Technology: Unified Field Theory

“Beware, you who seek first and final principles, for you are trampling the garden of an angry God and he awaits you just beyond the last theorem.”

— Sister Miriam Godwinson, “But for the Grace of God”

In real life, the Unified Field Theory is the hypothesized single theory that could encompass both the standard model of quantum mechanics and Einstein’s relativistic gravity. Since the effects of the fundamental forces are often best described as fields, a theory that could explain all of the fields as different aspects of the same fundamental thing (in an analogous way to how the previously distinct electric and magnetic field theories were unified into a theory of electromagnetism in the 19th Century) would be a breakthrough of world-historical importance.

If you were to look at it poetically, it’s essentially the Holy Grail for physicists. Brave heroes have spent their entire lives nobly striving in vain to find it. And if one were to return triumphant, nothing thereafter would be the same.

In SMAC, this mammoth achievement is a seventh-tier technology. Sensibly, it is discovered by researchers investigating the phenomenon of Monopole Magnets in the light of the new Applied Relativity theory. Like the Superstring Theory before it, the immediate application of the Unified Field Theory is a new gun: the twelve-strength Tachyon Bolt. So this is coded by the game as a military technology.

It also allows the creation of a secret project with a grandiose title: The Theory of Everything. Which dovetails nicely into Sister Miriam’s quote. This is the first time in the game that the player sees her rail directly against the scientific enterprise, per se. Miriam’s quotes in the early game were cautiously optimistic, speaking of the miracles wrought by technical progress while simultaneously warning of the potential evils lurking therein.

But now she’s angrily denouncing the physicists as they put their finishing touches on what could very well be the last word on physics. Why? From her perspective, what has changed?

Her motivation isn’t entirely clear at this point. It’s safe to say that she sees the hubris of the physicists as particularly dangerous. In her view, they are heedlessly courting disaster. But is it the search for first and final principles itself that is, itself, the issue? Does Miriam see conceiving of the Unified Field Theory as inherently something akin to lèse-majesté?

It is possible. But in the context of the rest of SMAC, I think it is much more likely that Miriam is railing against the “how” rather than the “what”. After all, the Believers can research this technology just as easily as any of the other factions.

In the implied canon, she is blasting the University here not because they were clever enough to come up with a new theory. She’s angry because they are not approaching the subject with the proper reverence. And she’s afraid that their lack of vision is going to end up causing some real Old Testament consequences.

To be fair, it’s worth noting that Miriam’s fears are not at all unreasonable. The sixth tier of the technology tree brought with it some features that could quite easily have dystopian consequences: ultra-virulent plagues; fusion powered Planet Busters; and armies filled with twisted man-machine monstrosities.

And the game rules make it clear that the pace of history is not about to slow down any time soon. Energy is easy to come by, labs multipliers are higher than ever, and tech costs aren’t scaled to escalate nearly as quickly as their inputs for the typical player. From Miriam’s perspective, it’s urgently important that people slow down and think about what kind of world they’re so busy building before it comes to pass. God’s been looking out for them so far. But they’re pushing their collective luck, and His patience may soon be exhausted.

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