“Scientific theories are judged by the coherence they lend to our natural experience and the simplicity with which they do so. The grand principle of the heavens balances on the razor’s edge of truth.”
— Commissioner Pravin Lal, “A History of Science”
In the game, Applied Physics is the first military technology. It lets the player build units with laser weapons, which are a strength upgrade over the standard guns that every faction starts with. On the surface, the technology and its quote don’t have a lot to do with the practical effect.
What’s really going on here is that, in the last days of Earth (read: sometime between the present day of the player in the late ’90s and the time the Unity was launched) science proceeded apace. New practical applications of physics were discovered in order to prosecute wars and build interstellar vessels. Thus, the discovery of Applied Physics in the game represents the reclamation by the colonists of this science-fictional inheritance.
Onto the quote. As we’ve already seen, Lal is a fierce conservative in the context of the Planetary colonization effort. It’s an interesting contrast because the people on Earth who most share his ideology and predilections nowadays are almost invariably very liberal. But Lal is most interested in preserving that liberal legacy on the brand-new Planet, which makes him functionally very conservative. He is trying to enforce a particular kind of stability in values.
And so Reynolds quite appropriately chooses Brother Lal to give the quote for this rediscovered technology. Lal speaks eloquently of the value of the scientific project, but it’s crucial that he does so in the context of a history lesson. Why does Lal, unlike any of the others, write histories of Earth to his followers in order to teach his ideology to his followers?
In attempting to answer this question, we learn a couple more things about Lal and the Peacekeepers. First, his people are conversant in the language of the academy. But where Zakharov represents the politically-impotent STEM departments focused on bringing forth new miracles, Lal and his people are the social scientists. They make their home where the academy intersects with power: public policy; non-governmental organizations; and transnational institutions.
Second, the quote is fundamentally a poetic restatement of Occam’s Razor. In context, the broader thrust of Lal’s History of Science is thus highly likely to be a restatement or extension of Popper’s emphasis on falsifiability as the key criterion on which a scientific theory should be measured. Where the other faction leaders would be much more interested in the scientific conclusions of the past, Lal is primarily concerned with the social process and institutions through which scientific truth was converged upon.
I keep finding myself saying this, but had virtually anyone else made this game, they would have tossed in a more martially-minded quote here. After all, this is the laser gun technology! But Reynolds instead saw this as an opportunity to let one of the leaders speak about the philosophy of science. And, even then, he chose a leader who is not primarily defined by his relationship to the scientific method. It’s such a small thing, really, but SMAC is all about taking the opportunities for genius wherever they arise.