The Science of Star Trek

Author: David Allen Batchelor






Is Star Trek really a science show, or just a lot of "gee, whiz" nonsensical
Sci-Fi? Could people really DO the fantastic things they do on the original Star Trek and
Next Generation programs, or is it all just hi-tech fantasy for people who can't face
reality? Will the real world come to resemble the world of unlimited power for people to
travel about the Galaxy in luxurious, gigantic ships, and meet exotic alien
as equals?





Well, as for the science in Star Trek, Gene Roddenberry and the writers of the show
have started with science we know and s-t-r-e-t-c-h-e-d it to fit a framework of amazing
inventions that support action-filled and entertaining stories. Roddenberry knew some
actual basic astronomy. He knew that space ships unable to go faster than light would take
decades to reach the stars, and that would be too boring for a one-hour show per week. So
he put warp drives into the show — propulsion by distorting the
space-time continuum that Einstein conceived. With warp drive the ships could reach far
stars in hours or days, and the stories would fit human epic adventures, not stretch out
for lifetimes. Roddenberry tried to keep the stars realistically far, yet imagine human
beings with the power to reach them. Roddenberry and other writers added magic like the
medical miracles and the
, but they put these in as equipment, as powerful tools built
by human engineers in a future of human progress. They uplifted our vision of what might
be possible, and that's one reason the shows have been so popular.





The writers of the show are not scientists, so they do sometimes get science details
wrong. For instance, there was a show in which Dr. Crus her and Mr. LaForge were forced to
let all of the air escape from the part of the ship they were in, so that a fire would be
extinguished. The doctor recommended holding one's breath to maintain consciousness as
long as possible in the vacuum, until the air was restored. But as underwater scuba divers
know, the lungs would rupture and very likely kill anyone who held his breath during such
a large decompression. The lungs can't take that much pressure, so people can only survive
in a vacuum if they DON'T try to hold their breath.





I could name other similar mistakes. I'm a physicist, and many of my colleagues watch
Star Trek. A few of them imagine some hypothetical, perfectly accurate science fiction TV
series, and discredit Star Trek because of some list of science errors or impossible
events in particular episodes. This is unfair. They will watch Shakespeare without a
complaint, and his plays wouldn't pass the same rigorous test. Accurate science is seldom
exciting and spectacular enough to base a weekly adventure TV show upon. Generally Star
Trek is pretty intelligently written and more faithful to science than any other science
fiction series ever shown on television. Star Trek also attracts and excites generations
of viewers about advanced science and engineering, and it's almost the only show that
depicts scientists and engineers positively, as role models. So let's forgive the show for
an occasional misconception in the service of an epic adventure.





So, what are the features of Star Trek that a person interested in science can enjoy
without guilt, and what features rightly tick off those persnickety critics? Well, many of
the star systems mentioned on the show, such as Wolf 359, really do exist. Usually,
though, the writers just make them up! There have also been some beautiful special effects
pictures of binary stars and solar flares which were astronomically accurate and
instructive. The best accuracy and worst stumbles can be found among the features of the
show that have becom e constant through all of the episodes. Here's a list of the standard
Star Trek features, roughly in order of increasing scientific incredibility:





Features List



  • The Ships Computer
  • Matter-Antimatter Power Generation
  • Impulse Engines
  • Androids
  • Alien Beings
  • Sensors & Tricorders
  • Deflector Shields, Tractor Beams & Artificial Gravity
  • Subspace Communications
  • Phasers
  • Healing Rays
  • Replicator
  • Transporter
  • Holodeck
  • Universal Language Translator
  • Warp Interstellar Drive
  • Wormhole Interstellar Travel & Time Travel
  • Conclusion


    The Ship's Computer:


    Most of the things it does are within the plausible realm of artificial intelligence
    that computer scientists anticipate. We have auto-pilot functions and navigational systems
    today, and these are the most used functions of the Enterprise computer. Our computers
    even approach the ability to interpret spoken orders that the Enterprise computer has. In
    400 more years — the time when Star Trek: The Next Generation is set — it is reasonable
    to expect many of the abilities of this computer to really be achieved.


    Introduction   Features List


    Matter-Antimatter Power Generation:


    This is one of the best scientific features of Star Trek. The mixing of matter and
    antimatter is almost certainly the most efficient kind of power source that a starship
    could use, and the way it's described is reasonably correct — the antimatter (frozen
    anti-hydrogen) is handled with magneti c fields, and never allowed to touch normal matter,
    or KA-BOOM! This much is real physics. Let's not bother about the dilithium crystals part
    . . . sorry, but that's just imaginary.


    Introduction   Features List


    Impulse Engines:


    These are rocket engines based on the fusion reaction. We don't have the technology for
    them yet, but they are within the bounds of real, possible future engineering.


    Introduction   Features List




    Well, an important research organization for robotics is the American Association for
    Artificial Intelligence. At a recent conference on cybernetics, the president of the
    Association was asked what is the ultimate goal of his field of technology. He replied,
    "Lieutenant Commander Data." Creating Star Trek's Mr. Data would be a historic
    feat of cybernetics, and right now it's very controversial in computer science whether it
    can be done. Maybe a self-aware computer can be put into a human-sized body and convinced
    to live sociably with us and our limitations. That's a long way ahead of our computer
    technology, but maybe not impossible.


    By the way, Mr. Data's "positronic" brain circuits are named for the circuits
    that Dr. Isaac Asimov imagined for his fictional robots. Our doctors can use positrons to
    make images of our brains or other organs, but there's no reason to expect that positrons
    could make especially good artificial brains. Positrons are antimatter! Dr. Asimov just
    made up a sophisticated-sounding prop, which he never expected people to take literally.


    Introduction   Features List


    Alien Beings:


    Most scientists now agree that life probably exists in other solar systems, now that we
    understand biochemistry a little. The chemical elements for carbon-based life like the
    lifeforms on Earth are common in the Universe, so maybe lifeforms like ourselves are
    numerous in the Galaxy. We can imagine all kinds of intelligent creatures, with any number
    of arms, legs, eyes, or antennae — maybe a lot smarter than we are. It seems doubtful
    that humanoid shapes would be as common as the alien races on the Star Trek shows, though.
    Well, we have to allow the show some concessions to the shapes of available actors. Could
    half-human/half-alien hybrids ever exist, like Mr. Spock? It seems almost impossible, but
    with recombinant DNA, our scientists have already created interspecies hybrids. Mr. Spock
    is not totally beyond biochemical reality, but definitely at the edge.


    Introduction   Features List


    Sensors & Tricorders:


    We have vibration sensors, sonar, radar, laser ranging, various kinds of light
    wavelength detectors and energetic particle detectors, and gravimeters. We also do a
    little three-dimensional imaging of the interiors of solid objects, like the human body,
    with magnetic fields and radioactivity detectors. The sensors and tricorders on Star Trek
    are quite different and more revealing as plot devices than anything we have. But with a
    stretch of the imagination, the tricorder scan could have today's magnetic resonance
    imager as its ancestor. The Enterprise's sensors must use the more advanced (and
    "subspace fields," when it detects far-away
    objects in space, because the crew never has to wait for signals to travel to a target and
    return. Not all of the sensors on the show are possible.


    Introduction   Features List


    Deflector Shields, Tractor Beams & Artificial Gravity:


    We know how to deflect electrically charged objects using electromagnetic fields, and
    there are concepts for protecting space travelers from cosmic radiation this way. That's
    the only phys ics trick we know that resembles the powerful special effects of the
    Enterprise shields. We can also make big magnets that have some respectable attraction,
    and with the right electronic circuits regulating the strength of the magnets, we can
    imagine towing some kinds of metal objects through space. A beam that is projected at
    something to attract it is purely imaginary. We don't have any way to create artificial
    gravity either. Generating artificial graviton particles is imaginable, but there's no way
    to say how it might be done.


    Introduction   Features List


    Subspace Communications:


    Mathematicians discovered the concept of a subspace within a space continuum decades
    ago, and science fiction writers appropriated the term to serve their needs for a
    super-advanced way to reach other points in space, time or "other" universes.
    The concept is alive in physics today, in theories that our space-time may have eleven or
    more dimensions — three space dimensions and time, plus seven more that are "curled
    up" within a tiny sub-atomic size scale, where they conveniently explain mysteries of
    the forces of physics. But Star Trek uses its own unrelated version of subspace, with
    signals that can travel as fast as the fastest starship. This is just a convenient notion
    to get messages to Star Fleet and back by the end of a TV show, with no realistic physics
    behind it.


    Introduction   Features List




    According to the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, phasers are named for
    PHASed Energy Rectification. They are really just spectacular energy blasters, with no
    detailed physics explanation. The original concept was that they were the next
    technological improvement upon LASERs. To the extent that they differ from LASERs, they
    are just fanciful props, descended from generations of blasters in science fiction of de
    cades past.


    Introduction   Features List


    Healing Rays:


    Star Trek's Dr. Crusher shines a healing ray on her wounded patients and the skin or
    bone heals immediately. That's just a magical medical miracle of the imaginary 24th
    century. Surgeons today do work with lasers to cauterize or seal some tissues, and repair
    detached retinas. Some dentists use them, too. Also, there is actually a form of adhesive
    that can stick human cells together like Elmer's Glue ™, and synthetic skin for
    temporarily protecting wounds! But the body's own healing is usually as fast as any other
    method. On the other hand, there is some evidence that weak electric currents can
    accelerate healing of bones, so something similar to Dr. Crusher's procedure — but not
    instantaneous — may become possible some day.


    Introduction   Features List




    Today, we know how to create microchip circuits and experimental nanometer-scale
    objects by "drawing" them on a surface with a beam of atoms. We can also suspend
    single atoms or small numbers of atoms within a trap made of electromagnetic fields, and
    experiment on them. That's as close as the replicator is to reality. Making solid matter
    from a pattern as the replicator appears to do, is pretty far beyond present physics.


    Introduction   Features List




    We don't have a clue about how to really build a device like the transporter. It uses a
    beam that is radiated from point A to point B where it STOPS at just the right precise
    place — even passing through some barriers along the way — and reconstructs the person
    it carries on the spot. Or it captures a person's pattern, dematerializing him or her, and
    brings the person to some other point. All of the rematerialized atoms and mol ecules are
    somehow in the precisely correct positions, with the right temperatures and adhering
    together just as if the transportee had not been dematerialized. Rematerializing, why
    doesn't everything fall to pieces if a gust of wind or just normal gravity disturb the
    reappearing atoms? Nothing in the physics of today gives a hint about how that might be
    possible. Arthur C. Clarke said, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is
    indistinguishable from magic." But we can't assume every magical feat could be
    accomplished, given sufficiently advanced technology.


    Introduction   Features List




    The same applies to this one. Holograms are apparent images with three dimensional
    structure. We can't imagine a way to assemble matter in the same way as the light in a


    Introduction   Features List


    Universal Language Translator:


    As this is used on the Star Trek shows, it's just an automagical device to enable
    characters to get through the stories. It would be too tedious and repetitious in a
    one-hour show for the characters to overcome real language barriers in a realistic manner
    in every show. The way the Enterprise crew can encounter an alien spacecraft, "hail
    them on standard frequencies," and establish instant telecommunications on their
    viewscreens is a preposterous shortcut to keep the plot from faltering. We can certainly
    dismiss the possibility of such an invention ever being built.


    Introduction   Features List


    Warp Interstellar Drive:


    This must be the crowning achievement of Federation technology! Despite its fundamental
    role in the show's plot, it violates known physics to an extent that can't be defended.
    The detailed explanation of the warp field effect in the ST: TNG Technical Manual only
    raises mo re questions than it resolves. It is said to involve huge discharges of energy
    and subspace fields that aren't understood in today's science. However, barring a very
    unlikely demolition of Einstein's theory by future, revolutionary discoveries in quantum
    physics, warp drive can't exist. Physicists of today understand the space-time continuum
    rather well, and there is very good reason to think that no object can move faster than
    the speed of light. This doesn't stop scientists like the great expert on relativity and
    quantum theory, Stephen Hawking, from enjoying the fun of the TV series, however.


    Introduction   Features List


    Wormhole Interstellar Travel & Time Travel:


    These are questionable consequences of some mathematical models for extremely bizarre,
    artificial arrangements of titanic super-massive objects — untested imaginary models
    where Einstein's relativity theory is stretched to its ultimate limits. We don't have any
    evidence that Einstein's theory is valid in these theoretical cases, and the arrangements
    of these giant spinning masses don't occur in nature.


    Introduction   Features List




    So, the bottom line is: Star Trek science is an entertaining combination of real
    science, imaginary science gathered from lots of earlier stories, and stuff the writers
    make up week-by-week to give each new episode novelty. The real science is an effort to be
    faithful to humanity's greatest achievements, and the fanciful science is the playing
    field for a game that expands the mind as it entertains. The Star Trek series are the only
    science fiction series crafted with such respect for real science and intelligent writing.
    That's why it's the only science fiction series that many scientists watch regularly . . .
    like me.


    Introduction   Features List