already had the colony in the accretion disk of a black hole, a singularity. And as far as it being called a naked singularity, I think that Ron was really trying to avoid the use of the word "black hole." I don't know why, this is just an impression. But as far as the black hole being a naked singularity, the way it's written, it's not really integral to the plot. An accretion disk is an accretion disk. It's a good place to put a colony, if you don't mind getting hammered by the occasional impact. It's not a place that's easy to attack. It's easily defensible, let's put it that way.

Q: I suppose the thing about using the term "black hole" is that people have a particular image of a black hole, and the writers wanted to avoid that whole issue of worrying about falling into the black hole.

A: The fact of the matter is that people believe a black hole is this all-sucking object that gulps down anything in its path or nearby, and you can't orbit it. But you can. As long as you're far enough away, you can orbit and be fine - at least, gravitationally. Now, Starbuck did mention that if you get close enough, the tidal stress will tear Galactica apart - and given its compromised state, that's not unreasonable. But the fact that you can orbit a black hole, I think, is counterintuitive to many people.

Q: So I guess that would be a bit of an astronomy lesson for some people.

A: Indeed. And, you know, a naked singularity is a black hole without an event horizon. I included a discussion of the event horizon in my notes for the show. If the singularity does have an event horizon, and an event horizon is the distance at which the escape velocity becomes the speed of light, what are the implications for FTL-capable ships?

Q: What did you have to say on that point?

A: I said that we'd have to worry about the tidal stresses long before the event horizon becomes an issue. You can jump away. ... My point is that we sometimes discuss things in greater detail than you'll ever see on screen.

Q: Another twist that came out in the most recent shows had to do with the Cylon biomaterial that was being painted onto Galactica's hull. Were there any details you had to address there?

A: We didn't really go into great detail. I did do some research on that to see whether there way anything I could add, and there wasn't much. There is a lot of research being done into coatings on vehicles that could heal scratches, things of that nature.

My feeling is that if there's something that we're developing right now, at our level of technology, then, when the Cylons are thinking about it, they have their CPUs running 24/7. We have to sleep, we have to recreate, we have to go home and eat. So if the Cylons think about it, they may be able to move in technological directions much faster than we can. "If they think about it" - that's a key caveat. Intuition, ingenuity is something that is hard to accomplish when it comes to artificial intelligence.

Q: Are there other scientific issues that either gave you fits on "Battlestar," or that you feel proudest about?

A: There are a lot of things that I was really happy about. Sometimes they're only a blip on the screen. In my notes, I pointed out that Galactica would probably break up in "the Adama Maneuver" [which involved having the battlestar fall through the atmosphere over a planet called New Caprica]. I said I'd be remiss in my job of science adviser if I didn't point out that Galactica would break up in that situation. I didn't care what it was made of, any advanced material would still break up. It's just too big. Like the shuttle Columbia, it would shatter into a million pieces.

After that, when we find out that Galactica is in fact breaking up, I said, "Please, please include the fact that the jump into New Caprica could have done this on its own." And in fact that's implied in what Chief Tyrol says to Adama. I'm glad that got in. It says, "We didn't forget this."

Another example shows how people have been poisoned by years of bad sci-fi. In one episode, we had Tyrol and his wife Cally in an airlock. The airlock was closed inside and it was slowly leaking, and they're now looking at dying and leaving behind an orphan. The solution was to set off the explosive bolts and blow them into a waiting Raptor. Now, people who saw "Outland" or "Total Recall" said that everybody knows they'd explode. While people who saw "Sunshine" said, ah, it's too cold. They'd freeze. But neither of those things would happen.

They wouldn't burst. If you had air in your lungs, where's it going to go? Would it burst out of your chest, or would it take the path of least resistance and go out your mouth? Small things like blood vessels might burst, and your eardrums, too - and that's exactly what we see. Cally had blood vessels burst in her eyes. And you'd get the bends, which is also what we see. She's in a hyperbaric chamber, and the next day you see Tyrol moving really slowly because the bends impacted the joints. That was one case where we portrayed it correctly, and people who are used to seeing it done wrong trashed it - and quite vehemently sometimes.

Q: That episode reminded me of the movie "2001," where I think they did handle the effects of exposure to space vacuum correctly.

A: They did, and some people pointed that out. But it was drowned out by the noise on some of the boards that I read.

Another thing that we did was very subtle. At the beginning of the season, Kara shows up after supposedly dying, and she says she had a vision: The path to Earth leads through what she sees as a trinary star, a gas giant with rings, and a comet. But when you first see the vision, you don't see the rings. Later, when she's painting a picture, this time she's painting rings, and the trinary star that this planet is orbiting is occulted.

Think back to Cassini's image of the E and G rings with Saturn occulting the sun. Rings that are made of very fine particles scatter light forward, and can't be seen in what we call backscatter light. They're best seen with the sun occulted. So one of the writers came to me and said, "We need something in space that looks like one thing from one direction, and something different from another direction." And that's what it ended up being.

Q: There's an example where you must have felt as if worlds were colliding, in that your work on Cassini shed light on your work on "Battlestar."

A: "Shed light"? Pun partially intended? If I can use something from my experience, I will. I took particular delight in using that in "Galactica." And I'll tell you another fact. While it was never used in a spoken line, the word "Cassini" did appear in the script. "We see the rings of this planet, just like Cassini did..." Which was satisfying.

Interestingly enough, right after I started on the show, we had an episode where one of our pilots gets shot down on a "Titan-like moon orbiting a Saturn-like planet." And the motivation for that? Not me! It was one of the writers. It turns out that they're regular science fans in addition to being science-fiction fans.

For more about "Galactica" science, check out Grazier's blog posts on the Cinema Spy Web site. And feel free to chime in with your thoughts on sci-fi science or the "Battlestar Galactica" finale in the comment section below.