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Thursday 16 February 2012

A Virtual Spaceship

Last month, the BBC ran a show called Stargazing Live over three consecutive nights. The middle instalment was the most interesting for a couple of reasons. First, it featured a surprisingly (for television) level-headed segment about UFOs, featuring cameos by David Clarke and Mark Pilkington. Secondly, a young astrophysicist from Oxford University called Andrew Pontzen showed a computer simulation of galaxy formation (the screenshot above is taken from a clip he posted on his YouTube channel).

The simulation interested me because that’s the sort of thing I did for my PhD thirty years ago... except that in those days we had to wrestle with mediaeval technology, so the results didn’t look as impressive (example on the left, complete with hand-written labels). But the principle was exactly the same. In one of Andrew’s videos (called “This is a Galaxy”), he uses graphics technology to fly through a simulated galaxy. The result is enormously impressive, but he wasn’t the first to have this idea. I looked back through my thesis, and found the following:

“I devised an interactive program based on GAL64, which produces axonometric projections [of the simulated galaxy] on the screen of the Vector General unit at the University of Manchester Computer Graphics Unit. Unlike the GAL64 views the magnification and viewpoint of these pictures are not fixed, but can be set arbitrarily by means of the Vector General hand control units. Because the operation of the program thus bears a marked similarity to piloting an intergalactic spaceship, it was given the appropriately spaceship-like name of VALKYR.”

Why did I call the program “VALKYR”? I don’t think it stood for anything, unless I made up some extremely contrived acronym. It’s just that in those days, program names were limited to six characters (I told you the technology was mediaeval). I was a big fan of Wagner at the time, and that was the closest I could get to “Valkyrie”!

In those days, my science fiction reading inclined towards the arty end of the spectrum, with authors like Philip K. Dick and J. G. Ballard. However, I discovered long afterwards that a much more downmarket writer named Alfred Coppel did write a couple of stories featuring a spaceship named Valkyr -- “The Rebel of Valkyr” in 1950, and a sequel “Forbidden Weapon” the following year. As you can see from the scan below (taken from the British Edition of Marvel Science Stories), Valkyr was an appropriately mediaeval spaceship!

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