Science of Games: Fallout, part 1

After investigating zombification in January, we're moving on to our next topic: nuclear-wasteland science

Science of Games is a twice-monthly column that digs deep into the coolest science fiction elements of videogame universes, and tries to separate fact from fiction. Whenever possible, we’ll even bring in scientists, scholars, and experts to help us get at the truth of what’s really going on. Got a game you want to see investigated? Let us know in the comments!

There's possibly no other video game series in the world that takes as much joy in science as Fallout does. It does this with a dual-pronged approach: it's both scientifically factual, and ascientifically ridiculous. Often in the same breath. While using the harsh realities of nuclear holocaust as their setting, the developers were also careful to include a heaping dose of silly science every once in a while. Fallout 3's vault full of clones named Gary that can only shout their own name, like a Pokemon, is a great example. Or Fisto, New Vegas' autonomous sexbot.

Portable Nukes

One of the single most badass weapons in the Fallout universe is the Fat Man. It's a portable, one-man, shoulder-mounted nuclear bomb that just about obliterates anything in the immediate vicinity. But could it actually exist? Is this awesome weapon a part of Fallout's hard-science side, or its goofy side?

We looked into it, and surprisingly this is almost 100 percent hard science. But more than that, the Fat Man actually once existed. Not in the exact same form as the Fallout version, but pretty damned close.

At the height of the Cold War (which is pretty much the period that Fallout is based on) a Soviet invasion of Eastern Europe seemed all but certain. At any moment, it seemed like Soviet tanks would burst through the Berlin wall and begin a journey of conquest toward the Atlantic.

To help defend against this, some Allied outposts along the border were equipped with extremely low-yield nuclear missiles. Dubbed the "Davy Crockett" (and seen in Metal Gear Solid 3), the bomb had only a .01 kiloton blast. Even small, early nukes like the one dropped on Hiroshima had 15 kiloton blasts, and the largest ever recorded was Russia's Tsar Bomba, which was designed at 100 kilotons (but was scaled back to 50).

The Davy Crockett (even the name sounds like it's from Fallout) only had an explosion of about a few hundred meters. So it wasn't intended to destroy an oncoming Soviet force. The point of the weapon was to irradiate the land to lethal levels so that the enemy would be delayed long enough to mobilize Allied forces.

The only difference between the Davy Crockett and the Fat Man is the DC couldn't be shoulder mounted (nukes weigh a lot). However, it was wildly inaccurate; it only needed to get within a few hundred meters, remember. So it wouldn't have done much good to carry it around anyway.

Radiation Sickness

The part about delaying a Soviet advance with radiation raises an interesting question: why is radiation lethal? Fallout includes a persistent theme of managing the amount of radiation you take in throughout the game.

As in Fallout, real life contains two different types of bad radiation. There's the kind that hits you from the outside, and the kind that you ingest. Anybody who ever drank a Nuka-Cola knows that there are some nasty side effects.

Radiation that hits you from the outside is more manageable. Unless it hits you in high doses, you may get away with nothing but a tan. However, when you get hit hard, the effects are pretty horrible. In that regard, Fallout gets some of it right. Humans can look pretty ghoulish when their skin and hair start falling off.

It's not just about environmental radiation, though. The things you eat and drink can be radioactive, and even more damaging. When you ingest a radioactive food or liquid, the unstable atoms actually become a part of you, being incorporated into your cells the same way healthy food would. Except now, the atom is falling apart and irradiating you from the inside. That said, if you get help quickly, there are pills that can help protect your sensitive bits (like your thyroid) from radiation.

The only factual issue with radiation being a concern in Fallout's vision of 2077 is that radioactivity may be a solved problem by then. In laboratories around the world, there are treatments being developed for curing higher and higher doses of radiation. Radiation is extremely useful in cancer treatment, and the larger the doses doctors can administer to a tumor, the better hope for recovery. So rejoice, future wastelanders. Cancer just saved your ass.

Stealth Boy

Switching gears for a the final entry in this week's Science of Games, we're looking at the Stealth Boy personal cloaking system utilized in Fallout: New Vegas. This piece of technology is particularly exciting, because it always seems to be just beyond current science's reach.

This type of system has been theorized about for years, and numerous prototypes have shown up around the world. A team of Japanese researchers, for instance, designed a system that utilized a poncho and a projector. The user wore a blank cloak with a camera on the back that was hooked up to a projector. The projector would then display whatever was behind the person on the cloak, effectively rendering them invisible.

That system can't be employed in a real-life situation, though, for obvious reasons. Even if you're invisible, the projector you have to carry around in front of you won’t be (although it'd probably be fine if you were hiding in a projector factory/warehouse).

Above: It'd probably also be more helpful in an open field than trying to hide behind a small twig

Another model for this type of system is a type of military camouflage that’s currently only rumored on military blogs and enthusiast sites. This type utilizes tiny fibrous displays weaved into the fabric of a soldier's uniform. Small cameras on the suit look at the surroundings and change the color scheme of the uniform to match the fighting environment. It's essentially what Old Snake has in Metal Gear Solid 4.

The only issue here is expense and bulk. These things aren't cheap, and thus aren't practical for the average soldier. They also require a lot of power, so a marine would have to carry around large battery packs. Marines already have to lug around as much as 65 pounds in their packs, so adding more weight usually isn't practical. These systems are currently being designed for humvees, however, since the weight isn't an issue.

Be sure to check back in two weeks from now for the second installment in the Science of Fallout where we'll be investigating the possibility of a Pip Boy, nuclear war with China, and more.

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