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Friday, February 24, 2012

Friday Frivolity: The Cheap Death Star Edition…

I have disagreed with Kevin Drum a lot over the years, but geekery can bring people together, so we get this from him yesterday:

As background, some students at Lehigh University have estimated that it would be a very expensive project. The steel alone, assuming the Death Star's mass/volume ratio is about the same as an aircraft carrier, comes to $852 quadrillion, or 13,000 times the world's GDP. Is this affordable?

Of course the only thing geekier than that discussion is to throw a little real science cold water on it.  Hidden in there is a massive assumption: that the materials are the same ones familiar to us.  That is when you see something metal-looking, it is steel, when you see something like a glass it is glass, etc.  What if instead of glass it is “transparent aluminum” that is used on Star Trek?  What if instead of steel it is adamantium from Marvel comics?  Or just Rearden Metal?

And then at the same time what if the distribution of materials in their galaxy is radically different.  What if iron is far more rare, or more plentiful than it is here?

And let’s talk extraction, shall we?  Surely an advanced alien civilization would have methods of extracting materials very different from our own and presumably more efficient.  At least they would be capable of greater efficiency.

And then there are labor costs.  Which is a great unknown, to tell the truth.  Is it going to be humans building it, and is it going to be free labor, or slave labor?  In the movie Clerks one of the characters argues that the second Death Star was likely to have the families of the workers on the station, but given that these might all be droids or clones perhaps bred for labor, that is far from a safe assumption (leaving aside the argument that all clones are actually identical twin brothers, thus they are all in a way family to each other).

And of course that gets into another variable: freedom.  Free labor systems are always inherently healthier and more innovative than unfree ones.  Consider one of the most extreme examples: American slavery.  In the South American slaves adopted a term “fooling old master” to describe the ways that they intentionally slowed down work on the plantations.  Indeed, it is argued that the Emancipation Proclamation might have struck the killing blow to the Confederacy in that it gave the slaves a stake in the contest between the North and the South.  There is strong evidence of a severe work slowdown after the proclamation was issued.  And one suspects that this was the source of the stereotype that black people were lazy—southern racists misinterpreting such passive resistance.  And it is worth noting that this kind of thing happens all over the world.  For instance, in the Soviet Union workers became fond of saying “they pretend to pay us, we pretend to work.”  I am sure that some in the politburo misinterpreted that as sloth as well.

But the introduction of robotic labor would throw that analysis to hell.  Would robots be as innovative as humans?  Certainly it is hard to argue that droid warriors are as competent as human ones:

Which is all a complicated way of saying that there are just too many variables to make any kind of an intelligent stab at the truth.

And to out-geek the geeks.


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  1. One of the problems with Star Wars analysis is that SW isn't science fiction so much as just fantasy. It wasn't an exploration of the possibilities of advanced technology. It was shwashbuckling pirates with laser swords that looked cool.

    In a word, it was dumb.

    I know that's rude, but Star Wars turned out to be dumb. Nothing is at stake. The Republic wasn't all that great. It was just some Senator trying to collect power for its own sake. He never had a better motivation explaining his decades of scheming. He didn't seem to actually care about anything.

    They certainly didn't put any thought into how to facilitate the Empire, which is unfortunate, as that would have been a very interesting story.

  2. The costs of building the Death Star are briefly mentioned in this informational video: