Friday, July 1, 2011

The Science of Mass Effect

What's a computer game and a propellantless drive doing in a blog about realistic interstellar flight with solar sails, fusion drives and the scuzzy facts of cosmic radiation? Well, I was thinking back about having played Mass Effect, and looking back at some discussion with some (smarter than me) folks who discuss and experiment with propellantless propulsion and advanced physics, I thought I'd try and show how some of this is cropping up in mainstream entertainment (what do you mean you never heard of Mass Effect?).

First off, Mass Effect, and its sequels. I'm sure a lot of you will have at least heard of it, and some played it. It's a combination of shooting game and role playing. While it's a fantastically well crafted and seriously fun game with some great acting, it's also really meaty in its science. Unlike Star Trek's "Particle of The Week" technobabble, the creators of Mass Effect carefully pondered what they could do with cutting-edge physics and technology. Ships, for example, have to have radiators or else they'll cook from their own internal heat in the vacuum of space. Weapons are variants on mass drivers and need to either cool down or deposit their waste heat into disposable heat sinks. Soldiers and everyday civilians are enhanced with cybernetic implants and nanotechnology.

Other topics are touched on, such as what happens when AI evolves and computing progress leads to Singularities. This is reminiscent of Sci-Fi authors like Peter F. Hamilton and Charles Stross. In fact, the game's fluff specifically mentions a couple of people I've had lively discussions with - space wargame designer Ken Burnside and the creator of the Atomic Rocket website, Winchell Chung. You can see a pair of recruits with their names being chewed out (with some mild profanity) here.

The most interesting aspect for me is the titular Mass Effect. In the game, the Mass Effect is generated by applying electrical charge to a chunk of Element Zero (just your average plot Unobtanium). There's a bit of waffle about how this Element Zero manipulates dark energy, the odd force causing the universe to expand. This Mass Effect is used to generate gravity, allow ships to accelerate at stupendous velocities, travel faster than light and to create force fields. In this video, everybody's favourite pop scientist, Michio Kaku, discusses the tech of Mass Effect.

What struck me is that the Mass Effect is an inertia-modifying effect. Which is exactly what the Mach Effect is, just without the Element Zero. It can be achieved by common or garden variety capacitors, so the theory goes, or anything else that fluctuates in internal energy quickly enough. I'll spare the long discussion, but it's really a logical outgrowth of Einstein's General Relativity to explain inertia - basically it's caused by the gravity of the rest of the universe pulling on an on object. Wiggle the object in the right way, and you can get those rubbery strings of gravity to work for you (note, nothing to do with String Theory). A bit like how a vibrating table can make an otherwise heavy object easy to push. Basically, the object's inertia is being lowered for a microsecond, and if you time the shove right, you can push it with less force. Interestingly, it appears that it would great gravity fields around it (because of all those stretched or relaxed gravity "strings"). Those gravity fields could give us artificial gravity generators, force fields, tractor beams and maybe even faster than light travel. Just like the Mass Effect universe.

The scientists (notably Dr. Woodward), engineers and Joe Averages (i.e. yours truly) who discuss the Mach Effect were talking about how to raise awareness of it, so instead of making a Doritos-and-Mountain Dew-fuelled looong email trying to explain all of this, I thought I'd put it here in the public eye, so to speak. A lot of promising physics concepts are familiar in Sci-Fi, or are otherwise making their way into the public consciousness thanks to the general curiosity of people surfing the net. Of course, Joe Average might look at you and go what? But those of us who watch Big Bang and have a vague clue about what Sheldon spouts may know. And maybe all that's needed to get promising revolutionary technologies off the experimental bench and into spacecraft...

When playing Mass Effect 2, I took a trip down to the engine room and saw the Mass Effect core vibrating... much like the way the Mach Effect devices would work (although you wouldn't necessarily *see* the vibrations, which would be in the mega to gigahertz range...). 3D artists, game programmers and designers are a smart bunch, and you often see unexpected references to some really intriguing ideas wrapped in a game or movie. I wonder if the inspiration for the Mass Effect was indeed the Mach Effect?

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