The Science of Star Trek
For those of you who enjoyed my Game of Thrones blog post, feel free to rejoice because that was merely the tip of the iceberg. However, for those of you nearing your geek threshold, you may want to turn back to Tumblr because we are about to boldly go where no one has gone before…
Obviously, I am talking about Star Trek. More specifically, exploring the science of Star Trek (hence the title of this article). My inner Vulcan deemed it the only logical next step. After all, the academic merits of this iconic franchise have been a popular topic of discussion since the original show aired in 1966. What’s more, I’m confident that Star Trek’s most recent renaissance will spawn the next generation of digital age Trekkies to carry on the conversation… as well as fuel internet nerd rage for decades to come. But all kidding aside, the show has certainly inspired me to think critically about the universe’s many mysteries. I wouldn’t be at all surprised if the next Einstein or Sally Ride credited Star Trek with sparking their interest in a world beyond our own. In fact, J. J. Abrams may just single-handedly save our national space program.
In any case, I’ve chosen four scientific elements from old school Star Trek that I find particularly fascinating/irritating to discuss with you today. Two outright ignore the laws of the nature and two have amazingly become reality since Gene Roddenberry dreamed them up in the 60s. Rest assured, this retrospection stems more from a desire to address technological advancements in the 20th century than from a profound bitterness regarding the Spock/Uhura situation (seriously though, you can’t just upend Spock’s entire personality in order to satisfy our sappy need for a romance plot).
But enough rambling, lets start with…
#1. The Enterprise
It is very much on purpose that I am not pursuing a career in the physical sciences. One can only stand on so many lab benches and drop so many golf balls before “measuring” gravity with a stopwatch becomes tedious. Fear not, I’m not going to delve into complicated theoretical physics. I won’t insult your collective intelligence by pretending to understand warp speed or how the transporter functions at a subatomic level. I’ll leave those debates to bigger brains with bigger computers.
That being said, it’s pretty ironic that of all the scientific liberties taken with the Enterprise, one of the most glaring can be broken down by anyone with a semester of high school physics. Let me introduce you to a concept known as “torque,” which is defined by Wikipedia as “the tendency of a force to rotate an object about an axis, fulcrom, or pivot.” Torque is also a huge problem for our favorite starship.
After a lengthier-than-I-care-to-admit discussion with a masters student in Astronautical Engineering (so I know my opinion is legit), I’ve come to the conclusion that the Enterprise’s center of mass is somewhere in the neck of the structure connecting the saucer to the body. That is all well and good but for one thing: the Enterprise’s engines aren’t aligned with her center of mass. Therefore, the torques are unbalanced and the ship will simply rotate about a hypothetical axis that extends through said center of mass. That means when Kirk calls for warp five, the Enterprise won’t actually be propelled forward but instead pitch downward and start spinning at five times the speed of light. More or less.
That brings us to…
#2. Geordi’s VISOR
I am 100% convinced that grad school is ruining my vision. I’ve noticed that the papers and PCR tubes have gotten decidedly blurrier over the course of the year. But my problems are nothing compared with those of Lieutenant Commander Geordi La Forge, whose main job is to prevent the Enterprise from blowing up in Patrick Stewart’s charmingly dignified face. This can sometimes prove problematic, even for a brilliant engineer such as Geordi. Did I mention he is also blind as a bat?
But how can Geordi fix the matter/antimatter reactor if he can’t see it? Fortunately, there is more to Geordi (and bats) than meets the eye. Lets take a look at the VISOR (Visual Instrument and Sensory Organ Replacement).
This particular piece of 24th century bling works by first scanning the environment around the wearer. Next the VISOR inputs that information directly into the optic nerve, which transmits a visual read-out to the brain. Voila! Geordi can fix the warp drive and Picard can go back to his sexy brooding. In addition, it is worth mentioning that the “visual” Geordi perceives isn’t the same as normal human sight but rather various aspects of the electromagnetic spectrum (radio waves, IR, UV rays etc) imperceptible to the naked eye. Because what’s life without whimsy?
Amazingly – aside from the whole seeing energy thing – this technology is actually in the development stage. Researchers at the Monash Vision Group in Australia have pioneered an actual bionic eye that is remarkably similar to the VISOR. These researchers essentially have the capacity to connect a camera to the brains of blind individuals. First, a digital camera mounted on a pair of glasses takes pictures of your surroundings. These pictures are then digitally modified and wirelessly transmitted to a small chip that has been implanted under your skull. Finally, this chip directly stimulates the visual cortex with an array of electrical signals that the brain interprets as images. Users will be able to see objects and colors as if they had radar. The system even has facial recognition ability!
So while starship engineers are still a twinkle on the horizon, blindness may very well be almost a thing of the past.
On the other hand, the next example will simply never be resolved.
#3. Omnipresent interspecies coupling… that results in children
I am not here to judge. What two consenting, adult aliens do in the privacy of their quarters is none of my business.
However, lets not delude ourselves into believing that such acts of interstellar intercourse can breed anything but Shatner’s giant ego. The point is – even though it hurts my soul to say so – many of our quirky interspecies friends are reproductive impossibilities.
Now I understand that lack of CGI made the portrayal of non-humanoid lifeforms particularly difficult in the original series. Costumes and make-up can only go so far when the only sentient beings at your disposal are bipedal mammals. A foreign-looking creature was hard to come by.
So, I can ignore the infinitesimal chance that animals from different planets evolved pretty much the same body plan. We can chock that up to a low-tech quick fix. However, the truly annoying thing is that Star Trek doesn’t bother to preserve even the illusion of different species. In biology, a species is typically defined as a group of interbreeding organisms that produce viable offspring. Now before you microbiologists start shouting and throwing things, I know this definition isn’t absolute and is nowhere near accurate when describing living beings like bacteria or my personal favorite, corals. In addition, there exists substantial evidence that ancient homo sapiens bred with other closely-related hominids, such as Neanderthals as well as the more recently discovered Denisovans. In spite of all that, I think this characterization of species works pretty well for higher beings such as ourselves and other member of the Federation.
Now I know a few of you are thinking that Star Trek totally justified this ubiquitous humanoid conundrum in an episode from The Next Generation entitled “The Chase.” Quite simply this “explanation” is a huge crock of BS. Seriously, they would have been better off just ignoring the problem entirely. Basically, this episode introduces the idea that an ancient humanoid race “seeded” a variety of primordial oceans on a bunch of planets with their own DNA in order to direct evolution toward their own likeness. That’s why humans, Vulcans, Romulans, Klingons, etc all look more or less the same. But don’t believe a word they say because the very nature of evolution is constant change. What goes in won’t be the same as what comes out. After many many millions of years of different environmental pressures, those genetic tidbits will evolve to fit their particular planet regardless of how they started. What works for organisms on Earth will be useless to organisms on the hotter, drier Vulcan. And for those of you who still disagree with me, consider this: how could an iron-blooded human and a copper-blooded Vulcan possibly make a baby? Our essentially body chemistry isn’t even similar!
#4. The Replicator
There’s nothing fancy about this one folks. The replicator is exactly what you think it is, a machine that creates inanimate objects from a stored database of molecular structures. First used in the original series to make food, the replicator eventually evolved to be able to make pretty much anything in later shows.
In theory, the replicator works by arranging subatomic particles to form atoms. These atoms can then be assembled into molecules, which when directed into a specific pattern, form a particular object of desire.
So this sounds like the most useful thing ever right? I would tend to agree, which is why I think 3D printers are about the coolest things ever. Basically, these incredible machines can be programmed to create a solid object based on a digital model of virtually any shape. Without getting into the nitty gritty details, 3D printers take a computer image and cut it up it into insanely fine cross sections. Using a special program, these slices are read as a blueprint, which directs the machine to lay down successive layers of material to build the object.
What is truly incredible about 3D printers is their amazing range of application. Right now they are mostly used to make oddly shaped parts composed of plastic or metal alloy but more complicated advancements are just around the corner. In fact, a company called Organovo just recently announced that it was able to piece together a thin layer of liver cells using a 3D printer. Pretty soon, labs may be able to completely replicate human organs. Further down the line we may even be able to take stem cells and print them into tissue. The entire field of medicine would change forever! And that is just one example. From nanorobots to shoes, the possibilities of this technology are endless.
Well that’s all I’ve got for today. So, as unrealistic Spock would say, live long and prosper.