16. Reparability and Science Fiction


Something that really stood out to me about Star Wars was how janky everything seems. You have Chewbacca in the back of the Millenium Falcon just banging on stuff with a wrench to get the ‘hypderdrive motivator’ or whatever to work… Han Solo jerry-rigging bits of wire together to bypass the flux modulator. They stop over on a station for replacement parts, finding something that almost fits, but with some elbow grease and duct tape they can get this spaceship back in working business. If we suspend our disbelief for a moment, this spaceship is literal light-years ahead of our current best technology. We’re talking about a craft which can repeatedly land on a planet’s surface and take off again, doesn’t use huge fuel tanks or expendable propellant, can withstand re-entry with no visible heat shields, has “force fields” and faster than light travel, can make the Kessel run in less than twelve parsecs, and on and on. The aesthetic is high tech but also low tech.

In contrast: our phones are easily some of the most advanced technology we have today, and are completely opaque devices. Screen and battery replacements might become a reality in the next few years thanks to some governmental right-to-repair legislation, but currently require special tools and cannot be done at home. The componentry on the circuitboard is on another level. The individual microprocessors communicate with each other in hardware-level encoded communications, such that spying on the individual pins would just yield inscrutable noise. Your DVD player (if you have one) even talks to your TV using an encrypted channel.

I’m not opposed to encryption as such, I just want to draw attention to the opacity of our current modern technological world. Less and less is hackable, or user-modifyable than at any point before. This is often fine, because it yields devices that operate seamlessly; that ideally don’t need to be repaired, and it offers protection against hostile snooping (or protection of your IP, if you’re a movie company). But there’s something aesthetic that’s lost.

For this reason, I like the SpaceX Starship rocket and its stainless steel construction. Imagine in the future, a Starship becomes slightly damaged in landing on the moon, or Mars. Any skilled welder could patch it up with some suitable scrap steel. Patching things up is jank, and patching up a rocket ship is straight out of Star Wars.

The word ‘suitable’ is doing a bit of lifting in the previous paragraph. SpaceX is using a specific steel alloy that is light and strong enough at a range of temperatures to withstand the forces a spaceship is subject to. A whole lot of materials science engineering has gone into manufacturing that steel. But once it’s in your hand, it’s still “just” steel. You could pick up a roll of it and load it on to your truck, and not need a clean room or advanced machinery to handle it. It cuts like steel. It welds like steel.

Actually, you probably already have some of the specific 304L stainless steel SpaceX uses in your house, or at least you’ve been within 10 feet of it before in your car or in an elevator. It’s an “off the shelf” material and it works great, why not build space ships out of it?

Compare to if SpaceX had decided to build Starship out of carbon composites, or some advanced polymer materials which wouldn’t necessarily be as reparable or patch-able.

Suitable parts that are advaned but also appear as just another replacement part. This is an important part of the Star Wars aesthetic: Han and Chewie stop off at a spaceport to pick up a used slightly busted hyperdrive motivator. There’s a secondhand market for swappable advanced parts we don’t have in our reality.

In the 2010s computer motherboards would often have a couple capacitors fail. Picking up a couple new electrolytic capacitors online and de/resoldering them yourself is a bit like replacing the hyperflux motivator coil or whatever on a spaceship. It’s jank but also works, thanks to really advanced technology that fill the role of ‘spare parts’.

The broader note of awe here is just how much advanced science and engineering can be poured into a part that appears as if it’s just another part. I was watching a video about aspherical optics, which have much better performance characteristics than spherical optics but are also way harder to manufacture. Aspherical lenses might need oodles of computing power to tune the various curvature parameters, and then advanced robotic manufacturing to grind down bits of glass to the optimal shape. But once you’re holding it in your hand, it’s “just” another lens, one that happens to work way better thanks to all the work behind it.

It’s a kind of black-box effect. If the box is closed it’s “just” a box, one which does whatever it’s supposed to. Our phones are black boxes that are somewhat literally boxes. Aspherical lenses are black boxes in the sense of the engineering behind them, though the result is a hunk of glass. Stainless steel is a black box in terms of the materials engineering and manufacturing techniques etc. I’m fascinated by the sheer amount of complexity behind seemingly simple boxes, or boxes we don’t have to care about in order for them to work.

Takeaways:

  • advanced engineering results in parts that are very similar at first glance, but have super complex underpinnings
  • this still just means we can bandy about advanced parts as if they weren’t
  • reparability is cool and futuristic
  • everything’s a black box. If you want to peer inside and learn more, you can experience the infinite fractal complexity of the universe

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