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Battlestar Galactica vs. Star Trek

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"It's not enough to survive. One has to be worthy of surviving."
—Adm. Bill Adama, Battlestar Galactica

Battlestar Galactica presents a problem for me and my Star Trek-fan friends. Why do we love it so much? We call each other up after each new episode and ramble in nervous high-pitched voices, batting back and forth theories and questions and "OH MY GOD" moments"¦ all the while feeling vaguely guilty that no Star Trek clash with the Borg or tampering with the time-space continuum ever engaged and obsessed and haunted us to such a profound extent.

Star Trek and Battlestar Galactica have wildly different aesthetics and ideologies, and both aspire to very different goals. Fundamentally, it boils down to this:

Star Trek is about who we want to be, and Battlestar Galactica is about who we are.

Star Trek takes place in a world where all the ugly things about human existence have been erased. Interstellar globalization has brought us new technologies to make transportation and translation effortless. Machines called replicators can produce absolutely anything you want, so the economics of inequity are gone. The injuries of race and class and gender have been surmounted, if not forgotten altogether. Scarcity, borders, money, and culture have all ceased to exist. Interpersonal tensions are relics of a more savage age. No destructive love affairs, no chafing under authority, minimal arrogance to put your fellow crew members at risk. There's something nice about visiting a world like that—just like it's nice to pretend that institutional racism and violence against women and poverty are getting better instead of worse. Much of mainstream fiction is built on this kind of wish-fulfillment.

That's why the world of Battlestar Galactica feels so fresh, and so challenging.

People still drink too much, and beat their spouses, and work too hard, and hate their bosses, and distrust the government, and fear death. The crew of the Galactica is not boldly exploring the universe for exploring's sake, learning about fascinating new cultures and inviting alien species to join the benevolent Federation of Planets. It's running away from a race of genocidal robots bent on their complete annihilation, while trying to maintain some shred of humanity and civilization.

Star Trek revels in its geekiness. Physicist in-jokes and gleefully incomprehensible technobabble are found in every episode. People say things like "The secondary gyrodyne relays in the propulsion field matrix have just depolarized."

As a nerd, I find this fun. It's part of Star Trek's fantasy appeal. It's part of the idea that science and reason and the intellect will prevail. But we've been telling ourselves that lie for a long time now.

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In a very concrete sense, Battlestar Galactica descends from the sci-fi community's realization that darker and more complex times demand darker and more complex science fiction. Ronald Moore, the developer/writer/executive producer of the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica, has a Star Trek pedigree that makes him the idol of Trekkies everywhere. He scripted 27 episodes of Star Trek: The Next Generation, and was promoted to co-producer and later to producer. On Star Trek: Deep Space Nine, he was a supervising producer and a co-executive producer, writing several of the series' most controversial episodes. He co-wrote the scripts for the films Star Trek Generations and Star Trek: First Contact. And while he was hired as a producer of Star Trek: Voyager, he left after only two episodes. In a January 2000 interview with Cinescape magazine, he outlined some of the frustrations with that show:

"I think the audience intuitively knows when something is true and something is not true. Voyager is not true. If it were true, the ship would not look spic-and-span every week, after all these battles it goes through. How many times has the bridge been destroyed? How many shuttlecrafts have vanished, and another one just comes out of the oven? That kind of BSing the audience I think takes its toll. At some point the audience stops taking it seriously, because they know that this is not really the way this would happen. These people wouldn't act like this."

Galactica is sci-fi without that BS. Sci-fi with all the anger and stupidity and sadness that real people experience. Sci-fi without the conviction that we will conquer our own ugliness. Sci-fi for the age of 9/11 and natural disasters compounded by climate change to the point where they can completely destroy major cities. Galactica's message is that unless we come to terms with our own history, we are doomed. Mankind created the Cylons to fight our wars and to do our grunt work for us. Eventually they rose up and wiped out 99.999% of us. This basic lesson is one we still haven't learned: that exploitation leads to exploitation, that if you oppress someone you sow the seeds of your own oppression. "You can't play God and then wash your hands of the things you've created," says the Galactica's commander, William Adama. "Sooner or later, the day comes when you can't hide from the things that you've done anymore."
* * * * *
The apocalypse obsesses us. The idea of society's total collapse has broad traction across the political spectrum. Even Oprah's worried—that's why she picked Cormac McCarthy's The Road for her book club. No getting around it: we're afraid. We want to prepare ourselves mentally. We buy batteries. We lap up every new zombies-destroy-humanity movie. All of a sudden, it's disturbingly easy to imagine the human race reduced from billions of people to tens of thousands.

Battlestar Galactica's warning that technology and progress will bring us to the brink of total annihilation is far more resonant than Star Trek's hope that technology and progress will solve all of our problems.

Star Trek doesn't pretend that human beings are perfect—prior to the discovery of the Warp Engine, Earth had been brought back to the edge of the Stone Age by the "Eugenics Wars"—but it does take for granted that human beings are good, and that history represents a fumbling messy sort of progress towards perfection. What makes Battlestar Galactica so haunting is the existential question it poses to all of us: "Do we deserve to exist?" In light of Auschwitz and Darfur and the Tuskegee Syphilis Study, Tibet and 9/11 and Abu Ghraib, can we honestly say we don't deserve total destruction? That we'll learn? That we'll change? Early on, Galactica's commander wonders: "When we fought the Cylons, we did it to save ourselves from extinction. But we never answered the question: Why? Why are we as a people worth saving?" And while Star Trek plotlines frequently boil down to a search for the best solution to a problem, the "best solution" on Battlestar Galactica is likely to raise all sorts of thorny moral questions. Is it acceptable to rig an election, because you know that your opponent's policies will lead to disaster? Can we assassinate a rival officer whose actions put the fleet at risk? Where is the line between a mob and a society?

I wish I could see the show as a clear sign that we're ready to own up to the narratives of hate and violence and oppression that comprise our history, but that feels like a stretch. At the very least, I think Battlestar Galactica has been an overwhelming critical and popular success because we're ready to be challenged. As we enter the final part of the final season, the survival of the human race clearly hinges on whether mankind will come to terms with what it has done. And while it's simplistic to reduce the Cylons to an allegory for racism, or our oil addiction, BSG offers us a rare opportunity to examine our own culpability, and our own power to change.

This article originally appeared last June. Sam J. Miller is a writer and community organizer. His work has appeared in numerous magazines, anthologies, and print and online journals. He lives in the Bronx with his partner of six years. Visit him at samjmiller.com.

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The Elements
9 Diamond-Like Facts About Carbon
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How well do you know the periodic table? Our series The Elements explores the fundamental building blocks of the observable universe—and their relevance to your life—one by one.
 
 
It can be glittering and hard. It can be soft and flaky. It can look like a soccer ball. Carbon is the backbone of every living thing—and yet it just might cause the end of life on Earth as we know it. How can a lump of coal and a shining diamond be composed of the same material? Here are eight things you probably didn't know about carbon.

1. IT'S THE "DUCT TAPE OF LIFE."

It's in every living thing, and in quite a few dead ones. "Water may be the solvent of the universe," writes Natalie Angier in her classic introduction to science, The Canon, "but carbon is the duct tape of life." Not only is carbon duct tape, it's one hell of a duct tape. It binds atoms to one another, forming humans, animals, plants and rocks. If we play around with it, we can coax it into plastics, paints, and all kinds of chemicals.

2. IT'S ONE OF THE MOST ABUNDANT ELEMENTS IN THE UNIVERSE.

It sits right at the top of the periodic table, wedged in between boron and nitrogen. Atomic number 6, chemical sign C. Six protons, six neutrons, six electrons. It is the fourth most abundant element in the universe after hydrogen, helium, and oxygen, and 15th in the Earth's crust. While its older cousins hydrogen and helium are believed to have been formed during the tumult of the Big Bang, carbon is thought to stem from a buildup of alpha particles in supernova explosions, a process called supernova nucleosynthesis.

3. IT'S NAMED AFTER COAL.

While humans have known carbon as coal and—after burning—soot for thousands of years, it was Antoine Lavoisier who, in 1772, showed that it was in fact a unique chemical entity. Lavoisier used an instrument that focused the Sun's rays using lenses which had a diameter of about four feet. He used the apparatus, called a solar furnace, to burn a diamond in a glass jar. By analyzing the residue found in the jar, he was able to show that diamond was comprised solely of carbon. Lavoisier first listed it as an element in his textbook Traité Élémentaire de Chimie, published in 1789. The name carbon derives from the French charbon, or coal.

4. IT LOVES TO BOND.

It can form four bonds, which it does with many other elements, creating hundreds of thousands of compounds, some of which we use daily. (Plastics! Drugs! Gasoline!) More importantly, those bonds are both strong and flexible.

5. NEARLY 20 PERCENT OF YOUR BODY IS CARBON.

May Nyman, a professor of inorganic chemistry at Oregon State University in Corvallis, Oregon tells Mental Floss that carbon has an almost unbelievable range. "It makes up all life forms, and in the number of substances it makes, the fats, the sugars, there is a huge diversity," she says. It forms chains and rings, in a process chemists call catenation. Every living thing is built on a backbone of carbon (with nitrogen, hydrogen, oxygen, and other elements). So animals, plants, every living cell, and of course humans are a product of catenation. Our bodies are 18.5 percent carbon, by weight.

And yet it can be inorganic as well, Nyman says. It teams up with oxygen and other substances to form large parts of the inanimate world, like rocks and minerals.

6. WE DISCOVERED TWO NEW FORMS OF IT ONLY RECENTLY.

Carbon is found in four major forms: graphite, diamonds, fullerenes, and graphene. "Structure controls carbon's properties," says Nyman.  Graphite ("the writing stone") is made up of loosely connected sheets of carbon formed like chicken wire. Penciling something in actually is just scratching layers of graphite onto paper. Diamonds, in contrast, are linked three-dimensionally. These exceptionally strong bonds can only be broken by a huge amount of energy. Because diamonds have many of these bonds, it makes them the hardest substance on Earth.

Fullerenes were discovered in 1985 when a group of scientists blasted graphite with a laser and the resulting carbon gas condensed to previously unknown spherical molecules with 60 and 70 atoms. They were named in honor of Buckminster Fuller, the eccentric inventor who famously created geodesic domes with this soccer ball–like composition. Robert Curl, Harold Kroto, and Richard Smalley won the 1996 Nobel Prize in Chemistry for discovering this new form of carbon.

The youngest member of the carbon family is graphene, found by chance in 2004 by Andre Geim and Kostya Novoselov in an impromptu research jam. The scientists used scotch tape—yes, really—to lift carbon sheets one atom thick from a lump of graphite. The new material is extremely thin and strong. The result: the Nobel Prize in Physics in 2010.

7. DIAMONDS AREN'T CALLED "ICE" BECAUSE OF THEIR APPEARANCE.

Diamonds are called "ice" because their ability to transport heat makes them cool to the touch—not because of their look. This makes them ideal for use as heat sinks in microchips. (Synthethic diamonds are mostly used.) Again, diamonds' three-dimensional lattice structure comes into play. Heat is turned into lattice vibrations, which are responsible for diamonds' very high thermal conductivity.

8. IT HELPS US DETERMINE THE AGE OF ARTIFACTS—AND PROVE SOME OF THEM FAKE.

American scientist Willard F. Libby won the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1960 for developing a method for dating relics by analyzing the amount of a radioactive subspecies of carbon contained in them. Radiocarbon or C14 dating measures the decay of a radioactive form of carbon, C14, that accumulates in living things. It can be used for objects that are as much as 50,000 years old. Carbon dating help determine the age of Ötzi the Iceman, a 5300-year-old corpse found frozen in the Alps. It also established that Lancelot's Round Table in Winchester Cathedral was made hundreds of years after the supposed Arthurian Age.

9. TOO MUCH OF IT IS CHANGING OUR WORLD.

Carbon dioxide (CO2) is an important part of a gaseous blanket that is wrapped around our planet, making it warm enough to sustain life. But burning fossil fuels—which are built on a carbon backbone—releases more carbon dioxide, which is directly linked to global warming. A number of ways to remove and store carbon dioxide have been proposed, including bioenergy with carbon capture and storage, which involves planting large stands of trees, harvesting and burning them to create electricity, and capturing the CO2 created in the process and storing it underground. Yet another approach that is being discussed is to artificially make oceans more alkaline in order to let them to bind more CO2. Forests are natural carbon sinks, because trees capture CO2 during photosynthesis, but human activity in these forests counteracts and surpasses whatever CO2 capture gains we might get. In short, we don't have a solution yet to the overabundance of C02 we've created in the atmosphere.

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Big Questions
Why Don't We Eat Turkey Tails?
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Turkey sandwiches. Turkey soup. Roasted turkey. This year, Americans will consume roughly 245 million birds, with 46 million being prepared and presented on Thanksgiving. What we don’t eat will be repurposed into leftovers.

But there’s one part of the turkey that virtually no family will have on their table: the tail.

Despite our country’s obsession with fattening, dissecting, and searing turkeys, we almost inevitably pass up the fat-infused rear portion. According to Michael Carolan, professor of sociology and associate dean for research at the College for Liberal Arts at Colorado State University, that may have something to do with how Americans have traditionally perceived turkeys. Consumption was rare prior to World War II. When the birds were readily available, there was no demand for the tail because it had never been offered in the first place.

"Tails did and do not fit into what has become our culinary fascination with white meat," Carolan tells Mental Floss. "But also from a marketing [and] processor standpoint, if the consumer was just going to throw the tail away, or will not miss it if it was omitted, [suppliers] saw an opportunity to make additional money."

Indeed, the fact that Americans didn't have a taste for tail didn't prevent the poultry industry from moving on. Tails were being routed to Pacific Island consumers in the 1950s. Rich in protein and fat—a turkey tail is really a gland that produces oil used for grooming—suppliers were able to make use of the unwanted portion. And once consumers were exposed to it, they couldn't get enough.

“By 2007,” according to Carolan, “the average Samoan was consuming more than 44 pounds of turkey tails every year.” Perhaps not coincidentally, Samoans also have alarmingly high obesity rates of 75 percent. In an effort to stave off contributing factors, importing tails to the Islands was banned from 2007 until 2013, when it was argued that doing so violated World Trade Organization rules.

With tradition going hand-in-hand with commerce, poultry suppliers don’t really have a reason to try and change domestic consumer appetites for the tails. In preparing his research into the missing treat, Carolan says he had to search high and low before finally finding a source of tails at a Whole Foods that was about to discard them. "[You] can't expect the food to be accepted if people can't even find the piece!"

Unless the meat industry mounts a major campaign to shift American tastes, Thanksgiving will once again be filled with turkeys missing one of their juicier body parts.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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