Mar 18 2011

Biases in Science Fiction

Published by under General
Comments: 76

I woke up with a strange idea in my head that I wanted to get off my chest. This has to do with how we project our biases onto fiction, in this case specifically science fiction. My thought involves ship design – how would you design a ship for deep space travel?

First let’s take some common examples from science fiction, such as the Starship Enterprise. The decks of the Enterprise are oriented parallel to the direction of acceleration, which means that people standing on the decks are perpendicular and the force of acceleration would “push” them horizontal to the deck. The same is true of ships of all sizes in Star Wars, Battlestar Galactica, and many other popular science fiction shows.

I know there are exceptions. The ship in Kubrick’s 2001, A Space Odyssey had an interesting design, using a rotating doughnut to generate artificial gravity. This ship was designed, however, for relatively short interplanetary travel  and for coasting (rather than accelerating) most of the time. There are sure to be other exceptions – but my point is, they are exceptions, not what we commonly see in science fiction.

In order to accommodate the odd ship design of having decks parallel to the direction of acceleration, while still allowing passengers and crew to walk around normally, science fiction writers have had to invent both artificial gravity and “inertial dampeners.” They need to provide a force of gravity perpendicular to the decks, and they need to eliminate the force of acceleration horizontal to the decks (accept when needed for some dramatic tossing around the bridge).

A more sensible ship design would be to have the deck perpendicular to the direction of acceleration, that way the force of forward acceleration would provide artificial gravity down into the deck. If such a ship were accelerating at 1G, then there would be no need for artificial gravity or inertial dampeners – you would not have to create gravity and eliminate acceleration – acceleration would be your gravity (thank you, Dr. Einstein).

If you want to get fancy, you can still have a system of artificial gravity. This would be needed whenever such a ship was in orbit around a planet or coasting through space and not accelerating. Perhaps this same system could be used to reduce the acceleration force when the ship needs to accelerate at greater than 1G. Artificial gravity may be impossible. There is no theoretical mechanism for artificial gravity that I have ever heard (but if anyone has a reference, please post it). We allow science fiction writers some technological poetic license. But even with artificial gravity, such systems would likely be energy intensive, and in any case it makes sense to have the orientation of the ship work with the direction of acceleration, rather than against it.

There is only one legitimate reason that I can think of to have a ship like the enterprise laid out the way it is – if it ever needs to land on a planet. But this hardly rescues the designers. Ships like the Enterprise have no business landing on planets, and most (like star destroyers) never do. And when they do – it is a very rare event, hardly worth basing the entire ship design on this rarest of contingencies.

Why, then, are so many science fiction deep-space ships designed this way? I think it has to do with projecting what we are used to onto our concept of space ships. When we think of ships we thinks of boats and planes – both crafts designed to operate exclusively within a gravity well and where forward acceleration is fairly negligible. For an ocean liner, having horizontal decks is the only sensible design. When we think of a space ship we essentially think of an ocean liner or large airplane in space. We want to stand up and face in the direction we are traveling. How else can we look out the window at what’s in front of us? It seems strange to be traveling up, in the direction that our head are pointing.

This is what really captured my interest about this question – the unseen bias in our thinking that affects our fiction. (Don’t get me started on non-alien aliens.) This represents a more general phenomenon – projecting current technology and biases into the future, essentially constraining our vision of the future by current technology or limitations. This is why cars were initially called “horseless carriages” and were even designed to look like carriages. It took time for people to think of cars as their own thing, and to design them to be optimal as cars, rather than a new type of carriage.

I see this also in early movies, which were little more than filmed stage plays. Early television shows were likewise filmed radio broadcasts (the evolution of the Jack Benny show itself demonstrates this). It took time for these media to come into their own and to evolve beyond the constraints of their antecedents.

I don’t think the same will be true when we actually start building space ships. Just like with the airplane – the demands of the entirely new technology will be the dominant force in design. Since we won’t have artificial gravity or inertial dampeners anytime soon, we will have to build space ships to function with our primitive technology. Rather I think our science fiction imaginings of what space ships will look like do not resemble what they will actually look like (at least for the foreseeable future).

For completeness – I know that there are other constraints on science fiction other than imagination. It costs a lot less in production to have an actor mention “inertial dampeners” than to have to simulate microgravity every time a ship goes into orbit. There is also a bit of laziness in writing – not taking the time to thoroughly think through all the implications of acceleration and ship design. There may be aesthetic choices as well (like having sound in space). But this latter point actually reinforces my main point – aesthetic choices are largely based upon our existing biases. We expect to hear large ships go screaming past, and we expect our space explorers to be facing in the direction they are boldly going.

While I have no real problem with such aesthetic choices (they do not infringe, for the most part, on my enjoyment of otherwise good science fiction), I do appreciate it when a writer or director goes that extra step, to challenge our assumptions and biases. I would like to see a star ship that is truly designed for deep space travel, in a really thoughtful and tricked-out way, without relying on fantastical technological fixes like artificial gravity. I appreciate when science fiction challenges my assumptions, rather than caters to them.

76 responses so far

76 Responses to “Biases in Science Fiction”

  1. DS1000on 18 Mar 2011 at 9:24 am

    I have to say, my favorite part of Avatar was in the first 30s when they showed the interplanetary ship. It was one of the most realistic that I have seen.

  2. Michael Meadonon 18 Mar 2011 at 9:43 am

    Gizmodo last year had a cool article about the physics of space battles. The ship design that piece advocates is also rather different than what we usually see in science fiction.

    As for projecting biases, yeah. Philip K. Dick, for example, was a genius sci-fi author, no doubt. But his early short stories (which I recently read) still reek of 1950s America: paranoia about the Soviets and nuclear war, rampant sexism, etc.

  3. greengeekgirlon 18 Mar 2011 at 9:45 am

    I find this super-interesting–I was just thinking last night about ship design (because I’m a nerd). Synchronous!

    I was envisioning, quite specifically, a spidery design for a ship–something that would allow it to open wormholes in front of it, as that seems to be the best option at the moment for fast space travel.

  4. Michael Meadonon 18 Mar 2011 at 9:47 am

    (Also: check out PaleoFuture for some awesome retrofuturist goodies. These usually say much more about their own time than ours – or the future’s).

  5. Gehackteon 18 Mar 2011 at 9:50 am

    Hey, I’ve been reading this blog for awhile and finally had something to comment with.

    I work in the animation industry and am trying to nudge my way into more design work. So anyone with science know how (as Steve suggested) that could post some more considerations for such a space craft, I’d be interested in hearing it. As to be honest, designs are absolutely based on the designers conception of both how they think it would work, and purely and simply, making it look cool (enterprise excluded…). Likewise with strict deadlines, only so much research can be considered, and I’ve seen a lot based off already existing sci fi ships opposed to the actual tech.

    So I’m definitely interested in trying to design a more practical ship for my portfolio, and as stated above, would love to know more of the considerations I’d have to take to make it so (I have no worries about cool factor, just the specifics).

    Keep up the good posts, always a pleasure to read in the morning.

  6. jamesbeeon 18 Mar 2011 at 9:56 am

    For my money, the most realistic spaceship design I’ve read about recently comes from Accelerando by Stross. Space travel is hella expensive. Far cheaper to ship bits than bodies. Tell me that doesn’t challenge assumptions! 🙂

  7. Elias Saltzon 18 Mar 2011 at 9:57 am

    I recall one episode of ST Next Generation wherein Picard was trapped in a turbolift shaft after escaping a runaway turbolift car that was accelerating downward, as if it were a normal elevator falling. Picard was dangling precariously and needed to climb up to the landing. It struck me immediately – sure we can grant them their artificial gravity and inertial dampeners on the floors of the decks of the ship, but why in the world would you ever put gravity in the tubolift hoistways? In fact, you’d far prefer there to be no gravity there, or in the maintenance access tubes for that matter.

  8. DLCon 18 Mar 2011 at 10:13 am

    The only one I know of who break the floor perpendicular to the direction of travel convention would be E. E. “Doc” Smith in his novel “Skylark of Space” (1928). Later books by Smith use the artificial gravity and inertialessness (for which Smith invented the “Bergenholm” inertial neutralizer) , but that first one has the main “living area” of the ship built inside a giant gimballed hamster ball.

    PS: I lost the sea-bottom habitat contest in Jr High because I included a thorium pile “nuclear battery” in my block diagram, and a specification for using explosive bolts to emergency-detach a survival module. /shrugs

  9. Shnakepupon 18 Mar 2011 at 10:21 am

    I’ve actually read a few science fiction novels that realistically portrayed space travel. Of course, I tend to read “hard” sci-fi which naturally tends to potray things more realisitcally in general…

    Off the top of my head, I’m pretty sure Alastair Reynolds has had the deck-perpendicular-to-travel thing in his ships in a few novels, as he usually makes a point about the ship having to turn around halfway through it’s trip (to begin deceleration), with everyone being weightless during the turnaround. I think I’ve also read something similar in Greg Bear’s “The Forge Of God”.

  10. Draalon 18 Mar 2011 at 10:28 am

    I’m a huge fan of Babylon 5 and their attempt at creating space ships that predicts a more realistic progression of technology.
    Here’s an Earth Alliance battle cruiser that uses a spinning middle section.
    And their space stations relies on rotating the entire station like a spiraling football.

    Other alien races have different technologies and ship design is much more varied.

  11. Steven Novellaon 18 Mar 2011 at 10:31 am

    I have read similar hard science-fiction novels. I think proper ship design is more likely in a book than a movie or tv show – the video requires a cool-looking visual.

    Gehackte – that’s cool. Here are some other thoughts:

    No, or very few, windows. Why risk it – just have cameras showing the exterior.

    Proper shielding – cosmic rays are deadly. Any deep space ship would need to have something like a massive magnetic field generator to deflect particles, or massive shielding. One idea for shielding is to have the ship’s water supply stored in the hull, essentially surrounding the living quarters.

    Along these lines, the living quarters would be in the very center of the ship, and all the equipment and storage would be around it. You would not have the bridge on top or in front – there is no reason for that.

    Different ship sections could be detachable, and functional as ships by themselves, or at least escape pods/life pods. (I know, Star Trek did this with the saucer section).

    And – since there is a near vacuum in space, ships do not have to be aerodynamic. There is some hydrogen, but this can either be deflected or scooped and used as fuel.

    Getting back to the gravity/acceleration thing, ships could be able to rotate into different configurations for acceleration vs coasting (or being in orbit), and perhaps even for landing. While coasting you would need rotation for artificial gravity, while accelerating the acceleration can do it, and when landing decks can be oriented in the direction of external gravity.

  12. Karl Withakayon 18 Mar 2011 at 10:50 am

    Did you ever watch the short lived 2009 series Defying Gravity with Ron Livingston?

    Their ship had a rotating section for artificial gravity, and nano-fiber magnetic suits to anchor them to the deck in the non-rotating sections. From wikipedia, “They also used “nano-spray” on their hair and non-standard clothing to make them slightly magnetic; that’s why the astronauts’ hair doesn’t float in the zero-g environment of the Antares”

    It was a nice way of addressing the gravity issue within the technical and budgetary limitations of filming a TV show.

    The equally short lived 1987 BBC series Star Cops also did a pretty good job of depicting fairly realistic, hard Sci-Fi.

    Of course, artificial gravity and inertial dampers aren’t really any more unrealistic than any form of faster than light travel. If I’m going to accept warp drive, hyperspace, or even wormhole travel, I may as well accept artificial gravity, and inertial dampers.

    With the Enterprise and most other super advanced FTL ships, why would you put the bridge in such a vulnerable location on the ship’s surface rather than deep inside the hull? It’s not like you need a window to see where you’re going. If your sensors, cameras, and displays aren’t working, you probably don’t have controls or propulsion either.

    How about lasers that you can visually track as they travel towards their target?

  13. DrEvilon 18 Mar 2011 at 12:09 pm

    “A more sensible ship design would be to have the deck perpendicular to the direction of acceleration, that way the force of forward acceleration would provide artificial gravity down into the deck.”

    I disagree. Seems to me you would need the inertial dampeners and other fictional technologies regardless of ship configuration. An effective ship design should not have it’s motion constrained by the application of artificial gravity for the occupants, especially combat ships that make up most of science fiction. These ships aren’t going to be maneuvering much of the time with acceleration values friendly to replacing artificial gravity. What happens when the ship does their hyperspace jump, or has to dodge incoming fire, etc. People can’t function effectively on an ever changing platform. Relying on the ships configuration to replace artificial gravity is going to result in a pretty ineffective ship in combat, and one so encumbered by maintaining accelerations that wouldn’t outright kill the meat bags on board, it wouldn’t be usable for any significant travel distance that most of science fiction relies on.

    Entering hyperjump!, splat. You can’t have fictional travel speeds and accelerations without fictional means of keeping the crew alive through those forces. And if you have that fictional technology to do so then it’s not that ridiculous tobuild the ships floor plan with the configurations we see, if for no other reason than familiarity between planetary architecture, and consistency with ships that can re-enter the atmosphere, etc.

    Certain types of ships and space stations would sure be cheaper/more efficient with centrifugal artificial gravity or something, but if we’re talking science fiction we’re mostly talking about combat ready ships. A ship that has to re-orient to dodge fire so as not to send the crew hurtling to random walls is a dead ship.

  14. JJFromCowtownon 18 Mar 2011 at 12:15 pm

    In my tabletop gaming days I dabbled with what was then FASA’s BattleTech universe. BattleSpace was the piece of the game that dealt with interplanetary/interstellar travel and it was infused with a little hard sci-fi.

    The rulebook included calculations for transit times, given that you’d go half way accelerating at 1G and then turn the ship around and spend the other half accelerating at 1G in the other direction.

    The same ships would land by pointing the engine towards the planet to control the speed of descent. In theory this even gets around a lot of orbital mechanics related to re-entry – if your intention is never to go into orbit then you don’t need all that speed in the perpendicular direction (this is more my speculation than anything else)

    Honestly, hard sci fi is a bit of a downer. Just considering orbital mechanics alone, the speeds involved, the distances, the different types of orbits.. Well, what kind of orbit is the Enterprise in when we see those establishing shots? Does it add up considering how far the planet appears to be from them? What’s the range on their transporters again?

    Or the nice scenery we see… beautiful big nebulae and bright, clearly visible galaxies. Visible with the brightly lit Enterprise. The light making the Enterprise visible would drown out the other scenery, if that scenery is even possible considering the visibility of similar objects in our own sky (read: small&dim or large&diffuse).

    How BIG is space, again? Huge spaces and tiny ships…

  15. MekkaGodzillaon 18 Mar 2011 at 12:27 pm

    Tintin’s ship was an exception to the rule I guess.

  16. daedalus2uon 18 Mar 2011 at 12:28 pm

    In Star Trek, the deflector shields dealt with ambient radiation. The Enterprise once had to deal with a 50 MT blast ~150 meters from the hull (or was it 150 MT 50 meters from the hull?).

    As I remember in that same episode, a Star Base was destroyed through its shields even though it was a mile underground in solid iron.

    When your shields are that powerful, physical shielding is of negligible additional value. No material would be able to dissipate the kind of heat that would be necessary. No material can withstand lasers focused to levels we can achieve now. In the National Ignition Facility they focus lasers to a gold target that vaporizes it hot enough to produce x-rays.

  17. Gehackteon 18 Mar 2011 at 12:40 pm

    Is it all that practical to expend energy to create a laser blast off a small ship in space? like could you even carry enough fuel to engage in such a battle?

    I have no idea how much energy it would take to shoot off a meaningful laser in this context. How big of an engine would you need to be able to hurtle a ship through space AND have enough to support life and at that shoot off crazy lasers? As well as store the fuel for such a task.

    (I’m actually curious for a ball park, by default I’m assuming no light speed, but like, obtainable speeds).

    Or is it more practical to try and physically hit/ram something or board it (in terms of energy consumption?

    if light speeds out of the question, I would think such a ship would have to be an energy miser.

  18. DLCon 18 Mar 2011 at 1:00 pm

    oh, whoops. I see my error now. I meant parallel when I said perpendicular.

  19. Karl Withakayon 18 Mar 2011 at 1:04 pm


    If you’re going to be be realistic and rule out faster than light travel, you really need to be realistic and rule out interstellar travel entirely. The energy requirements to travel at even 1/10th the speed of light (to get to even nearby stars in a remotely reasonable time frame) in are extremely impractical.

    I have a series of posts on my blog that deal with the extreme improbability and impracticality of interstellar travel and invasion that began as a response to a comment by Stephen Hawking on the subject.

  20. nwtk2007on 18 Mar 2011 at 1:29 pm

    As regards to the decks being as they are on the Enterprise, well, it probably wouldn’t matter if they were situated as you described they might. Even in accelerating to .5 of light speed in a matter of seconds would create g forces great enough to squash the occupants pretty badly, thus the need for inertial dampers, no matter the deck placement. There is also the problem of deceleration to deal with.

    But that’s sci-fi. I think they, the writers and “imaginers”, intuitively see that without anti-grav of some sort, there will be no travel as such. If gravity is not conquered, we will be here all by our lonesomes for the duration.

  21. Gehackteon 18 Mar 2011 at 1:31 pm


    I had a feeling that this would be the place to get these answers haha. Looks like I’ll have to think harder about this.

    Thank you very much for the information.

  22. Gehackteon 18 Mar 2011 at 1:50 pm

    Would anyone know roughly how fast a ship could travel if you wanted it’s constant speed to generate earth like gravity if the decks were angled in the direction Steve suggested?

    And conversely, how much would the size of ship would affect that?

    No reason why the universe can’t fit the ship, if you’re going for fantasy.

  23. nwtk2007on 18 Mar 2011 at 2:09 pm

    It would have to maintain a constant rate of acceleration of approx 9.8m/sec increase in speed for every second it was accelerating, if moving in a straight line. Thus it would have to be ever increasing its speed.

  24. nwtk2007on 18 Mar 2011 at 2:11 pm

    Of course, the writers of ST suggest that one accelerate the space around the ship and not the ship itself, so who really knows.

  25. Karl Withakayon 18 Mar 2011 at 2:24 pm


    There is no set answer to your question. Constant speed will not produce any force/ artificial gravity. You need acceleration to produce force. To create 1g of artificial gravity, you would need to maintain a constant acceleration of of the ship of 9.81 m/s/s.

    Your velocity would be constantly be increasing, eventually being limited by either the speed of light or the amount of energy and propellant you have.

    Thanks to relativity, the closer you get to the speed of light, the more energy you require to accelerate to a higher velocity. It would literally take infinite energy to achieve the speed of light.

    The size of the ship would only affect the energy requirements to achieve the acceleration, unless you are talking about a ship that approaches the mass of a small moon which would produce some gravity on its own. Wait, that’s no moon; it’s a space station!

  26. Gehackteon 18 Mar 2011 at 2:27 pm

    So if it had to keep accelerating in a straight line, wouldn’t the force being applied be increased as well? basically saying that it cant maintain a constant amount of gravity while traveling in a straight(ish) line?

    Because then technically it could be moving say half speed of light while maintaining earth like gravity on its decks so long as it was accelerating at that speed, albeit not forever and yeah it ruins the constant part making decelerating an issue again… If the laws of physics were a person, I don’t think I’d like them…

    Unless maybe if periodically you then decelerated on purpose at the same rate you were accelerating and flipped the decks to the opposite directions to counter that, then speed up again…

    I suspect I just made one massive calculation error though ha.

  27. Steven Novellaon 18 Mar 2011 at 2:32 pm

    DrEvil (and others) – you are making lots of assumptions.

    Obviously, with science fiction, there is a great range of technological advancement that we can be talking about. Of course we can imagine technology sufficiently advanced that we don’t have to concern ourselves with things as mundane as orientation. But most of the fictional universes out there are not at that level, and those that are mix in various levels of technology.

    Even a war ship is likely to spend most of its time traveling, not engaged in fighting. And most fighting in space will be long distance and not involve anything like dog fights. If you are talking about small ships in close dog fights – obviously that is not the kind of ship I was talking about – where there is one person strapped into a fighter seat.

    Also, even for high G maneuvering, you are going to use your big engines at the back of the ship. This is just another thing most visual depictions get wrong – there is no atmosphere in space, so no banking and such. You turn the ship and then fire the engines in the direction you want to go – so you will always be in the same orientation to the acceleration (unless you have large propulsion engines, not just maneuvering jets, on multiple sides of the ship pointing in different directions – but when have you ever seen that?).

    And – for high acceleration fights, then you strap into high-G chairs or chambers or whatever. But for the 99% of the time you are traveling, your 1G acceleration is your gravity.

    Further – not all FTL travel needs to involve ridiculous accelerations. If they do, then fine – invoke inertial dampeners. But this is not true for warping space or traveling through wormholes or folding space – the whole point of these options is that the ship itself is not moving/accelerating very much, but space itself is being manipulated.

    Even on ships like the Enterprise, that have warp drive – they seem to require their impulse engines quite frequently, and travel at normal acceleration and in normal space. Their ship is basically a rocket at that point, and the deck configuration makes no sense (neither does placing the bridge in such a vulnerable position).

    The bottom line is that for most ships and technologies you can imagine, there is no reason not to configure the decks so that accelerating forces can be used to simulate gravity and their inconvenience is minimized, rather than the useless and inconvenient configuration most often depicted.

  28. nwtk2007on 18 Mar 2011 at 2:33 pm

    Yes, in the Newtonian world, constant force equals constant acceleration. But in the real world, mass increases with velocity and thus greater and greater forces would be needed until mass goes infinite and thus the force needed would also go to infinite. Infinitely puzzling isn’t it?

  29. Karl Withakayon 18 Mar 2011 at 2:39 pm

    It makes more sense to have a rotating section for artificial gravity, and acceleration/deceleration benches fixed in the proper orientation for any rapid acceleration and deceleration phases of a realistic space journey.

    Although sustained mild acceleration/ deceleration (as in current Xenon ion propulsion) is probably going to be more efficient than short burst rapid acceleration/deceleration, you might still need the benches for orbital insertion and escape maneuvers.

  30. nwtk2007on 18 Mar 2011 at 2:53 pm

    In the book form of Star Trek the Motion Picture, circa 1978 I think, it was mentioned that in their swing around the back of Veger that due to their acceleration vector to come up behind Veger their ship would, essentially, be pointing at Veger during the entire maneuver, thus and in essence, traveling sideways, so to speak.

  31. Karl Withakayon 18 Mar 2011 at 2:56 pm


    Constant velocity at any speed in a straight line cannot produce a force. Your velocity has to be continuously increasing (accelerating) to produce the force of artificial gravity. Force requires an acceleration & acceleration requires a force. Constant force produces a constant acceleration.

    An object will remain at a constant velocity unless acted upon by an outside force. Things don’t seem to work that way here on Earth because of air resistance and friction.

    Space is practically a vacuum. No accelerating force is required to maintain a constant velocity in space, although there will be some very minor drag because space is not a perfect vacuum.

    At half the speed of light, you’re deep in relativity territory, and the energy requirements to produce acceleration are increasing exponentially. To accelerate a mass the size of a Virgina class submarine to 1/10th the speed of light would take 17,000 Megatons of energy.

  32. DrEvilon 18 Mar 2011 at 3:05 pm

    I’m not making assumptions, I’m just going by what types of maneuvers we observe the fictitious ships performing in the context of their fictional world. They clearly exceed what the protection and/or benefits of an acceleration based gravity or g-suits could protect the occupants from. I agree with most of your points Steve. Most of what we observe their ships doing is impossible or wrong with regards to real physics.

    I understand that the capabilities and design of a real world ship would be dramatically different, I was just suggesting that in the fictional universe, with the desired fictional ship capabilities, those design ideas would not eliminate the need for the added fictional technology(dampeners), and frankly, if fictional ships were constrained about how they would realistically work, it would be a pretty boring genre imo when it comes to action movies and such.

  33. Steven Novellaon 18 Mar 2011 at 3:12 pm

    I know that movies basically have space dog fights, cause that’s exciting, but I disagree that anything else is boring. Think of Balance of Terror – the ships barely see each other. Space battle would be more like submarine warfare, not dog fights. This can be exciting and suspenseful if done properly.

    Also – you can have dogfights with g-forces limited to 3-4 gs, with g-suits and seats, etc. You don’t need to have spine-breaking g-forces to have a good battle.

  34. nowooon 18 Mar 2011 at 3:18 pm

    “unless you have large propulsion engines, not just maneuvering jets, on multiple sides of the ship pointing in different directions – but when have you ever seen that?”

    Firefly used fairly large rotating engines on the sides of the ship to allow vertical takeoff and landing, and at least once they were pointed in opposite directions to rotate the whole ship quickly and reverse direction when they performed a “Crazy Ivan” to get away from a Reaver ship.

  35. Gehackteon 18 Mar 2011 at 3:18 pm

    Alright, so I get what Steve’s saying, that essentially irregardless of magic box tech, the ships layouts don’t really make sense in the context of where they are and what they’re doing. I agree and the conversation definitely gave me some idea’s to play with, which is awesome.

    I’ll leave it here, as I don’t want to de-rail this comment section with more of my physics questions. Thanks for all the information guys/gals. I’ll probably re-read your page a few more times Karl, thanks a ton, that was oddly relevant:)

    If I come up with something worth showing I’ll send a link along, but won’t be for awhile if I do.

  36. Zhankforon 18 Mar 2011 at 3:22 pm

    But then, I think that with certain concepts likely to play big parts in at least early space travel (I’m thinking right now of gravity slingshots, like the one used in 2001: A Space Odyssey), might actually make the problem of accelerated significantly more complicated, as the most efficient path for a spaceship to take might not in fact be a straight line, but rather might hug certain large bodies or avoid others as the case may be.

  37. SARAon 18 Mar 2011 at 3:35 pm

    I have always felt that globes would be the best design. I envision 2 options.
    Decks that slice through the globe parallel to each other that can each be separated into separate ships. Which would be a good emergency measure or a good battle group configuration.

    Decks that layer each other like an onion.
    What is interesting about the onion globe is that it could be continually expanded while traveling. One stops occasionally in a galaxy to pick up the elements one needs and then one travels and builds. This way you don’t assume FTL or constant acceleration, you assume infinite time is at their disposal. This is where they live. It could be sufficiently large and complex enough to hold a civilization that could just live in space.

    As others have mentioned, imagination is stronger in these cases than technology.

    And I wonder, sometimes, if these science fiction ideas don’t influence the direction of our actual science.

  38. dustinechoson 18 Mar 2011 at 3:38 pm

    The gravity issue has always bugged me. In the novel I’m writing (never to be published) The ship is designed with furniture, etc both on the ceiling and floor. This way when the ship is accelerating and decelerating the crew has gravity.

  39. Watcheron 18 Mar 2011 at 3:56 pm

    I second the alastair reynolds reference. Definitely my first introduction to perpendicular space travel at a constant 1G acceleration. He did invoke a bit of future tech called a “Conjoiner Drive,” which i believe he labeled as an advanced tokamak of some variety, the goal of which was accelerating constantly up to 99.9% the speed of light by the middle of voyage, in order to spend the other half of the trip slowing down by facing the opposite direction (aft towards destination).

  40. Frisbyon 18 Mar 2011 at 4:20 pm

    Hi. First-time, long-time.

    JJFromCowtown says: “Honestly, hard sci fi is a bit of a downer. Just considering orbital mechanics alone, […] What’s the range on their transporters again?”

    Speaking of transporters and orbits, I have an anecdote from back when years started with a one.

    My freshman year of college, I got to be friends with a physics graduate student. He pointed out that beaming down to a planet is a serious physics problem, even from a Newtonian standpoint. How does one deal with conservation of angular momentum? Unless the Enterprise is going to temporarily drop into a decaying orbit every time someone beams down (or up), those poor red shirts are going to find themselves moving at supersonic speeds relative to the planet surface.

  41. Karl Withakayon 18 Mar 2011 at 4:32 pm

    Correction to my comment “To accelerate a mass the size of a Virgina class submarine to 1/10th the speed of light would take 17,000 Megatons of energy.”

    That would be ~870,000 Megatons, or roughly 17,000 of the largest nuclear weapon ever detonated (the 50MT Tsar Bomba)

    Beware changing units in your calculations.

  42. Steven Novellaon 18 Mar 2011 at 4:37 pm

    nowoo – I agree – but that is a ship designed to land on ground, which is a point I covered. The point is – you don’t use those engines to maneuver in space (generally, crazy Ivan’s aside). For most acceleration you will use the big engines in the back of the ship.

    In terms of landing on the ground, for most large ships it is probably best to land standing up, with engines down. The way, the ship should already be built to handle stresses in that direction, since that is the direction of acceleration. And the big engines will be on the bottom, which should help with lift off. Having separate engines on the “bottom” of the ship, just to preserve the cool airplane configuration, is not practical.

    It can make sense for smaller ships, or for ships designed also to operate in atmospheres.

  43. Karl Withakayon 18 Mar 2011 at 5:17 pm

    Even without bringing relativity into play, the energy requirements for sustaining a 1g (9.81m/s^2) acceleration for any serious length of time are prohibitive.

    Staying with a Virginia class submarine for an earthbound analog of a long distance spacecraft with a reasonable sized crew, maintaining a 1g acceleration for only 1 hour would require 1.2 Megatons of energy and would reach a velocity of 35,316 m/s

  44. powerhairon 18 Mar 2011 at 5:38 pm

    Thank you for this post – my husband has been banging on about this for years!

    In the Vorkosigan novels, Lois McMaster Bujold had the solution of adapting the humans to no gravity – the quaddies had changes such as an extra set of arms instead of legs. Typically, artificial gravity was cracked just as the first generation reached adulthood.

  45. tmac57on 18 Mar 2011 at 8:43 pm

    Something that I haven’t seen addressed is the probability of encountering another object in space,and what it would take
    to avoid it.Even a tiny meteoroid would be catastrophic,I would think ,at the kinds of speeds needed to practically travel at galactic scales,and the faster a ship travels,the more likely it becomes.Wouldn’t even tiny changes to trajectory to avoid a collision throw off your navigation by huge amounts that would have to be corrected for? Also,what means would have to be employed to detect such objects with enough lead time to avoid them,assuming what we already know about physics?

  46. Nitpickingon 18 Mar 2011 at 9:39 pm


    I can’t believe that in dozens comments nobody mentioned that the Enterprise

    1)Doesn’t accelerate. Warp drive is pseudovelocity, the ship is not changing velocity relative to local objects at all–the warp field generators change the distance to the destination.

    2)IS designed to land on planets. Specifically, the saucer is capable of landing, although in the shows it just tends to crash instead.

    Care to do this very discussion at I-CON?

  47. titmouseon 19 Mar 2011 at 1:27 am

    LOL Trekkies.

  48. RWJon 19 Mar 2011 at 9:53 am

    I think a more realistic starship would be one using phase-shifted electrodynamic propulsion.

  49. superdaveon 19 Mar 2011 at 5:02 pm

    Can’t believe no one mentioned the borg cubes. I always thought those were a clever design choice for that species.

  50. Eternally Learningon 19 Mar 2011 at 8:39 pm

    I’m no physics expert or math genius so this is just shooting from the hip, but why not some combination of rotational gravity generator (i.e. 2001, Babylon 5, etc) and using the acceleration of the spacecraft? For instance, you could have a sperical spacecraft with 2 or more layers of spheres which could rotate independent of each other. The outter sphere would have all the propulsion devices and would always be oriented in the same direction relative to the acceleration. The inner sphere (or possibly just rings instead of full spheres) would freely rotate around inside the outter layer.

    The idea would be that while accelerating/decelerating, the ring would need to rotate less to generate the gravity and would be more perpendicular to the direction of acceleration/deceleration. As the acceleration/deceleration slows then, the rotation would gradually increase so as to maintain the desired level of gravity.

    I’ve no idea if there’s some problem I haven’t thought of to a smooth transition from the rotational generated gravity to acceleration/deceleration generated gravity, so maybe someone here will correct me, but it would seem to be a good compromise. Also, if this idea holds up, then I would think you could use the rotational gravity to counter when acceleration/deceleration generates beyond the desired level of gravity as well.

  51. Eternally Learningon 19 Mar 2011 at 8:42 pm

    sorry, forgot to mention that the crew would only occupy the inner layer(s).

  52. SimonWon 19 Mar 2011 at 9:26 pm

    @Gehackte keep asking questions, but yes you have some basic physics to learn.

    The model I’d always assumed for (manned) interstellar travel is a 1G acceleration, flip the ship around half way, and a 1G deceleration. It is crude, but the first attempts to do anything are always “crude” (one can also drop from 1G on early attempts I expect 0.5G is very liveable if you take it easy when you get home). In this case Steve’s suggestion on floor arrangements is spot on.

    As Karl has suggested the energy requirements for doing this are non-trivial, although I see no problem with the kinds of energies that make Karl worry as we are talking about the future and energy production has been growing rather fast, the bigger problem is that if you carry the fuel (or any part of the propellant) on board you have to accelerate the mass of that as well, hence the interest in ships powered by remote lasers or similar – a desperate attempt to take the fuel off the space craft (pushing it is not so clever if you want a return journey unless you can pull equally well, or send something that can push as well – think big payload time).

    My relativity course made you do the calculation for visiting the nearest star doing something like this, with an antimatter (most concentrated fuel currently conceivable to physics) drive, and the spacecraft ends up being 99.9(various numbers of subsequent 9s depending on assumptions )% fuel and hardly any payload.

    I suspect once you figure out how to meet the energy requirements for doing meaningful acceleration dealing with small pieces of interstellar debris is easy – you can tell space is mostly empty from the fact you can see the stars at all. Problems I see that are more “human” are dealing with time dilation effects and technical progress – fine for the nearest star, at 1G it only takes a matter of weeks and those left behind only age 6 years or so, go somewhere really interesting and you might as well assume a one way journey and if you aren’t picked up by a faster craft that left after you then you can assume human progress has faltered (or they have lost interest in you, or in space travel).

    The energy requirements are high but not unimaginably so, estimates for laser propulsion assume a laser power of ~10^14 Watts, the sun emits ~10^26 Watts so one only need tap one thousand billionth of the sun’s emitted energy to get to interstellar type velocities. All this assumes lossless conversions and other unlikely thing, but I don’t think we should give up just yet, on the other hand don’t hold your breath.

  53. Gehackteon 19 Mar 2011 at 10:56 pm

    I’m starting to think that a slow outward migration of space stations/colonies in whatever direction you were interested in would be the most likely, albeit epically long adventure. coupled with ships with the parallel decks moving at a reasonable speed, if not the entire 1g.

    In other words, modifying the universe to suit the ship:) On that line, I suppose one could even place the story in an “unknown part of the universe” where stars are just closer together, or one that exists. Unless that would be uhm… none good.

    That would obviously impact the design in both size and function, ie. you wouldn’t need to consider issues like breeding and large (and I do mean large) food growing facilities. and most ships would probably be freight ships just by demand.

    I was also wondering how rough it would be to flip the decks during deceleration, sure it makes sense if it’s one way or the other, but I wonder about that quick flip to the other direction.

    Also the Babylon 5 station was seriously awesome, especially the inside of the rotating drum where those trams went through that we rarely ever saw.

    I also remember that the ship in Rama was a huge tube with everything grafted to the inside, which was a cool image, and also quite different from the average Sci fi ship. (I read the book a long while ago, so I’m not sure if I’m remembering it right though).

    But in essence, allowing these designs to make more sense would probably require a re thinking of how the “world” the ship was in would work, the reasons for migrating out, and the benefit, if any. I suppose to expand on what Steve was saying, considering too not just the bias of ship design, but the whole roll of humans in space, or even having the characters human to begin with.

  54. Shockstruton 20 Mar 2011 at 2:06 am

    Gehackte, you’re correct, Rama was a big old tube with all the stuff on the inner surface – which meant gravity was simulated just by spinning the thing. Simple but effective – and plausible.

    In short, Steve N. is saying that spaceships should go UP rather than ALONG. I totally agree and also agree that to a first approximation the novelists have got it right and the movies/TV have it wrong. It’s so pervasive, though, it’s hard to see it going away and I expect we’ll see many more deep space Battle of Midways with “capital ships” with decks parallel to the direction of acceleration surrounded by swarms of space fighters banking & swooping like WWII Spitfires.

    In fact in the last season of Dr Who they had actual Spitfires in space…

  55. Steven Novellaon 20 Mar 2011 at 8:28 am

    Nitpicking – I already mentioned that the Enterprise does rarely land – I just think it’s absurd. That’s what shuttles are for. But if you are going to design a ship for deep space travel and occasionally landing, the upright configuration still makes more sense, since the ship will have to be engineered to take stress in the direction of acceleration. Why not have that be the same direction of gravity upon landing?

    Also – while I have also already recognized that warp drive warps space rather than accelerating the ship, this does not mean that the ship is not also accelerating and moving – just through warped space.

    But even if warp drive did not require any acceleration – the ship is not always warping around. The ship often travels using just impulse drive, which is standard acceleration in normal space. In fact,when the saucer section separates, that is the only kind of drive they have. So at the very least, the saucer section should be designed as I stated.

    IMHO – the Enterprise was designed to look cool, but it is an engineering abomination. And sure – I would love to discuss this at ICON.

  56. Belgarathon 20 Mar 2011 at 10:48 am

    I think that the answer to the Enterprise design is that they anticipated letting Troi drive.

    In any case, extending Dr. Novella’s argument, it seems to me that the vast majority of time would be spent in unaccelerated flight, thus, regardless of deck orientation, you would need to provide artificial gravity.

  57. daedalus2uon 20 Mar 2011 at 11:22 am

    With all due respect, we don’t know enough about the technology that is being used and what limits that technology has. Maybe the warp drive the Enterprise uses requires three cylindrical field generators to set up the conditions to warp space in a volume large enough to encompass the whole ship. I am speculating, but perhaps objects can be held by tractor beam in the space between the cylinders and maintained inside the warp field to be transported interstellar distances. The warp drives and the shields do share common components and a common power source, perhaps they are using the same warping of space. The hallways always seem very spacious, implying that the cost of volume in the ship is not a limiting factor. That argues for the maximum external dimensions being limited by something other than inside volume needed. If the warp field generators need to be a certain size to produce a field large enough to go at warp 9, then the shape using three cylinders would be more economical than a sphere of the same dimensions.

    It may also be constrained by the need to have a safety vent for the matter-antimatter mix under all conditions of flight and in the vicinity of inhabited planets. When the impulse engines are overloaded, they explode with 97 MT of energy (the Doomsday Machine). That would need to be channeled in a safe direction if the ship was in a densely populated place such as Earth Orbit. A cylinder is the largest volume with the minimum forward cross section. A cylinder would require the smallest shield frontal area.

    When the ship’s shields do deflect something, there is momentum transfer to the rest of the ship and the local artificial gravity can’t compensate for that. I presume that is because there are constraints on the speed of response of the artificial gravity. It can compensate for slow, or engine derived accelerations but it can’t compensate for rapid non-engine derived effects. This is not unexpected because artificial gravity is also a warping of space. It makes sense that the four types of space warping used, warp drive, impulse drive, the shields and artificial gravity would have to be coupled very precisely. The only effects of imprecise coupling that we would notice would be in fluctuations in the artificial gravity and how that affects the movements of the crew. 😉

    The shape of the Enterprise may also be a spandrel, an artifact of the design evolution of spacecraft of that type. The drive, shields and weapons systems are not the only design constraints. Perhaps earlier versions were configured that way to accommodate drives with different constraints, and the new technology with fewer restraints was added later. People in the future will have their work constrained by their limited imaginations too. Even now, stealth fighters are painted black, not the color of the night sky which is very dark gray. The choice of black over very dark gray is for emotional aesthetic reasons, not functionality.

    The design may also be constrained by fault modes and end-of-life issues. If the matter-antimatter drives become radioactive, trying to extract them from a spherical ship might be difficult. If the technology is advancing, retrofitting a spherical ship may be too difficult.

    Many present ships, have their design constrained by a perceived need to fit through the Panama Canal. Maybe there is some similar constraint we are unaware of in the future.

  58. Steven Novellaon 20 Mar 2011 at 12:00 pm

    With the ability to make unconstrained assumptions about future technology, your can retroactively make sense of almost anything in Star Trek, or other sci-fi universe. This is a popular game for trekkie apologists.

  59. Greenwolfon 20 Mar 2011 at 1:36 pm

    OK, here’s a limited understanding of physics and space speaking here, but why do the ships have to move with forward momentum?
    If the universe is so large and infinite wouldn’t travelling in an upwards or downwards motion allow you to travel also? I get that you would need some form of linear propulsion to go towards something e.g a planet, but wouldn’t having the ability to travel in three dimensions make some travel faster/easier.
    Ok I’m confusing myself with it now. What I mean is, surely there is something below, so to speak, the milky way as well as just heading through/past it.
    Or is that in the realms of things the human body will not withstand, as I know I wouldn’t enjoy a fast, constant downward/upward motion for much more than an elevator ride. But with out gravity acting upon you do you even feel the motion as you do in an elevator?

  60. kloxon 20 Mar 2011 at 1:47 pm

    I like the topic! Plenty of interesting thoughts.

    As far as dogfights go, they could only happen assuming some kind of intense cloaking device/radar suppression and some kind of shielding. Without that it will be stupid simple to track all targets to a trivial precision and just hit them with some powerful laser. Steven’s suggestion about mirroring classic submarine battles is how I also picture it. Even in those kinds of battles, it would seem that one side would just immediately have the upper hand. I doubt the cloaking would cancel the target tracking for both ships.

    As far as ship design, it could really vary. If you build the ship in space then you really aren’t constrained to specific shapes other than for application/engineering purposes. If you make it too wide (length perpendicular to acceleration) and the engines aren’t spread throughout the width, you could have too much strain. If the ship is in these dogfights, the width would have to be decreased further to reduce the radar/target cross-section, but that ties into the cloaking issue too.

    As far as simulating gravity goes, other people have already brought up that you would have to be constantly accelerating at 1G to simulate gravity. Everyone might strap in to some chair during initial acceleration, but once you get to that speed you can reduce it to a constant acceleration (e.g. the earth/sun is flying through space but we don’t feel that). I could picture some other awkward mechanism where one might accelerate in the direction they want to go, and after that send the ship into some kind of rotation (space station style) to simulate it. With that you might start constraining your ship because how far away you are from the axis of rotation will change how much force you feel. Moving closer or farther away from that axis will make you feel heavier/lighter, so you might only have a small region of comfortability. You might also experience the Coriolis effect where you feel pulled in a direction. You might jump or stand up and all of the sudden your head feels like its been thrown to the side. It all depends on how fast you need to be rotating to simulate 1G at some specific distance away from the axis.

  61. daedalus2uon 20 Mar 2011 at 4:12 pm

    Apologists? A true skeptic knows the limits of their knowledge. We don’t know how the technology of Star Trek works. Presumably the people who do, use that knowledge to design their vessels appropriately. 😉

    For all we know, criticizing their choice of vessel shape would be like da Vinci criticizing modern supersonic aircraft because the wings don’t flap and because they have no beak in front to take in fuel. Or criticizing using steel to make battleships instead of wood because steel is so heavy and doesn’t float. Or using wheels for land vehicles instead of walking legs.

  62. robmon 20 Mar 2011 at 6:57 pm

    I’m surprised at skeptics defending trek. It is a work of fiction! Honestly, I thought one of the important a hugely important trait of skeptics was to accept or reject something based on the evidence, not what someone wants to be true. Equally important is the practice of separating subjective experience (like love of star trek of sci-fi in general) and external reality (like the constraints of physics as it is currently understood).

    As for faster than light travel being possible, it may be possible, however an as of yet undiscovered phenomenon that would make it possible would most likely be unaffected by atoms, electromagnetism, or the circumstances of radioactive decay of one atom in proximity to another. That kind of sums up current tech, and future tech that we can build with current tech, and so on.

    So without an amazing, implausible discovery any interstellar travelers will be stuck in the slow lane, even in the 23rd century.

  63. Steven Novellaon 20 Mar 2011 at 7:03 pm

    Yes – you can use the “we don’t know how the technology works, and maybe it just works that way” to explain anything curious with the Star Trek technology. I am not saying that you cannot make it work – I’m saying that it’s pointless because the criteria are open ended, so you can make anything work. But at some point the explanations become too contrived and convenient.

    My point was never that such fictional technology cannot possibly work or make some internal sense – but rather that the fiction is at times lazy, relying upon quick fixes (like inertial dampeners) rather than clever designs that actually respect the physics and engineering and can look beyond our primitive preconceptions.

  64. JunkmanJimon 20 Mar 2011 at 11:27 pm

    It seems to me the ship is not the problem, it is the puny humans inside, we need to be something other than human to make a long space journey. Conquering our dependence on time is easier than traveling fast, this could be achieved by detaching consciousness from the physical body. The idea of the recursive of a self-editing AI seems critical to creating an explorer that has human like curiosity. I see this traveler as an entity that can manipulate molecules and can gather elements as necessary on its journey, kind of like a flying slug picking up elements of different kinds at various stops or perhaps send its probes to do the bidding. At this point if a stop takes 100 years, our slug doesn’t care as it only worries about protecting its main systems. It must be similar to a metal lathe, a machine that can make itself. We identify with pets in such a way that I suspect there would be no problem seeing our super smart AI explorer as one of us. I can interact with people on the internet but never meet them so a physical body is not essential to be valued by humans.

    I know your discussion is about fictional spaceship design but this is the best extrapolation I have based on what where I think technology will lead us.

    RIP Stargate Universe, canceled after the second season. The last episodes are in the can so all I can do is savor what is left of the second season. If I was rich like Bill Gates I would just pay for more shows to be made until I was out of money, life just ain’t fair.

  65. goodsonon 21 Mar 2011 at 10:10 am

    For me, Star Trek fandom was a way to actually learn more about the real science. The “apologists” are actually learning about the real science while trying to shoehorn it into the things we see on TV. Read something like the Next Generation technical manual and you will see that the designers of many of these fictional vehicles tried to put some real science in the background, even if the pressures of a weekly TV show meant that it was never mentioned on-screen.

    Of course there is always a lot of handwavium and unobtainium to make everything work, but that’s part of the fun.

    P.S. – A great site for more realistic SF space stuff is

  66. Karl Withakayon 21 Mar 2011 at 12:20 pm


    “I see no problem with the kinds of energies that make Karl worry as we are talking about the future and energy production has been growing rather fast”

    Actually, the energy requirements are pretty prohibitive. Sticking with my Virginia class sub as a model of a log distance spacecraft, after 35 days of 1g acceleration, you would be traveling at 1/10th the speed of light. Assuming 100% efficiency, to achieve this velocity would require about 20,000 KG of antimatter annihilating with an equal mass of matter.

    Energy production hasn’t really been growing at all if you look at it from an energy density perspective. Sure, total global energy output has been growing as we produce more oil, but the density of our energy sources hasn’t grown much at all in the past 50+ years.

    Regardless, energy density has a practical limit that can’t be surpassed. You can’t get any greater energy density than antimatter/matter reactions.

    Also as the trip gets longer, it requires exponentially more energy to maintain the constant acceleration. Even 35 days is prohibitive, but a 1 year trip would require ~10 million KG each of matter and antimatter reacting to produce the required energy to maintain acceleration, ignoring the mass of the fuel in regards to the mass of the craft..

    Beamed energy is not really practical for manned interstellar travel. As the vessel travels further from the energy source, the energy transmitted to the ship decreases according to the inverse square of the distance. You’d have to transfer all the energy while the vessel was still close to the source, resulting in unbearable acceleration. You’d also have no infrastructure in place at the endpoint to facilitate a return trip.

    I have not even bothered discussing the reaction time issues or shielding problems of how you would deal with running into a micrometeorite while traveling at relativistic speeds.

    I don’t currently see any way around the fact that manned interstellar travel, even to very local stars, is not very likely or practical. We’d have to find some pretty fundamental failures of our understanding of the physics of the universe to make it feasible.

  67. Karl Withakayon 21 Mar 2011 at 12:25 pm

    … and sustained 1g acceleration even for relatively short trips is just not practical.

  68. locutusbrgon 21 Mar 2011 at 1:05 pm

    Now I get to shine in geek-dom. Sorry this is a late post. Assuming we are staying within star trek’s own “reality”There is no star trek reason for the ship shape other than post ad hoc argument that it facilitates a warp bubble. Mike Okuda the technical advisor/continuity director for star trek indicates that artificial gravity is produced by a magnetic field coil surrounded by slush deuterium fueled by warp plasma to produce gravitons. how plausible this is unknown to me. Sounds like trek speak to me. However the artificial gravity has a functional aspect beyond set design. The ship does not just travel at warp speed which as noted before can argued does not accelerate the crew. The ship travels in the normal universe at sub-light speeds or impulse engines. Without artificial gravity counteracting acceleration forces at sub-light, everyone would be strawberry jelly smears or it would take weeks to accelerate out of the way of an attacking enemy. Perpendicular decks or spinning disks, seats would not be enough to counteract the acceleration, every time kirk orders evasive maneuvers everyone dies. In a friction filled atmosphere current technology can severely injure pilots in a high G turn. never mind 120000 KPH right turn. Poor gravity compensation is given as the reason everyone leans right or left on the show. Inertial dampeners are another form of artificial gravity. My biggest problem with trek was why have the “bridge” on the top like a kick me spot, I mean they are lookin at a big TV screen why not have it way down deep in the ship. Assuming you could produce gravitons you would have to produce them in staggered linear fashion to produce a coherent line of force or there would be light area’s, heavy gravity areas or zero gravity areas. Unless you assume they have a way to limit the area they affect. So you would have to have gravity producers and shielding to produce an non linear layout. Plus tidal forces associated with this. Seems like if you start with argument that you make gravity then the layout makes sense. You just put the generators at different levels and keep the overall gravitation level even. Still, and this has nothing to do with my screen name, probably a cube would be the best design. obviously given my screen name I am a fan. Not trying to say that somethings are not just for cost/set design. I think the total failure to come up with unique alien lifeform is a lot more disappointing. Klingon, come on I have seen more interesting lifeforms in a sea monkey jar. everyone is bipedal, or the head of something on something IE admiral ackbar. Anthropomorphism is what ruined my favorite aliens for me, Borg Queen bullshit, at least a hive mind was unique if not very imaginative.

  69. daedalus2uon 21 Mar 2011 at 7:27 pm

    Dr Novella, yes you are correct.

    ”I’m saying that it’s pointless because the criteria are open ended, so you can make anything work. But at some point the explanations become too contrived and convenient.”

    The same is true of human behaviors in bad TV. Real humans don’t behave that way.

    I attempt to construct an internally consistent science fiction universe as an exercise in “following the data” no matter where it goes or how complicated the consequences are. I see it as an exercise in hypothesis generation where there are no real world consequences.

    There are many aspects of the Star Trek technology that we “know” are only there as plot devices. Control circuits in the bridge shorting out and blasting sparks and smoke is a prime example. There is no conceivable engineering reason to have circuits that are so fragile, and with so much power routed near the bridge, and especially circuits that can be “repaired” by a little fiddling (bare handed) by Mr Spock. Those circuit faults are obviously a plot device to show how serious things are (things are pretty serious, they are blowing up) and how competent Mr Spock is (he can repair live multi-gigawatt circuits with his bare hands).

    Science fiction (and all fiction) is primarily about the human element.

    Locutusbrg, you have to have the bridge exposed like that. If it was buried deep within a spherical hull, you could never abandon ship when systems fail. The shields are more effective shielding than miles of metal. Inches of steel, meters of steel, km of steel, it is all so much paper compared to the shields. When the shields go, you abandon ship.

  70. CivilUnreston 21 Mar 2011 at 8:46 pm

    One point that always really bothered me about ships with artificial gravity is that they usually still rely on thrusters for some of their propulsion needs. If you can generate gravity at will, why not just make an artificial gravity well in front of your ship and “fall” towards it?

    As for propulsion in Star Trek, I was under the impression that warp drives created a bubble of “special space” around a ship, within which certain physical constants and laws worked differently. This allows them to accelerate far beyond the speed of light.

    Finally, in regards to Firefly, the two mobile engines on the ships wings were specifically used to maneuver while in a planet’s atmosphere. The big butt of this ship was where the real engine was, and it was that bad-boy that let the ship travel between planets quickly.

  71. locutusbrgon 22 Mar 2011 at 11:44 am

    daedalus excellent point better argument than any I have heard before. Subject to new information I retract that statement.

    Civilunrest there are a series of sci-fi books written by Ian Douglas that use that system exactly to drive their ships. The books are weak but that concept was very interesting.

  72. superdaveon 22 Mar 2011 at 4:12 pm

    well as long as we are nitpicking. Even at much greater than light speeds, it would take just an insane amount of time and luck to even encounter any habitable planets, let alone inhabited planets.

  73. superdaveon 22 Mar 2011 at 4:14 pm

    And why would the Q continuum pick humans as the race to contain in the solar system over the Borg or any of the other militant alien species.

  74. AGWeirdon 23 Mar 2011 at 7:38 am

    I suppose that the ship design is in a great deal limited to:
    a) Transportation of the crew
    b) Transportation of the ship

    Both of these problems can be countered by just not transporting either the crew or the ship, and instead just sending a much smaller and more convenient crew and ship assimilator.
    Crews can be cloned by first doing a complete scan, and just transferring the digital signal, and the ship can be assimilated by the assimilator by materials found at the target destination.

    Isn’t the planetary transport beam they use in Star Trek explained in this way? That you simply scan the atoms of the target crew member, and reconstruct them at the target destination? (I suppose that you could say you kill the crew member each time they are beamed somewhere, but reconstructed at the target destination).

    But then again, I’m assuming, as a materialist, that the human mind actually can be scanned and be reconstructed, so that you literally copy the body, personality and memory.

  75. Rikki-Tikki-Tavion 23 Mar 2011 at 9:25 am


    I hope you’re still reading this.

    I’m a mechanical engineering student with aerospace ambitions. The thing that bugs me most about spacecraft designs, is when the jets of the engines are not aligned with the center of mass of the spacecraft.

    Let me elaborate:
    If the vector of the combined thrust of all engines does not go through the center of mass of a ship, they induce an angular momentum. That means, in order for the ship to not start spinning, a massive object inside the ship would have to start spinning rapidly to compensate.

    Surely, the center of mass is not necessarily the center of volume, but in some cases it’s just obvious that the center of mass can’t be that far out.

    I give the enterprise the benefit of doubt, because I don’t know if its method of propulsion is ever properly explained. But I do think of some Ships from Star Wars.

    I’m not too big on the whole vertical orientation thing. Yes, it’s crossed my mind too, but then again: why would a space ship have a smooth hull? Why would the bridge be on the top and not in the center? All that caters to our expectations, but Star Trek never made a point of physical accuracy. It would bother me in Firefly, but they rely on glass Windows, and need to land frequently. It makes sense that they have floors parallel to the vector of acceleration.

    For a little artificial gravity:

  76. ncbleeon 25 Apr 2011 at 5:38 pm

    Actually, the reason horseless carriages looked like they did is that the first IC vehicles were just actual carriages with an engine and chain drivetrain mounted. And since it (basically) worked, they didn’t vary the engineering of the body until speed and other necessities forced it. That’s always they way it is with a new-but-very-derivative technology. The parts of the new widget that are old stuff re-purposed are generally carried over intact until changes in the known-good bits are forced by changing requirements.

Trackback URI | Comments RSS

Leave a Reply

You must be logged in to post a comment.