Star Trek Phasers
Last Revised: 1999.05.22
The Enterprise-E fires from its ventral forward phaser array
Mechanism: What are phasers?
Phasers are one of the most curious weapons ever seen. Their characteristics are unusual, seemingly self-contradictory, and in some ways, apparently in violation of fundamental laws of physics. After examining numerous video records sold to us by Ferengi information merchants, we have discovered the following:
Maximum-power phasers make a human being "disappear" in a flash of light, without debris or gas clouds. People can stand right next to a person being disintegrated and not be affected.
Phaser disintegrations occur slowly, taking a significant amount of time even after the phaser beam stops: anywhere from ½-second to 2 seconds.
Maximum-power phasers disintegrate a human body in its entirety, regardless of mass, and no excess energy ever spills into the environment.
Phasers can heat rocks until they become luminescent, allowing away-teams to keep themselves warm.
Phasers can shatter large amounts of rock, knocking very large boulders loose and causing explosive reactions.
Phasers are ineffective against heavy armour (they have historically only been effective against light silicates, eg. rock or plaster).
Phasers seem to violate Conservation of Momentum. A man can fire a one-handed phaser shot, without significant recoil, that picks up an opponent and hurls him through the air upon impact (as seen in ST3).
What sort of weapon can exhibit such characteristics? It may be instructive to examine each characteristic, one at a time:
Harmless disappearance of matter. Matter cannot simply disappear. So, if the matter can't simply disappear into nothingness, it must transform into a form of matter which we cannot perceive. There are several candidates:
Vapourization into invisible gas. Gaseous matter is often invisible. However, more than three quarters of the human body is composed of water, and the volume of water vapour at boiling point and atmospheric pressure is more than three thousand times as large as the volume of liquid water at the same temperature and pressure. So what would we expect if the water vapour in a human body vapourizes? Try putting your hand directly over the spout of a kettle full of boiling water which is venting steam at high speed, preferably in the region where it has not yet become visible (meaning that your hand must be within a centimetre of the spout). Once you recover from the burns, picture a cloud of steam at this temperature and pressure, more than 8 metres wide, filling the room from the floor to the ceiling. If you were in a room full of such steam, would you notice? Frankly, I can't see how someone would fail to notice such a cloud unless he or she were dead.
Disruption into subatomic particles. There would be little point in even discussing this possibility, except that some Federation cultists have advanced it as a possible explanation. However, if a human body were disintegrated into all of its component subatomic nucleons and electrons, the result would be a huge cloud of ionized hydrogen plasma and a large neutron radiation flux. Picture the deadly cloud of water vapour described in the previous section, multiplied in volume by several orders of magnitude and heated to many thousands of K. Furthermore, assume that this gas cloud is accompanied by dangerous levels of neutron radiation. And finally, remember that as the plasma cools and becomes ordinary hydrogen gas, it will be highly flammable! This explanation is not better than the vapourization explanation- in fact, it is much worse.
Transition out of the continuum. This is the phrase used by the official TM, to describe the eventual destination of the missing matter. The phrase, by itself, has little or no meaning since it never describes where the matter is going- it only makes a vague suggestion that it is leaving. Furthermore, since real science outweighs official literature in the hierarchy of evidence, we must remember that there is no evidence whatsoever for the possibility of matter in any form leaving this universe in favour of another. Even if it were possible, the laws of symmetry dictate that an equal amount of mass/energy would have to come back from the other dimension.
Disappearing into the Zero-point Domain. Some Federation cultists feel that the "zero-point domain" can be advanced as a potential destination of the missing matter, but they are gravely mistaken. Although some overoptimistic interpretations of quantum mechanics may lead to the apparent conclusion that matter can disappear into the "zero-point domain" or suddenly appear out of the "zero-point domain", no experimental observations have ever supported this possibility. There is observed evidence for the existence of the "quantum foam" of virtual particle/antiparticle pairs, but there is no observed evidence for the seamless movement of matter in and out of the "zero-point domain". There is a very real allure to the notion that we can turn the entire world of conventional physics on its ear with ZPE/ZPF theories and discard "old-fashioned" notions of conservation of energy and symmetry, but until some of the more enticing theoretical notions are actually supported by experimental observation, they should not be taken seriously. It is curious that Federation cultists seem to be going back to the Aristotelian philosophy that experimental verification of scientific theories is not necessary, after having moved beyond this ridiculous philosophy centuries earlier!
Complete conversion into electromagnetic energy. Another way of saying this is that the matter all becomes energy, or perhaps more precisely, the mass of the human body becomes photons. However, this is perhaps the worst alternative yet explored. In the case of an 80kg adult male humanoid, the result of such a mass/energy conversion would be a 1700 megaton blast of gamma radiation. I don't think you need a physics degree to know that your chances of survival would be rather slim if you were standing a few feet away from a 1700 megaton blast.
Complete conversion into neutrinos. Although there are no known nuclear processes which can convert matter completely into neutrinos, this would appear to be the only possible destination which does not violate the core fundamental physical laws. It can't become vapour, it can't become plasma, it can't leave the universe, it can't disappear into the zero-point domain, and it can't turn into photons. Therefore, it must turn into something even smaller than nucleons. However, no matter how small that particle may be, it cannot have an electric charge since charged particles, regardless of size, interact with matter (remember the power of electromagnetic interactions- they are the only thing that keep you from walking through walls). Even quarks, which carry fractional charge, will interact strongly with matter for this reason alone, in spite of their tiny mass. So we know that the matter must become something which is very small, and electrically neutral. The answer? Neutrinos. Billions upon trillions of neutrinos could pass through every square millimetre of your body and you would never notice it. They carry mass and energy, and they can potentially remove an arbitrary amount of energy from the locality of a disintegrating mass without any noticeable effects, unlike all of the other explanations advanced so far.
Slow disintegrations. The effects of a phaser blast continue even after the phaser is no longer pumping energy into the target. As we can see from the phaser disintegrations in ST2 and ST6 (among countless others), the phaser beam might only strike for a fraction of a second, but the energy slowly propagates through the body for a long period after that, sometimes as long as two full seconds. This slow process rules out any sort of direct energy transfer to the body. Why? Because the tissues in the impact zone would have to temporarily hold a very large excess of energy (over and above the energy required to induce the neutrino conversion reaction) if they can "bleed" enough energy to the rest of the body to induce that same reaction throughout the entire body mass. However, we know how quickly the mass disappears in the rest of the body when exposed to the energy "bleeding out" of the impact site, so there is no way the tissues at the impact site would "hang around" in solid form long enough, overloaded with this energy, to disperse that energy to surrounding tissues over a period of several seconds. Therefore, we know that the phaser reaction most likely transforms matter into neutrinos, and that it occurs in some sort of chain reaction rather than a direct transfer of energy.
Independence of target mass, lack of excess energy. Most Federation cultists have noticed the strange disappearance of matter, and the slow rate of that disappearance, as noted above. However, most of them have failed to notice that phasers act independently of the mass of the target. The importance of this fact cannot be overstated- in "The Vengeance Factor" we actually saw Riker increase the power setting on his hand phaser to maximum, before using it to disintegrate a diminutive female humanoid, probably no more than 50 kg in mass. However, we know that hand phasers on maximum setting can also disintegrate large adult male humanoids, in excess of 80 kg in mass. In both cases, there is just enough energy to disintegrate the entire body, and there is no excess energy to damage the ground under the victim's feet, or spill over to damage other solid objects in the victim's vicinity. This can only make sense if the energy for this reaction somehow comes from the victim's mass, so that the reaction continues until it runs out of mass but does not continue afterwards. Otherwise, if the energy all comes from the phaser, there should either be a deficit of energy when shooting at large targets, or a surplus of energy when shooting at small targets. Therefore, we know that the phaser reaction most likely transforms matter into neutrinos, and that it must occur in a chain reaction which feeds off the victim's mass.
Heating effects. At low power levels, phasers can be used as simple heating devices. Their behaviour, when used in this manner, seems to be totally different from their behaviour when used to disintegrate targets. In fact, they seem to act like simple "heat lamps" in this mode. This initially seems contradictory, but the TM describes SEM:NDF ratios (Simple ElectroMagnetic effects to Nuclear Disruption Force), which are weighted heavily toward SEM at low power settings and heavily toward NDF at high power settings. This suggests that a phaser is indeed a simple "heatbeam" at low power settings, but induces an exotic "nuclear disruption" reaction at high power settings. This NDF chain reaction must be the neutrino-transformation chain reaction that has been discussed above. Therefore, we know that the phaser reaction most likely transforms matter into neutrinos, we know that it occurs in a chain reaction which feeds off the victim's mass, and we know that there is some sort of "threshold" for this reaction, below which the phaser weapon merely adds thermal energy to the target.
Rock shattering. We've seen phasers shatter rock quite easily in some episodes, easily blasting boulders free which may be as large as several tons. On the other hand, we've also seen phasers strike the ground in combat situations (eg. "Rocks and Shoals") without damaging the ground noticeably at all. This is extremely confusing, especially since phasers tend to produce a disintegration chain reaction or a localized heating effect in other situations. Why then, do they sometimes blast large, intact, unheated chunks out of rock walls? One possible explanation might be that natural rocks are not chemically or microstructurally homogeneous, so the phaser chain reaction may "shoot through" the rock along natural pre-existing grain boundaries, hence the shattering effect.
Material dependence. We saw in "Devil in the Dark" that a silicon-based life form would be more resistant to phaser fire than a carbon-based life form. We have also seen that high-density armour is extremely resistant to phasers, as we can tell from comparing something like "The Die is Cast" or "Inheritance" (in which light silicate planetary surface crust is destroyed) with something like ST2 or "Way of the Warrior", in which repeated phaser blasts did only minor damage to armour. Therefore, it is quite obvious that the material composition of the target has an enormous effect on the effectiveness of phasers. Since we already know that phasers operate on some sort of chain reaction, and that they must derive much of their energy from the target itself, this is not a surprise. The pattern appears to favour atoms with very high nucleon counts, such as heavy metals. Apparently, the higher the atomic number, the less susceptible an element is to the NDF reaction. This is also consistent with "Devil in the Dark", since silicon has a higher atomic number than carbon (14 as opposed to 6).
Apparent failure to observe Conservation of Momentum. Conversation of momentum is a fundamental law, like conservation of energy. It affects even the most stupendously massive objects, such as neutron stars (conservation of angular momentum is what causes their high rates of rotation). So why can Captain Kirk fire a one-handed phaser shot in ST3 which carries so much momentum that it can lift a Klingon off his feet and hurl him dozens of feet back through the air? Shouldn't his arm be broken or his shoulder dislocated from the recoil? The simple answer is that the phaser cannot possibly carry that much momentum, because conservation of momentum is a fundamental law. Therefore, the Klingon's movement through the air must not have been due to simple impact physics. Perhaps the chain reaction propagated in such a manner that the stream of neutrinos coming out of his body was largely aimed in one direction (remember that neutrinos do have momentum), so it acted as a jet and drove him backwards. Presumably, phaser particles were ejected from the disrupted nuclei in the other direction, which impacted on deeper tissues. Perhaps the Klingon's body armour somehow contributed to this unusual effect, or it may have been a freakish anomaly (perhaps related to some sort of anomalous space-time condition on the Genesis planet).
We know now that phasers most likely transform matter into neutrinos. We know that they use some sort of chain reaction, which feeds off the target matter somehow. We know that the effect is highly dependent on material composition, and has shown a correlation to atomic number. Therefore, we can formulate a phenomenon-based theory of what they really do (note that this is a theory of what they do, not how they operate): the NDF theory.
The energy absorption capability of Federation shields is roughly 1500 TJ against charged-particle weapons, and 150,000 to 200,000 TJ against EM radiation (small wonder that Picard was contemptuous of laser-armed vessels in "The Outrageous Okona"), as described in the shielding analysis. We know that phasers can penetrate shields of this type within 5 seconds of continuous firing, so phasers must be tactically equivalent to 300 TW plasma cannons, or 30,000 to 40,000 TW laser cannons. This is consistent with their performance relative to photon torpedoes; since photon torpedoes release perhaps 24 megatons of energy at the target (with the rest being wasted in inefficiencies or directed away from the ship), so it would take less than 3 seconds for a phaser beam to deliver more energy than a maximum-yield photon torpedo.
These numbers are far in excess of the figures in the TM which estimate a mere 1.02GW for the Enterprise-D's entire phaser array. Furthermore, they easily exceed the total power generation of DS9 (even though it mounts many phaser arrays), which is rated at only 790 TW in the DS9 TM. However, the unique nature of the phaser NDF chain reaction, coupled with so-called "subspace" effects, appear to offset the limitations of this low power level. In the end analysis, the actual amount of power is totally irrelevant, but the tactical strength of phasers relative to plasma and EM radiation is relevant.
Phasers appear to be much less effective against armor than they are against shields. The TM states that 2.4TJ is sufficient to vaporize one cubic metre of tritanium which is used in starship hulls, so if phasers were equivalent to 30,000 TW of EM radiation they would vaporize 12,500 cubic metres of Federation tritanium starship armor every second! This obviously doesn't happen- phasers appear to destroy less than 5 cubic metres of starship armor per second of continuous impact, so they seem to be tactically equivalent to 1-10 TW lasers. This is undoubtedly due to the negative impact of heavy transuranium elements on the NDF chain reaction.
One Federation cultist recently pointed out that the neutrino reaction would violate Conservation of Baryons, a particle physics concept. Interestingly, several other Federation cultists then began echoing this criticism. This is a pretty good criticism, but Conservation of Baryons is not a truly universal law. Just as conservation of atoms and elements applies to chemical reactions but not nuclear reactions, conservation of baryons (also known as conservation of nucleons) applies to nuclear reactions but not certain highly exotic situations. The best example would be a black hole.
When matter falls into a black hole, its state is "forgotten". It doesn't matter whether the original matter was radiation, matter or antimatter. It doesn't matter whether it was protons, neutrons, or electrons. It all collapses into the black hole and every aspect of its original state is lost except for its mass and momentum. Conservation of baryons does not apply to black holes. One could argue that black holes are an extremely exotic situation, but so is a vapourization that does not produce any detectable vapour!
Black holes are actually a good example to use in determining the hierarchy of physical laws, ie- which ones are truly universal. Conservation of Momentum, the First Law of Thermodynamics, and the Second Law of Thermodynamics all apply to black holes. Conservation of atoms does not. Conservation of baryons does not. Lots of "higher-level" laws also fail to apply to black holes. But the handful of core, fundamental laws apply to everything we have ever detected, even black holes.
It is always possible that another theory may be proposed, which will also fit the facts. In fact, Federation cultists are producing new theories seemingly by the week. However, as any good scientist knows, a theory must fit all of the facts to be considered valid. Therefore, any competing theory must be capable of simultaneously explaining all of the phenomena described at the top of this document, as well as the following:
How could they have expected to destroy so much material in TDiC, with finite fuel reserves?
Why would a variance of only 0.06TW be sufficient to blow off a planet's atmosphere in "A Matter of Time?"
Why have low GW-range weapon power figures been repeatedly supported, with a 1.02GW figure (TNG TM), a 40MW figure (Battle Lines), a 400 GW figure (Survivors), and a 4.2GW figure (Who Watches the Watchers)? The largest onscreen indication of phaser power came from A Matter of Time, it still indicated low TW output, and it only came after Geordi had altered the phaser array for a special operation.
These facts are canon, and they all have to be explained by any theory that is expected to gain any sort of credibility. The energy-transfer theory fails to explain any of the above criteria, and other theories fail almost as badly. Until such time as another theory arises which explains the above evidence more easily than the NDF theory, the NDF theory remains the most valid theory.
Phasers are extremely effective for planetary bombardment and asteroid mining activities. Against shields, phasers appear to be tactically equivalent to 300 TW plasma cannons and 30,000 to 40,000 TW laser cannons. Against dense armor, phasers appear to be much weaker, in the 1-10TW range. Since 30,000 to 40,000 TW is equivalent to, at best, a handful of small point-defense turbolaser batteries, this should not present a serious threat to our large capital ships unless the enemy starships are able to attack repeatedly over a long period of time without being destroyed (note that this comparison is based on the most conservative available numbers). However, we expect that these "phasers" will be extremely dangerous for starfighters or light vessels and our fighters may experience heavy but strategically acceptable losses in fleet combat.
Peter Chung, for his original NDF theory. It inspired this NDF theory.
Ryan McReynolds, for pointing out the conflict between the NDF theory and conservation of baryons.