Technology: Superstring Theory

“A brave little theory, and actually quite coherent for a system of five or seven dimensions–if only we lived in one.”

— Academician Prokhor Zakharov, “Now We Are Alone”

Superstring Theory is a fifth-tier military technology that follows in the footsteps of Nonlinear Mathematics. In what is becoming something of a trend for SMAC, another weapons technology upgrade on the tree proves to stem directly from another abstract mathematical advance. This time, an advance in string theory immediately yields the eight-strength Chaos Gun. From the in-game graphics and the name, it appears to be an advance over the previous Impact railgun weaponry.

It’s also interesting to note that the other prerequisite for this technology is Cyberethics, of all things. And, in fact, since Nonlinear Mathematics is only second-tier, the fourth-tier Cyberethics technology is almost assuredly the long pole. I gather from this that Cyberethics must imply an overhaul of the publishing and crediting system scientists brought with them from Earth. Therefore, the necessary breakthrough in theoretical physics couldn’t happen without the key people learning to collaborate in this more optimal fashion.

This technology and the associated quote is another good example of the way Reynolds has designed the game to ease the player into the distant future. After all, the player is likely vaguely familiar with modern day string theory. At the very least, he probably has a sense of it as a mathematically-complicated revision or reinterpretation of modern physics, but one that for whatever reason isn’t terribly popular among physicists.

So here we have a technology that labels itself “Superstring Theory”. Presumably, it’s based on modern-day string theory, but fixed up somehow with the new mathematical models so that it actually provides some value. The associated quote by Zakharov implies that it’s not the final word on physics, which makes sense given that the player’s faction has only made it halfway up the tech tree at this point. But it appears to be a significant advance, nonetheless.

This is all pretty great stuff. Reynolds doesn’t have to pin himself down on any actual details as to the contents of this postulated scientific advance in order to fit it in to the overarching whole. By now the player has been grounded with enough of the near-term plausible advances that he is willing to embrace these more speculative advances without it doing much damage to his suspension of disbelief. The key to this is the technique he’s employed so often done before in SMAC: he gives the player just enough of a kernel of the idea and then trusts in imagination fill in the gaps. In particular, this technology with its bare-bones description and quote wouldn’t have worked had the groundwork not been laid with Nonlinear Mathematics.

Given all that, it is worth keeping in mind that in a less inspired game, this technology could have just been called “Railgun 2”. Or, if they were really trying, something like “[technobabble] Railgun”. The player would have immediately understood what it did and the game would have been playable. But all the magic would be gone.

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One thought on “Technology: Superstring Theory

  1. Workable Goblin

    This is coming in rather late to the story, but the interesting thing about this technology is that superstring theory is *real*. In fact, it was very prominent around the time the game was made in both theoretical physics and the popular press, since it combined two things (supersymmetry and string theory) that individually seemed very promising as the “next step” in high-energy physics, and together seemed like a good candidate for the theory of everything (in this light, it’s interesting that it doesn’t unlock the Theory of Everything Secret Project in game! Presumably, this is what “if only we lived in one” means; they finally work out the full theory and its predictions…and they’re *wrong*, so it *can’t* model the universe correctly)

    Moreover, Zakharov’s description of the theory is actually pretty spot on! It, like other supersymmetry and string theory models, is quite pretty mathematically, but has the rather annoying downside of requiring that the universe have more dimensions than it actually seems to have in order to work properly. The only real discrepancy with actual superstring theories in his description is that they actually require ten spacetime dimensions, not five or seven, but it’s close enough for government work, as they say, and five and seven-dimensional objects *are* important in some theories…

    As for real-world superstring theory, it’s still an active area of research. Right now, supersymmetry doesn’t look very promising, because there’s no evidence for supersymmetric partners in any of our experiments, and string theory is less popular because it seems to result in combinatorial explosions that make it difficult to match to our universe, so you don’t hear about it as much as you used to. But it is still around.

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