Friday, January 7, 2011

Lemming Tracks: Science Fiction Weapons, and Keeping Up With Last Year's News

This is an exciting time to be around: blink, and you may miss something.

Getting distracted while writing another post ("Lemming Tracks: Sudan, Africa, Independence, Unity, and Getting a Grip") today, I found some interesting assertions about 'science fiction' weapons. Here's a sample:

"Kinetic Weapons Are Just Better"
Television Tropes & Idioms

"The story is set some high-tech and/or futuristic society. There are massive computer networks, sentient robots, and ships that can zip across space with the same amount of effort it takes you to go to the store down the street. Despite all this technology, however, combat isn't all that different. Battle armor may have some gizmos on it, the guns may have higher muzzle velocities and an ammo count greater than the population of several rural communities, war vehicles may be able to do some fancy new tricks, but combat is the same at heart. If there are energy weapons in the universe, they are either horribly disadvantaged with fewer shots before a replacement is needed, experimental, hard to get, or are wracked with issues like overheating, and that's supposing anyone other than the attacking alien race/evil faction even has access to them. And that's if you can get them to actually be capable of hurting things.

"A theme in many sci-fi works, especially newer ones. It is not a bad thing; in older science fiction, portrayals of energy weapons were usually very inaccurate, showing them as simply better because they were more high-tech. This is a surprisingly common misconception; if a category of technology is more 'advanced', it must be better than something less 'advanced.' This is the same logic that has Star Trek medical isolation use 'high-tech' forcefields instead of boring old walls, despite the fact that boring old walls don't vanish if you unplug them.

"Real life energy weapons haven't really made it far from the labs just yet...."

The page makes good points: today's directed-energy weapons often use chemicals that make them at least as dangerous to the operators as to the target. The things are fragile, and - worse - comparatively ineffective.

An important point, the Lemming thinks, is: "...Real life energy weapons haven't really made it far from the labs just yet...." [emphasis mine]

Energy Weapons are so Fifties

Another point is that 'energy weapons' have been around for over a half-century now:
That post discusses the test of a fusion bomb, which converts hydrogen to helium: releasing quite a lot of energy in the process. It's essentially the same process that happens every second in the star that Earth orbits.

Fusion bombs were recognized as a theoretical possibility since the 1930s. Serious folks assumed that they were impossible to make, since the fusion process won't work unless hydrogen is squeezed and heated to levels you'd find inside a star.

A scientific curiosity, something for theoretical physicists to discuss: but something that'll 'never happen.' Like Alcubierre's warp drive. (June 12, 2009) Which is another topic, sort of.

Producing conditions normally found inside a star was a practical impossibility in 1940. By 1950, it was merely difficult. ("Hydrogen Bomb / Fusion Weapons," Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD), GlobalSecurity.org)

But - 'science fiction stuff' like weapons that shoot balls of lightning and lethal beams of energy? The Lemming will skip the conventional hand-wringing about how nice it would be if everybody would only be nice: You've probably heard it all before, anyway. For the record? It would be - nice.

Weaponized Ball Lightning, Commercial Laser Cannons

There's a fellow who's trying to generate stable magnetoplasmoids: a five-dollar word for ball lightning. Generating the things isn't the problem: getting them to last long enough to make an effective anti-missile weapon is. (February 20, 2009)

And earlier this year Raytheon's latest laser weapon system shot down a UAV. (July 22, 2010)

Like the Lemming said, blink and you'll miss something.

Change Happens: A Lot

As far as it goes, the Tropes page makes good arguments. But the Lemming thinks that the writer overlooked how much technologies can change. Weapons that shoot projectiles went from the blunderbuss to the (now old) M16 in under three centuries.

Three centuries from now? The Lemming suspects that change will still be the rule in this world: and that weapons technology won't be quite what it was in 1700 or 2000.

Keeping up isn't easy in eras like this, when cutting-edge technologies like wire recorders and eight-track become museum pieces in a person's lifetime. (more: recording-history.org)

Then there was the fellow who'd compiled an impressive collection of photos and artwork displaying Dubai's remarkable architecture. Including what the writer thought would be the world's first spaceport. Just one problem with that: although the passenger terminal wasn't finished, there already was a commercial spaceport in operation at the time. (October 25, 2008)

Horse-Driven Airliners, Supersonic Dirigibles, and 'Impossible'

The Lemming tries to avoid falling into the habit of assuming that the way things were is the way they are. Or that new technologies are pretty much the same as what was around in 'the good old days.'

That last point has some merit, since a jumbo jet does pretty much the same thing that a horse-drawn wagon does: get people and goods from one place to another. Only faster.

On the other hand, there's a reason why we don't have horse-driven airliners. The strongest, fastest team of horses in the world can't generate the sort of energy it takes to move hundreds of people from one side of a continent to another - through the air - and still be light enough to fly.

That doesn't mean that Boeing, have been selling credulous airlines vehicles based on the design principles of the emperor's new clothes.

Or that propulsion systems that need more energy than we can generate today are "impossible."

Somewhat-related posts:

4 comments:

Brigid said...

This is how your post ended: "That doesn't mean that Boeing, "

The Friendly Neighborhood Proofreader

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...

Brigid,

Good grief. I was sure I'd completed that. Finished, and thanks.

phenomenalindia said...

wow!!!
very well written
i hope u ll consider having look at my writing too on same topic

http://phenomenalindia.blogspot.com/2011_01_04_archive.html

Brian, aka Aluwir, aka Norski said...

phenomenalindia,

I took a look - and see that you focused on nuclear weapons.

No doubt about it. Those things do a lot more damage than a crossbow bolt.

I'm concerned about dealing with dangerous technologies like fissile materials and anhydrous ammonia. But I'm at least as concerned about folks being unreasonably afraid: I saw too much of that on college campuses here in America.

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