Sentient creatures on Earth are familiar with the mostly undisputed history of the galaxy as documented in the Star Wars series by renowned galactic-historian George Lucas. After years of evil, authoritarian rule by the oppressive Emperor Palpatine, a rebel uprising spread across the galaxy, culminating in the legendary destruction of the Death Star (and Death Star II) — the Empire’s ultimate space station/moon-shaped-cruise-ship/world-destroying-laser. But many do not know that the Death Star’s downfall began long before the Battle of Yavin…
Leading up to that famed battle, rebel forces did everything they could to educate themselves on the various weaponry and equipment used by Empire forces — leading to the theft of three sets of Death Star designs (the actual number is still debated among galactic historians). This was certainly a key moment in the galactic war, but these designs would be useless if a weakness could not be found, a task that would prove much more troublesome than anyone expected…
General Jan Dodonna, in command of the battle plans, grew increasingly frustrated with the impenetrable battle station. He continued to simulate various scenarios to try and find a weakness in the design, all in vain. He then remembered an old colleague he had met years earlier while on vacation to a planet outside both the original Republic and the Empire — a planet called ‘Earth’.
Rumour has it that while on vacation, Jan met Dr. Jordan Kyriakidis, a prominent physicist who was working on a way to identify errors in complex machinery. They chatted over a QBrew and shared stories (Jordan was impressed with Jan’s inter-galactic travel, Jan with Jordan’s undying and confusing loyalty to the Toronto Maple Leafs) before Jan was called away as the Galactic Civil War heated up.
After wasting weeks in futile simulations trying to find a design flaw in the Death Star, General Dodonna decided to reach out to Kyriakidis to see how development was coming on his analysis engine. Luckily for the Alliance to Restore the Republic, Kyriakidis had made some great progress on his goal and had already succeeded in finding flaws in very complex designs. Kyriakidis berated Dodonna for his misguided attempts at using simulation on such a large-scale project, “Let’s start off with the fact that you have a fleet of 30 ships, consisting of X-wings and Y-wings and three unique weapons (laser cannons, proton topped launchers and ion cannons)” he began, “Now, the Death Star has a surface area of 45,238km2 and we can’t know for sure that one shot from any one weapon will do the trick. Assuming that the blast area of these weapons is about 2m wide, that means you would need to test every combination of the three weapons firing on every 2m wide area on the entire ship at a variety of angles. If we estimate how long each one of these simulations would take, with the fact that there are 30 separate ships we can put to use, the time required exceeds the age of the universe. (see graph below). Good thing you came to me, Jan.”
Had the Rebel Alliance relied on traditional brute force approaches, the likelihood of finding the key weakness to the Death Star before Yavin 4 was destroyed would have been negligible. Millions of lives would have been lost, and the Galactic Civil War would have played out very differently. Fortunately Dodonna’s interest in less-advanced systems led him to Earth and Kyriakidis, who’s goodwill and kind heart offered QVtrace to the Rebels Alliance for their cause. Conversely, if the Empire had gotten its hands on QVtrace, it would have found the single vulnerability in their grand plans and their engineers would have made the requisite changes, saving quadrillions of Imperial credits, druggats, and nova crystals (and probably avoiding a galactic economic collapse but that’s a different story).
Astonishingly, this “let’s close our eyes and fire our blasters”-simulation approach is still used by many Earth-based companies testing their advanced machinery which is not nearly as complicated as the Death Star but runs in to the same types of issues. In using this approach, today’s major manufacturers of the cool things that fly and impress us simply say “Well hey, let’s just simulate until we run out of time or money and if all looks good we’ll build a prototype and go from there.” This is the same as looking for a needle in a haystack by pulling out each piece of straw and just HOPING that they find the needle, running out resources or getting bored and saying “Well, there just must not be a needle!”. Conversely, Kyriakidis’ software works like a magnet just sucking the needle right out of the haystack. By converting the designs and functional requirements of the machine in to mathematical statements, QVtrace is able to identify any combinations of inputs and factors that could breach the requirements in one analysis.
The point is clear — standard brute force approaches for testing complex machines just can’t keep up anymore. They couldn’t a long, long time ago in a galaxy far, far away, and they can’t here on Earth. Simulation-based, and other standard approaches miss major flaws as designs become increasingly complex — great news for rebels taking down an evil Empire, bad news for today’s engineers. Fortunately, just as a small band of rebels started a galactic revolution, so to are a small, talented team of engineers, physicists and mathematicians in Halifax taking on this great challenge.
Trying to take down an evil empire? Have a complex design that you want to ensure has no unshielded thermal exhaust ports (or any other faults)?
ENDNOTE: If you’re wondering to yourself how the first Star Wars documentary on galactic history came out in 1977 but Kyriakidis didn’t form QRA until 2012, well that’s not something we can share right now, but keep your eyes peeled for future releases…