Thursday, December 08, 2005

Semi-Rebuttal of the Implausability of a Trash Compactor On Board the Death Star

Ok, first things first, read this article. It's a reasonably articulate, and superficially convincing argument as to why the trash compactor on board the Death Star, into which Luke, Leia, et al., ventured to escape imperial guards, is at best implausible and at worst completely absurd. However, being a huge nerd, I have a number of bones to pick with the author's arguments, and I DO recall promising to include a number of posts of a science-fictioney nature. So without further ado:

0) The author explicitly assumes the Death Star ejects all its trash into space, based on an extrapolation of the fact that ISD-class ships (and let us further assume lower-class ships as well) eject their trash into space, as evidenced when the Millenium Falcon sneaks out with the trash. This is an invalid extrapolation, for several reasons. First, The sheer size differential between an ISD (Imperial Star Destroyer) and the Death Star dictates that different trash disposal systems may be entirely necessary. While able to travel through space at will, the Death Star, as the flagship battle platform of the Empire, may often find itself in extended geostationary orbit about a planet. As this article indicates, the station requires literally millions of workers, soldiers, and managers to operate to its full capacity. Millions of active people produce a LOT of waste. Even assuming the station has ample temporary waste storage facilities, it must eventually dispose of that trash in some manner. Ejecting it into space while stationary seems to be an absolutely disasterous approach, as the flotsam and jetsam created by such a process would create havoc among the massive force of accompanying starfighters and support craft. Imagine having to dodge every frozen flying turd while trying to dock!
So what solution apart from long-term storage and ejection is there for proper waste disposal? Keep in mind that the Death Star is nothing more than a platform for the galaxy's most powerful super weapon, the oh-so-imaginatively-titled Super-Laser. Apart from the ancillary and support services requiring power on board the station (and providing power for millions of people simultaneously is no simple task!), the laser itself requires an incredible amount of power. I won't even begin to guess as to the pure wattage required here, but as we know from Return of the Jedi, the reactor core is, in scientific terms, friggin' huge. So the simple solution is: why not use the waste-heat, or the core itself, to incinerate the trash? Seems simple enough. Of course, delivery to the incinerator requires some sort of transportable form of waste material, hence the compactor: nice, neat blocks of poo, ready for burning!

Now for his specific points, which I paraphrase in each case:

1) Why have a ventilation system leading to the trash compactor?
Proper one-way airflow and suction could have prevented any "out-go" of effluvia, hence the VENT COVER and the fact that she actually had to BLAST the thing to remove it. The "vent" might have ventilated out of the hallway rather than into it -- perhaps an air-purifying vent that trapped and removed impurities from the air, much like the CO2 scrubbers on board our own space facilities.

2) Why have a two-walled system of trash compaction rather than a single moving wall and a more stable, fixed second wall?
I promised myself that I'd only use this argument once: George Lucas is an idiot-manchild who got very lucky 2 1/2 times (woulda been three except for the ewoks).

3) Why does the trash compactor move so slowly, and why does a relatively thin metal rod nearly stop its compaction altogether?
The author makes the assumption that this particular trash compactor is supposed to compact metal and other solid trash. First of all, assuming this is true, I would imagine a slow, steady compaction is more safe and robust than a quick smash -- have you ever seen your own kitchen trash compactor at work? It takes a significant amount of time, and that's only for cardboard and paper products. Moreover, I call this assumption flawed. Two points here: first, while the DS was a relatively new facility, it WAS complete. How many of you working in fully-built buildings that are NOT production facilities of any sort throw away large pieces of scrap metal on a regular basis? Just because it's made of metal does not mean you'll be toting around and disposing of metal. Thus, it is highly likely this particular compactor may not have been designed to handle metal with any efficiency.
That brings me to my second point: if not designed for metal, why was there metal in the compactor? Well, here the newness of the structure plays into my favor. With millions of employees on board, you would be bound to have more than a few stupid or ignorant workers who are not familiar with the rules and regulations, and would thus attempt to dispose of their garbage improperly. I'm sure those workers were dealt with in the usual Imperial manner, which is to say a laser blast to the back of the head.

4) Why only compact the trash in one dimension, resulting in large flat pieces of trash to be ejected into space?
See my comment zero. You're not ejecting into space, but rather preparing it for incineration. Additionally, this assumes that the two-wall method was the only part of the compaction process -- perhaps the ceiling would descend at some point, and then the other side walls? We only saw this process because the remaining compaction process was thwarted by our intrepid heroes.

5) How did the critter living in the compactor survive?
I actually like the author's suggestion that the creature living there was actually put there on purpose, to devour organic trash, although I would suggest an alternative. My first point in rebuttal three addresses the presence of inorganic material. Then keep in mind that there are millions of people on board the Death Star. Those people must be fed. Rather than have to import food constantly, I would suggest that some of the massive space on board may be set aside for the growth of nourishment, perhaps through hydroponic methods. This, of course, requires fertilizer, so it's not a stretch to think that the designers would employ some method of recycling organic material for greater efficiency. Thus, I propose that the creatures is there to serve a purpose similar to our own earthworms: it "churns up" the organic material, aiding in the process of decomposition of organic material. Larger bits get compacted for disposal, but the heavier, decomposed bits fall to the bottom, as suggested by the author, and are collected for reuse in the food production facilities.
This may be a bit of a stretch, however. A simpler solution is as follows: Much like our own alligator-pets, some mid-level commander had an illicit pet one-eyed space eel (or whatever it was) that just got too big for his dinky quarters, so he just happened to have surreptitiously disposed of it after the last compaction cycle, so it was a relative newcomer to the area, just as scared as our aforementioned intrepid heroes (although if they were afraid, I guess they'd be trepid heroes rather than intrepid, right?).

6) Why have separate organic and inorganic waste disposal systems?
See response #3.

7) Why would an evil empire care about the environment?

I address the notion of trash dumping in my argument zero. Assuming the game Tie Fighter is canonical (and it was so friggin' awesome that it could be nothing BUT canonical!), we are presented with a much more sympathetic picture of the Empire. Sure, the overlords are evil bastards, but at the end of the day, they are out to control the universe, not destroy it. Even evil dictators can be good, if not "nice", stewards. If they trash up their empire, it's not much to brag about at the annual Convention of Evil Imperial Overlords conference, is it?

8) The worm-compactor combo is more inefficient than, say, a trash-ship to tote the trash away.

My arguments 0 and 5 rebut this complaint.

9) Space is so huge. Why bother compacting at all?

How many times must my argument zero counter his arguments? At least this is the last point he makes.

Therefore, quod erat non demonstrandum. The Empire was not in the business of creating hassles for itself. Ruthless efficiency indeed!

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Anonymous Sam said...

By the way, according to the Death Star play set that I got for Christmas from my great grandmother in 1978 or 79, I can’t remember which, the critter in the trash masher had a long ostrich like neck with a single eyeball at the end which led to a plump torso and wing like (webbed?) appendages that ended in tentacles, and some kind of long tail. It sort of looked like a sauropod without legs, but with tentacles. Also, if you want to inject more scientific stuff into the argument, what about the gravitational attraction of a large body. The DS would have a natural tendency to keep the garbage in an orbit around it if the trash was ejected. The IDS can simply out run its trash. Also, the piece of metal that Luke used to try to wedge the mashers open, if you will look closely, was what appeared to be an ion cannon tube from a tie fighter. That could plausibly be generated and discarded after the completion of construction. One other thing. How long would it have been in operation at the time of Ep. IV? The reason that I ask is because at the end of Ep. III, when Luke is a new-born, the Emperor and DV look out at it in what looks like a 1/3 state of completion. As well, Alderon was the initial test target in Ep. IV, so it could be reasoned that construction had only very recently been completed.

2:38 PM  
Blogger Benjamin said...

I'm not sure about the gravitic properties of the death star. It generates its own artificial gravity, apparently, oriented down towards the southern pole (as opposed to the center like a moon would). Apparently its builders thought a vertically-layered construction was better than, say, a concentrically layered (like an onion) structure. Anywho, the vast majority of the DS, I imagine, is hollow (or "honeycombed", in a sense), and quite probably composed of some sort of superlight metal (in order that it may be propelled more efficiently), so I suspect its mass-induced gravitational pull is minimal, unlike a non-hollow planet or planetoid, which gets ever-denser as one approaches the center. But yeah, I did mean to imply the notion of the Star Destroyers being able to outrun their trash, I just never got around to saying it.

Also, a little bit of research told me that the death-star-like thing at the end of ep. 3 was the incomplete "Great Weapon" of the CIS (the bad guys in the clone wars) which was captured by the imperial forces, and which served as the design basis for the death star -- but it was NOT the Death Star itself. So presumably the empire reverse-engineered it to design their own, so there could have been an arbitrary delay between ep 3 and the beginning of construction. For what it's worth.

3:29 PM  

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