Wednesday, September 21, 2011

Responsible world-building

Something a little different this time. Despite my usual spiel about getting the science right and then attempting to elucidate said science, sometimes you just gotta make stuff up. Sometimes you really just need some FTL* spaceships or your whole plot falls over. There are only so many times you can write a story about slow space travel — or even relativistic space travel. All that I ask is a little consistency. So I'm not going to talk about building worlds in the sense of planets (there will be many other posts about that), I'm going to talk about making up convenient science in a sensible and coherent manner.

World building: not just about worlds.
Snagged from APOD.
Illustration Credit: David A. Aguilar (CfA), TrES, Kepler, NASA
Some things are physically impossible. Some impossibilities are standard science fiction tropes, and that's OK. I've mentioned FTL, there's also telepathy (which, as Asimov masterfully showed, doesn't actually require space opera or science fantasy to operate) and worm holes. I am a bit more suspicious of inertial dampeners and hyperspace, but it does sort of depend on the story. I'd lump teleportation into the former list too, but that's a good example of something that we thought was impossible that we can sort of kind of almost start to do. Scientists have teleported photons across a lab and, more recently, I remember reading about a Bose-Einstein condensate (a small collection of atoms) being teleported, but I can't find a link right now so I'm hoping I didn't imagine it.

What they're actually doing with the teleportation at the moment is teleporting the quantum state of the photons/atoms. (I say this because I'm going to talk a little bit more about it shortly.) But that doesn't really matter. If you want to have people using teleports instead of lifts, then go right ahead. But you'd better have a good reason for them to have spaceships. Or a reason, at the very least, or pedants like me will whinge about your inconsistencies on their blogs and no one wants that.

The other thing with teleportation is that at some point you are somehow going to transfer a human-sized pile of data from point A to point B. I don't really care how you do it, but it's going to be a large pile (the upper limit, if you're curious, is about 1045 bits) of data that does somehow have to be encoded and then travel. I guess the teleportation part is implying that the travelling is instantaneous (you can invoke quantum entanglement, for example). But what about the encoding? How long is it going to take to encode that sheer quantity of information? (Actually, I did a bit of rough approximating and I got about 1029 bytes** for an average-sized person because the upper bound is, well, the upper bound.)

I assume you are going to let your encoding travel at the speed of plot. That's fine, if you're going to have some arbitrary reason, plot is better than most. However, if you're encoding people so that they can teleport, say, within a building in the space of a few seconds, then you had better not have them waiting a long time for their email to download. The speed of plot is the speed of plot, but really, you can't have different speeds of plot to suit your whim. It's sloppy and it annoys people like me. If you really must have them wait for their email, you had better have a damned good pseudo-scientific explanation.

To emphasise my point:
  • So let's say a person is worth around 1029 bytes (if you want to pick a higher number, knock yourself out; it will only make your data speeds more magically fast).
  • If it takes them 5 seconds to teleport from A to B (and assuming it shouldn't matter how far apart A and B are) then that's 2.5 seconds to encode the data and 2.5 seconds to decode it at the other end. Or maybe decoding is faster. Whatever. Order of magnitude is close enough.
  • So if it takes 2 seconds to decode 1029 bytes...
  • ...that's really fast. 
  • I mean, have you ever tried to copy a gigabyte-sized movie from your computer to your memory stick? (and assuming you weren't using Vista...) A gigabyte is 109 bytes so a person is 1019 gigabytes.
  • And don't get me started on storing that much data.
But this is science fiction, so those aren't insurmountable obstacles. But they are obstacles that, once surmounted,  have vast-reaching ramifications. Like email. Or hacking into an enemy's database. So if you need slow transfer rates somewhere else, ask yourself why similar technology to what enables teleportation can't be used.

Obviously, these ideas apply more broadly than just teleportation, but that's the example I've run with. And with that I'll close this slightly sleep-deprived post.

Remember: build worlds responsibly.

* Faster Than Light, which is currently physically impossible.
**1 byte = 8 bits

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