January 13, 2012
This article was originally pitched to Cracked, who rejected it. I see their point, but I put so much work into it that I thought it would be a waste to just let it sit on my hard drive. Enjoy!
Science fiction is full of weapons of mass destruction, everything from planet-cracking lasers to miniaturized railguns that can put a hole in a tank. Some of these weapons have been the basis for real-world weapons and technological innovation. Others, however, should probably stay as fiction.
They should remain fictional, not because humanity should give up the idea of bad-ass weaponry to stave off the eventual robot uprising, but because some of these weapons would get the designers shot in real life.
If we had the technology to build these devices, would we really want to? This isn’t about whether the weapons suck in the show and everyone just ignores it. This is about the basic physics. Would we want these weapons at all?
6. Organic Weapons (Stargate Atlantis, Star Wars, Farscape, etc)
I’ve talked about this one before, but it bears repeating.
Science fiction, and to some extent fantasy, is full of “advanced” races using organic ships and weapons. In Star Wars, the galaxy was nearly destroyed by the organic technology of the Yuuzhan Vong. In Stargate Atlantis, the Wraith decimated the Pegasus Galaxy in their hive ships and lay waste to the Ancients, a race so advanced that they are known as the Gatebuilders. In every instance, technology based on organic systems has proven superior to good ol’ metal. There is some basis for this.
A year ago, scientists in Israel developed a super-strong nano-material much harder than steel. There’s also a spider that creates silk tougher than Kevlar, and harvesting it would be a boon. It seems us puny humans are just trying to catch up with Mother Nature.
In the real world…
Hive ship would go squish. Quickly.
Organic substances have proven to be VERY strong, but they lack something the fiction insists is the real advantage of a living ship or weapon: regenerative capabilities. A self-repairing system could take a punishment but just heal itself as the battle progresses. In the fiction, this is protrayed as something like Wolverine’s regeneration. However, to be able to regenerate implies that the structure is porous, that it isn’t completely solid. Think of bone. Even though it’s one of the strongest organic materials in our bodies, it’s still generally brittle because nutrients and proteins need to be able to get in to keep the system alive. In a battle, “porous” translates as “squishy.”
And that’s only the first problem. Organic systems don’t have the kind of electrical conductivity needed to really run much more than a few gadgets. Think about it. How damaged do your nerves get when you get a small current running through your body? We are the conductive equivalent of pudding.
This is a byproduct of the chemical properties of organic systems. The weakest link will break first, and in this case, all that living tissue is going to make for a weak electrical system. Don’t believe me? Try using a piece of bacon to fix a short circuit. You’ll either get no charge going to and fro or you’ll get a really crispy piece of bacon if you turn the current up high enough.
Mmmm… electrical bacon.
5. Relativistic Kinetic Weapons (Halo, Mass Effect, Eraser, etc)
If you’ve played any video games in the last fifteen years, you know about these. Guns work on a very simple principle. Aim at target. Make bullet go fast. Bullet makes target go away. If you have a super-strong material to build the barrel and the benefit of a thermonuclear reactor pumping out a few thousand gigwatts of electricity, why not take it to its logical conclusion and fire a slug at a significant fraction of the speed of light? In Halo, Mass Effect, and Eraser, this is standard operating procedure and the ammunition usually punches clean through anything short of a planet. In the real world, we’re developing railguns, though they’re nowhere near as powerful. They’re still awesome, though.
So that’s what you’d want in a fight against heavily armored opponents. You want a gun that fires a gram of dense metal so fast it would make Superman look slow. Make it fully automatic and you have a gun that could shred a modern battleship in less than it takes to say “fire.”
In the real world…
This weapon also has two problems. Look at these scenes in Eraser. Notice anything? Ahnold is not being fried by the friction on bullets traveling at thousands of miles per hour. THIS is what a railgun bullet looks like when it’s just moving a few times faster than sound. Now imagine the kind of heat created by something moving that fast. There’s also the problem that a gun that fired even a gram at that speed would fly out of the shooter’s hands fast enough to probably turn said shooter into pudding.
Okay, that’s the second pudding reference. I’m hungry.
There’s a third problem, though. Let’s say we actually had these relativistic weapons and installed them on something very large (like a battle-ready starship) and we fired them in a vaccum so we we didn’t get dangerous trails of flaming atmosphere. NOW we’re talking.
Except the gun wastes a ton of energy.
In the real world, gun manufacturers realized that a faster, heavier bullet could take down a target. A .45 ACP bullet, for example, is pretty good for taking out things like robbers, small game, and velociraptors. However, it has a problem. It carries so much energy that it can easily go through a person and damage property or other people behind the target. That’s why gunmakers developed hollow-point rounds. These bullets have a concave tip that lets the bullet expand and transfer as much energy as possible to the target, causing more damage and not wasting the bullet’s energy.
This isn’t a small concern. Let’s say you have a bullet that weighs 1 kg. To get it moving at 10% the speed of light, you’d need the energy of a 107 kiloton nuclear warhead. That’s more than five times as much as the Hiroshima bomb. If the bullet goes clean through a target, as the fiction proposes, and it still poses a threat, that means it still has most of its energy. This would be a horrendous waste of resources.
Imagine shooting a needle at five hundred miles per hour at someone. Sure, it could go clean through, but it would do less damage than just punching the guy.
4. Phasers (Star Trek)
Ah, the humble phaser. It’s been a staple of Star Trek since the 1960’s. “Set to stun,” has inspired real-life weapon manufacturers to create weapons that can both kill or simply imcapacitate. In fact, even people who’ve never watched Star Trek have probably heard of the phaser. It’s a classic, lethal weapon in the lore of science fiction.
In the real world…
Phasers have no gun sights, trigger guards, safeties, or any number of safety features you’d want on a weapon that can vaporize a person. Ask anyone who uses guns on a regular basis if they’d like their sights filed off or their trigger guards removed. These aren’t there for cosmetic purposes, folks. Taking them away will make a gun look streamlined, but you’ll also have a HIGHLY dangerous weapon that could go off if not handled properly by even a professional.
And speaking of handling a phaser…
Notice how the handles are curved. In order to hold and shoot one of these puppies, you have to bend your wrist at an unnatural angle. It’s the only way to hold them and even pretend to aim. Really. Tilt your wrist downward and try holding that position for more than five minutes. You can’t, can you? Now take a look at where the designers put the battery pack.
It’s in the handle, but not like a magazine on a modern semi-auto. The battery is actually made up on the handle’s forward section. You have to remove it from the front, so the only way to swap batteries in the middle of a battle is to turn the weapon upside down, flip it so the barrel points at you, then remove the battery and slap a new one in.
You got that? To switch the battery on a phaser, you have to end up with a loaded phaser pointed right at you.
Even if the tech behind the weapon worked, if it could kill and stun at will, good luck finding someone to actually use one of these suicide aids.
3. Humanoid Mecha (ANY Japanese anime, it seems)
The sight of a colossus of titanium and guns walking into a battlefield would be enough to make any hardened soldier soil his BDU’s. Anime loves this one, and it’s almost become required practice to have one or two of these for every franchise. Warhammer 40K has its own versions, all equally humanoid, and the general rule seems to be that your best fighting machines should look like the things that pilot them.
Tell me you wouldn’t crap yourself if you saw this heading towards you with a sword that could cut a skyscraper in half?
In the real world…
There’s a reason aircraft carriers are sometimes darkly referred to as “bomb magnets.”
The bigger it is, the more chance it will become the target of choice for every weapon on the battlefield. That’s really the smaller problem, though. If it’s tough enough, the mecha might survive, and drawing attention could actually inspire fear in the hearts of the enemy as they see a giant man-shaped weapon’s platform.
But you’d have to actually get the thing built, though.
Military design is, ideally, an exercise in doing the most with the least. It’s the same principle as engineering. You want systems that are simple and get the job done. Just take a look at this space shuttle design. It’s nothing but a cone and an engine. That’s all it needs. Now ask yourself why a piece of military technology would need a torso, legs, and arms?
It wouldn’t. A piece of military hardware that houses guns should do one thing: bring the guns to the fight and maneuver them. Look at a modern destroyer like the Iowa-class. The entire ship exists solely to get the guns places. Its infrastructure is built around those things: ammo, maintenance, mobility, etc. A humanoid battle platform would be a waste of resources.
Just building a humanoid mecha would cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Sure, there are bombers that cost more, but those bombers are nothing but weapon and engines. A humanoid mecha is thousands of tons of metal not counting fuel to get the thing going.
Save the money and just buy a missile launcher and a humvee.
2. Plasma Weapons (Halo, Star Trek, Babylon 5, etc)
The humble plasma weapon is a catch-all term for anything that fires blobs of colored light that burn a target.
Plasma is gas that’s been stripped of its electrons. It’s in everything from computer monitors to thermonuclear reactions, but for weapon purposes, you probably want the nuclear-reactor type. The surface of the sun is made up of plasma, which should give you an idea of how ass-scorching hot the stuff can get. However, scientists recently broke a record and created plasma at 2 billion degrees Kelvin.
The sun, by comparison, is only 15 million degrees Kelvin.
Imagine firing star-blobs at your enemy and searing them with the power of your own miniature sun in a gun. You would rain death and destruction with the power of Helios himself and be a god among the warriors of the world!
In the real world…
Get that burn ointment out. In fact, grab a bucket of the stuff.
Let’s take a trip back to elementary science class. When material heats up, it expands and becomes less dense. It’s the reason a hot air balloon floats in the cooler air. Heat something to supernova levels, though, and it expands a lot. Like, a lot a lot. Plasma is so thin that it makes regular air look like pudding. That’s made out of lead.
And that’s three references to pudding. When’s lunch time?!
This pudding air creates the first problem. If you’re firing your plasma gun in an atmosphere, that’d be like trying to launch a supersonic ping pong ball underwater. Or a potato gun inside concrete. It’s not going to go very far. The plasma goes splat against the air which might as well be steel based on density differential, but that’s not the worst part.
At its most basic level, plasma is steam. Steam has this nasty habit of wanting to expand. That’s why tea kettles whistle. But that’s just regular, run-of-the-mill steam. It’s not heated to millions of degrees. No tea needs to be boiled to millions of degrees.
Even if you somehow managed to keep plasma together and level and fire it fast enough so it could blast through our super-dense air, and even if this plasma weapon was only used in space where you don’t have lead air to worry about, it would still want to expand, and QUICKLY. Trying to shoot plasma at a target is basically trying to focus an explosion. Just imagine trying to remove an appendix at fifty feet with a stick of dynamite and you get the idea.
Plasma is not only too diffuse to move through the air, but it’s so hot that it will expand almost instantly in every direction, creating a cloud of death and destruction.
Said cloud of death and destruction will, however, be made up mostly of the atomized bits of your own gunners.
1. The Death Star II (Star Wars)
What? The Death Star? Sure, it had a single little point that had to be shot to blow the whole thing up, but it took a Force-sensitive with plot armor to do it. The second one would have been fine if it was finished, so why say that the Death Star II was a terrible weapon? This one could blow up ships with pin-point accuracy. Once shielded, it would have been like trying to attack a small planet. It had enough stormtroopers that, statistically, one of them would have hit something every minute.
Here’s the thing. The sources differ on the size of the second Death Star, but they all agree it was much larger. Volume increases faster than diameter. The second Death Star is between 3 and 6 times in size, meaning the internal volume was between 27 and 216 times larger than the original one. Death Star II was built in less than two years. That means that in the time it took to build the ONE massive superstation, the Empire could have used the same materials to build a small fleet.
In real life, it’s one of the reasons massive ships were so controversial in the early 20th century. If you destroy the one big ship, you’re out one whole ship, crew, ammo, and all. It’s the ultimate case of putting all your eggs in one basket. It’s a similar problem to the humanoid mecha. If something is that big, you better believe the enemy is going to throw anything and everything at it to get it out of the battlefield as quickly as possible.
And that’s it. Hope you all had a good week, I’ll see you Monday with a video, a short article, and hopefully I get this new grantwriting job I was pitched.
Stay safe, keep sharing links, and I’ll see you in two days. In the meantime, please enjoy this video of an epic space battle from the Freespace mod The Fall of An Empire.