What is Project Staircase in 3 Body Problem, Explained

In Netflix’s ‘3 Body Problem,’ when the San-Ti come forward, giving up all illusions and presenting themselves in their entire might, the first thing the humans realize is that the aliens’ strongest point in this war is their knowledge of the human race. Using the Sophons, the San-Ti have the perfect spies to keep an eye on humans. They have used the Sophons to know everything there is to know about humans, and this has put them at an exceptional advantage. To counter this, humans come up with a unique plan of their own, which they call the Staircase Project. SPOILERS AHEAD

The Staircase Project is Humans’ Spy Probe

Image Credit: Ed Miller/Netflix

While it looks like a lost cause, the humans may have some chance against the San-Ti if they have their own spy amidst the aliens. From here, the idea of a probe germinates, but things are not so simple. The San-Ti are keeping an eye on the humans in real-time, but humans don’t yet have the tech to make their own Sophons. So, they will need to send a proper probe towards the San-Ti fleet, which is on its way to Earth. While the San-Ti are already traveling at about 1% of the speed of light, it will still take them more than 400 years to come to Earth. To send their probe to the San-Ti, humans will have to exceed or at least match that speed. Otherwise, centuries will pass before the probe reaches the San-Ti, and by then, it might already be too late.

Jin Cheng comes up with an idea that might give their probe the required speed. She proposes the use of nuclear pulse propulsion, in which timed nuclear explosions at fixed distances and using a radiation sail would push the probe to the speed of around 1% of the speed of light. This is where the name “Staircase” comes from because each explosion will act like a step in a staircase, bringing the probe closer to its destination.

Her theory sounds good, but there are still many practical challenges. To begin with, they will need about 1000 nuclear explosions, and at the given moment, they have only around 300. Another challenge is the San-Ti itself. Through the Sophons, the San-Ti already know about the probe, and they could easily dismantle the entire thing even before it is launched. Even if, somehow, the probe finds its way to the San-Ti fleet, the aliens could easily destroy it, and the whole project would be in vain. To keep the San-Ti from destroying the probe, humans need to give the aliens the only thing they don’t have yet: a live human to interact with.

Image Credit: Macall Polay/Netflix

So far, the San-Ti have interacted with humans through Sophons. While they have learned the ways of humanity and found out all kinds of things about them, they are still fascinated by the human brain, which is entirely unlike theirs. They have evolved to telepathy and, hence, are unable to lie. In fact, it has been a part of their physiology for so long that they have no idea what “lies” are. They are shocked when they discover that humans can fabricate stories to serve their purpose.

Considering this, it would be quite a thing for them to meet with a human face to face and to study them, to pick their brain and learn all that they couldn’t from a long distance. Wade decides that a human must be sent on the probe, but then there is the question of the weight. With already a shortage of nuclear bombs, the weight of the probe has to be kept to a minimum. The bombs themselves would have a lot of weight, along with the probe’s structure, and putting an adult human on it, along with the cryo equipment needed to keep them alive during the journey, would be too much of an additional weight.

Instead of sending the whole human, they find it best to send only the brain. Considering how advanced the San-Ti are, it wouldn’t be difficult for them to create a body for the brain. The person would die on Earth but would be reborn on the San-Ti fleet. They could act as a spy, gathering info against the San-Ti while the probe does its work. Or at least, that is the intention. When the time comes to execute the plan, things don’t work out as expected. The probe goes off course and is lost, with the human brain (which belongs to Will Downing) left to float in space forever.

Read More: 3 Body Problem: What Happens to Will? Is He Dead?