Technology: Nonlinear Mathematics

“There are two kinds of scientific progress: the methodical experimentation and categorization which gradually extend the boundaries of knowledge, and the revolutionary leap of genius which redefines and transcends those boundaries. Acknowledging our debt to the former, we yearn nonetheless for the latter.”

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “Address to the Faculty”

Nonlinear Mathematics is one of those technologies that seems pretty odd at first sight.  It’s a second-tier technology (requiring both Applied Physics and Information Networks to research) that is coded as a military technology, instead of a pure science discovery as you might naively expect.  And, in game, this makes a lot of sense, as this technology opens up the critical early-game railgun tech (referred to as “impact” weaponry in the designer).  This technology is really important: it’s the first weapons tech that gives you a decent chance of conquering another faction.  As such, among experienced players, the early game is sometimes referred to as the “Impact Rover” era.

That’s all well and good.  But why is that crucial technology an application of a mathematical discovery?  And that is where the quote comes in.  Zakharov speaks of two fundamentally different kinds of approach to the scientific endeavor.

The first is what virtually every working scientist would see as the real experience of the job.  In that role, you work and slave for years to set up an experiment whose results hopefully add some weight to the best prevailing theory of how algae grows in a pond or to find out what horrible side effects a proposed drug candidate might have in monkeys.  Good work.  Honorable – even noble – in its way.  But it’s not inspirational.

That’s the domain of the second.  Think of all the great scientists we know from the past.  Newton, Maxwell, Einstein: we remember them all as scientists in a particular heroic mold.  In this model, it’s fundamentally one man’s mind set against the mysteries of nature.  And when the man leaves the figurative cage with the crucial insight that overturns everything we thought we knew about a key problem, that’s the heart of his contribution.  All the work that goes into establishing it and proving it is work that anybody could do.

So, by extension, Nonlinear Mathematics is one of those latter ones.  A breakthrough along the lines of an Einstein.  Which is a pretty inspired place to put a near-futuristic scientific breakthrough, if you think about it.  Right now, there are lots of phenomena that we have a really hard time modeling because the relationships among them aren’t linear.  Often, we have to use numerical methods or simulation to come up with the answers; we can’t solve them analytically.  Imagine if we were just one lightning-flash of insight away from a solid resolution to all of these problems.  That’s the magic of Nonlinear Mathematics.

It just so happens that the first application of this is in making practical, large magnetic field generators that can be used to throw chunks of metal at one’s enemies.  It’s always nice when things work out so neatly.

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3 thoughts on “Technology: Nonlinear Mathematics

  1. balr0g

    Contrary to being a living amalgamation of STEM departments the world over (including my own), this quote shows that Zakharov might be familiar with the philosophy of science. His quote is almost verbatim the words of Thomas Kuhn, who believed that science could be divided between normal science, where problems are solved (so experimenting, theorizing, and observing, including lab work like you said) under the framework of a paradigm, and revolutionary science, with changes the paradigm itself. In this sense, all those research points the player has been accumulated would be Zakharov’s mad scientists (or Yang’s barely-conscious science mind-slaves or Miriam’s scientists who probably see messages from Gabriel in Gaussian curves) doing normal science and all its mundanity. The discovery of Nonlinear Mathematics would have scientists questioning the validity of their previous theories and reach a breakthrough, an example of revolutionary science.

    I don’t know if you’re still active, but I absolutely adore this blog. I still maintain that SMAC is one of the best stories in video games. Not only that, but it’s probably one of the finest examples of the medium at its best, where the story and gameplay are so tightly interwoven it blows my mind at nor just how good of a story Alpha Centauri is, but how good it is at being a example of a good story in a video game. Your blog and your insights have only furthered my love for this stupidly obscure 90’s strategy game.

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    1. Nick Stipanovich Post author

      Thanks for taking the time out to comment!

      There are still some article ideas I have bouncing around now that I’ve addressed the “main plot” of the game. But, up until now, real life has done quite well at frustrating those ambitions. At some point, though, I’m hoping there might actually be some new content here. We’ll see.

      At any rate, I’m still here to read the comments and ensure that this place isn’t overcome by a tide of spambots. So whatever you write here will be read by at least one human. And thoughtful feedback is always welcome.

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  2. Michael

    A while back, I found a sourcebook for people wanting to build a GURPS (tabletop roleplaying game) campaign in the world of SMAC. Excellent, for the most part, but one area it fell down in was impact weaponry which it assumed to be normal firearms. The space colonists needed fancy maths and weapons-grade lasers to make gun powder?

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