Jan 5 2011 6:23pm

Review: The Science of Battlestar Galactica

The Science of Battlestar GalacticaI love science. I love being around it. I love learning about it. I love being around people who know lots about it and listening to them talk. But I’m also a writer who loves sci-fi, which means that making stuff up will always have more appeal than looking stuff up. I also have the memory of a goldfish, which means that, whenever I learn something fascinating...

…what was I saying again?

Oh, right. This is supposed to be about The Science of Battlestar Galactica.

This book is perfect for people like me; people who remember things best not as dry facts, but as part of a story. The heck if I know anything about how blood types work.... But did you realize that the Colonials on BSG were amazed when Hera, the first cylon/human hybrid and possibly our Mitachondrial Eve, was born with no blood type? Wait, did you also know that most humans have no blood type? Well, I didn’t. Apparently, Type O, the most common blood type, isn’t a type at all. It’s a name that carried over from when Karl Landsteiner, the dude who, in 1901, discovered that there are three kinds of human blood with different antigens; one kind of antigen he called “Type A”, another he called “Type B”, and the third he just called “Type O” to indicate that it had no antigens. The name stuck. So, apparently the Colonials on BSG all had antigens in their blood. Also, Colonial humans had apparently never heard of the possibility of no antigens before, otherwise they wouldn’t have been shocked by Hera’s “condition.”

Enough humans on this planet didn’t know that either, or at least didn’t think about it, or they would’ve seen Hera surviving as our own ancestral mother a mile away. (Okay, there were other things pointing in that direction, too, but still.) What seemed like a cool, science-fictiony plot point was actually a science lesson in disguise, and that’s what this book makes apparent.

The Science of Battlestar Galactica focuses on how things like biology, chemistry, and physics were used in the context of the show, but it goes beyond that to give you the concrete facts you need to actually learn something. The book is written by Patrick DiJusto (contributing editor of Wired) and Kevin Grazier (science advisor on BSG and who teaches astronomy at UCLA in addition to working for NASA on the Cassini/Huygens mission to Saturn). These guys know their science. The book is written in a conversational tone, making this an easier read than one might expect from a science book. It’s great to read cover to cover, and it’s well organized by topic, with great titles like “The Effects of Nuclear Weapons, or How the Cylons Can Reoccupy Caprica After a Few Days but Not Dead Earth After Two Thousand Years”, so it’s great to keep as a reference book. Now, all the sci-fi writers out there can have Kevin Grazier as their science advisor, too!

There are also hot pictures of the cast throughout (Shirtless Anders! Page 225!), as well as a forward by writer, Jane Espenson, and actor, Richard Hatch, in case all the science knowledge that Di Justo and Grazier drop isn’t enough for you.

So, if you’re a BSG fan, and you’d actually like to be as smart as you sound when you use terms like DRADIS and silica pathways, check out The Science of Battlestar Galactica, from Wiley. I, for one, will now not be able to donate my O+ blood without mentally giving a shout out to Hera Agathon.

Teresa Jusino was born on the same day that Skylab fell. Coincidence? She doesn’t think so. Her “feminist brown person” take on pop culture has been featured on websites like,, Newsarama, and Her fiction has appeared in the sci-fi literary magazine, Crossed Genres, and her essay “Why Joss is More Important Than His ‘Verse” is included in the upcoming book Whedonistas: A Celebration of the Worlds of Joss Whedon By the Women Who Love Them, coming in March 2011! Get Twitterpated with Teresa, or visit her at The Teresa Jusino Experience.

JS Bangs
1. jaspax
Snarky one-line response: "There was science in Battlestar Galactica?"

More realistically, I was surprised to hear that Hera's lack of blood type means type O, as I took it for a typical meaningless handwave. Does that mean that all colonials are A and all cylon skin-jobs are B (or vice versa)?
Adam Whitehead
2. Werthead
The snark is hard to hold back, but in fairness Kevin Grazier always did a sterling job on various blogs and sites to try to explain away the inconsistent craziness the writers came up with, even as his eyes were clearly glazing over at some of the insanity they sent his way :-)
3. NatNat
I was fascinated to find out that Type O is a lot more prevalent than I'd realized and promptly went off to read about it. To pick a small nit: Type O is the most common blood type, but it's not true that the majority of people are Type O. Slightly less than half of everybody is type O, according to the nicely footnoted chart in the Wikipedia article . Therefore, the majority of people globally are one of A, B, or AB.

One of the charts in that article, "Racial & Ethnic Distribution of ABO (without Rh) Blood Types," is lots of fun to play with, with your blog post in mind. Apparently the Cylons could equally have decended from the Bororo of Brazil - who have no A or B blood type :)

Plus, apparently there are 30 blood group systems in use today (!)... Really we shouldn't assume that BSG used only the ABO system. Luckily the other 29 systems are all conveniently look-up-able in Wikipedia... Sooo, if Hera was a "null" on all the blood group markers, apparently she was (a) immune to malaria (Duffy system); (b) unable to maximally concentrate her urine (Kidd system); (c) of African descent (MNS system) ... this is way too much fun :)
Georgiana Lee
4. Georgiana
I had similar thoughts while watching True Blood this season. When they said Sookie didn't have a blood type I thought, right, doesn't that just means she has O negative?

But I have to disagree that the majority have no blood type. Only about seven percent have no antigens.

It would be fantastic if most people had O negative as we'd have a much bigger reserve for emergency transfusions. I had a friend who ruptured her spleen in a car accident and had to have more than 70 pints of blood before she could be stabilized. She had O neg and luckily came from a large family, all of whom were called to the hospital to donate the maximum to supplement the hospital supply. Scary times.
Teresa Jusino
5. TeresaJusino
Yeah, that chapter goes on to discuss blood types in detail and the advancements made in discovering more antigens since the original "Type O" labeling. I just thought it was interesting, because it wasn't something I thought about watching the BSG episode. I was as shocked as they were when they heard Hera didn't have a blood type! :)

But yes, that means that the Colonials only have A, B, or AB; Humans on the Earth they found only have those types, and the fact that we're descended from Hera means that she and the other cylons introduced a third type of blood into the species.

Or something. :)
Teresa Jusino
6. TeresaJusino
Also - correction to my article: the forward is by Espenson, and the afterward is by Richard Hatch. Somehow, I left out words. Sorry!
7. James Davis Nicoll
The Science of Battlestar Galactica focuses on how things like biology, chemistry, and physics were used in the context of the show,

Do they talk about the implications of real world elemental abundances for one aspect of the setting, mentioned early on? The XO, I think, talks about how hard it is to find water in the galaxy. In the real Milky Way, the three most common elements are hydrogen, helium and oxygen; guess which two of those are reactive? In the solar system, H2O in various forms is fairly common once you get past the frost line; only are there are moons with significant fractions made up of H2O but both Neptune and Uranus are in a sense ocean worlds, with mantles rich in rich in water, ammonia and methane.
Teresa Jusino
8. TeresaJusino
@James Davis
Chapter 20 is ALL about water. Appropriately, the chapter is titled "Water." A quote from that chapter:

"Although Colonel Tigh was right about the composition of most planets, his statement was also misleading. There is more water in space than most people imagine, even if that water may be all but impossible to extract or utilize."

It then goes on to talk about all the stuff you're referring to. :)
9. hopthrisC
Only Landsteiner didn't call it "Type" or "O," but "group" and "C." Later (in 1910), two different people proposed to use A, B, AB and 0 (as in zero, not as in oh).

Makes much more sense that way, and as far as I know, in most languages apart from English the digit is used.
10. James Davis Nicoll


Really, I can't say how often I've screamed the names of the most abundant elements at offending books.

I read something recently where the action takes place on the moons of a gas giant. Most of the moons were waterless and I spent more time wondering what processes led to that state of affairs than I did on the actual plot; it's not that it's impossible - Io looks pretty dry - but the causes were not apparent because the author inexplicably focused on instellar intrigue.
Michael Burke
11. Ludon
On the discussion of water. I've been thinking about why they could have been looking only for sources of fresh water without thinking about using desalination processes on the salt water sources they found. Sure. The processing could have been done but maybe they didn't have the capacity on hand to process the amount of water needed by the entire fleet. Remember, they had to work with whatever equipment and supplies they had available on the ships in the fleet. Lack of capacity could also explain why they didn't (couldn't) combine the hydrogen and oxygen to make their water.
12. Bone
Concerning the blood types: I don't quite get how hera could be 0 if her father only has A or B. Meaning his genotpye would be AA or BB, it could not have been A0 or B0 as colonial do not get 0 apparently. So lets say he was AA and Sharon was 00, that would still turn out as A (AA x 00 only gives A0).

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