Myths: Star Trek
Last Revised: 1999.04.25
There are a number of myths which are widely held among Star Trek fans. Some of them are interesting but clearly incorrect. Others are simply ridiculous.
Many Star Trek fans believe that numerous real-life technological developments have occurred because of Star Trek. A recent post by yet another scientifically ignorant trekkie (who refused to divulge his real name, which is always a good indicator of poor credibility) included the following:
"Nothing in SW has actually happened whereas ST predicted such things as cell phones (communicators, including shape and physics behind it), creation of antimatter (using Lithium, rather than Dilithium [which would logically be more efficient]), transporters (although at present we are limited to subatomic particles), the finding of Quasars, fiber optics, what are affectionately known as 'Okudagrams' (after the ST design artist who created them), finding of 'Dark Matter', not to mention numerous other things...)"
Star Trek predicts nothing of consequence. People who think it "predicted" real scientific or technological developments are simply ignorant of how venerable some of these developments really are. Star Trek is written by people who like to keep up with current developments, but they do not predict developments.
Star Trek communicators have nothing to do with cell-phones, which are miniaturized transceivers tied to a large network. Star Trek communicators transmit and receive directly with one another rather than tying into a network, so they are like "walkie-talkies." Walkie-talkies were common at the time TOS was made, and the idea that they would get smaller in the future, or incorporate a flip-cover to protect the buttons, hardly constitutes a fantastic leap of intuition.
Dilithium, like most other Trek "prophecies", is interestingly good terminology but poor concept. The writers, either through research or sheer luck, chose the name "dilithium crystals" for the power source of the TOS Enterprise. In real life, lithium is used as a bombardment target to generate antiprotons. The coincidence, if that is what it is, is amazing. But lithium antimatter generation would be utterly useless as a power source. The energy consumed during this process greatly exceeds the maximum amount of energy that can possibly be released through the annihilation of the resulting antimatter. In the TNG era, the writers realized that this would never work, so they rationalized that the dilithium was not the actual power source and was instead a "mediator", slowing down antimatter prior to a reaction which occurs "20 angstroms above the upper dilithium crystal facet". That sounds nice, but high-energy gamma radiation and charged particle radiation at that close range would quickly destroy any crystal, regardless of whether it is "porous to antimatter".
Transporters are not possible. There is no evidence whatsoever that they are possible. There are so many impossibilities incorporated into a transporter that no scientist would ever go on record saying that they are possible. Every time an interesting development occurs (such as apparent "teleportation" of protons at the IBM labs), rabid trekkies immediately swarm the net with claims that transporters are possible (note that the proton did not actually move through space- its state was duplicated in a distant proton- this was a transfer of information rather than an actual movement of matter). That is why the press releases for the IBM breakthrough all included scientists hastily reminding everyone that the technology has nothing to do with transporters and can never be applied to transporters. They have seen this nonsense enough times to anticipate the inevitable trekkie response, and react to it. The only projected applications for this technology are (possibly) in the area of high-speed signalling.
Star Trek did not predict quasars. Quasars were discovered in the early 1960's, years before TOS aired, and decades before TNG aired.
Okudagrams did not predict fibre optics. Fibre optics were invented long before okudagrams were invented. The first light guides were developed during the 1930's, and Corning Glass introduced the first commercially available fibre optic product in 1975. All of this happened long before TNG, and Okudagrams, ever graced the airwaves. Furthermore, Okudagrams aren't based on fibre optics anyway. They are only backlit screens.
Star Trek did not predict dark matter (which has never been directly observed- its existence is inferred from astronomical observations). Star Trek has mentioned it, but its existence was theorized long before Star Trek ever hit the airwaves.
Star Trek did not predict black holes. John Mitchell theorized about their existence in 1783. Yes, that's right. More than two hundred years ago. I think we can comfortably conclude that this would predate the adventures of Captain Kirk. Trek is often erroneously credited with predicting the existence of black holes because Kirk referred to a "black star" in a TOS episode and several years later, John Wheeler coined the term "black hole" to describe objects whose gravity is so great that light cannot escape. At worst, this is a mere coincidence. At best, it is an example of the Trek writers' luck and skill with terminology. In any case, the concept of a black hole (there I go again, thinking about concepts rather than terminology) was proposed long before Gene Roddenberry was a twinkle in his father's eye. The name is just a formality.
Antimatter was first theorized to exist more than seventy years ago. This comfortably predates the first TOS air-date.
Every other incident of Trek "prediction" precisely follows the pattern established by these examples. The writers either copy something from current research (often getting the terminology right but buggering the concept), or the fans simply don't realize just how old a concept really is.
There appears to be a common conceit that Star Trek is the most scientifically realistic science fiction series in existence. The sentiment has been repeated in newsgroups and E-mail with statements such as the following:
"All Star Trek technology is based on real physics, researched by the scientists who work for the show."
"Read 'The Physics of Star Trek' by Lawrence Krauss. He's a PhD, you know. He says that warp drive and transporters are both possible."
As you can clearly see, there seem to be a lot of Star Trek fans who actually think that Star Trek is realistic! This notion deserves to be brutally cut down. Star Trek differs from other science fiction series in that it makes a greater effort to create the illusion of realism, but make no mistake: once you get past the over-use (and abuse) of scientific terms, Star Trek is no more realistic than Star Wars, Babylon 5, Battlestar Galactica, or even cartoon series like Voltron and Transformers.
It may be best to address these trekkie statements separately:
Treknology is not based on real physics, and the writers do not consult scientists when they write the episodes. The show's vaunted "tech advisors", Mike Okuda and Rick Sternbach, for all of their effort, have nothing but art backgrounds, and are not qualified scientists or engineers. They occasionally consult qualified people for information, but they have no qualifications of their own. However, their knowledge (or lack thereof) is irrelevant in any case, because the writers ignore them anyway! Sternbach, who at least puts in an effort to learn about science, has complained publicly about the fact that the writers routinely refuse to accept plot corrections on the basis of scientific validity. This should not come as a surprise- the show's writers have no particular interest in science fiction, and many of them could just as easily be writing for a soap opera or a sitcom. They bring "general writing skills" to the table, and rely on the tech advisors only to add tech terms to a frozen script, not for advice on actual events in the shows. That's how ridiculous concepts like the "One Little Ship" thimble-sized runabout make it onto the television screen. The show's tech advisors do not get to decide what Treknology can and cannot do- they only get to decide which technobabble words are used to describe it.
Anyone who thinks Krauss claims Treknology is feasible should go back and re-read Krauss's excellent books on Treknology. His books are not about Star Trek. They are about real physics, using Star Trek as a "hook" to grab the reader's interest and provide a reference point for discussion which the reader can identify with. He actually states quite clearly that none of the Treknology would ever work. He gives the Trek writers kudos for their good use of terminology (see my note above), but they consistently fail to get their physics concepts right. In other words, his books support my own thoughts on this subject. Some notes are important:
Regarding warp drive, he notes that with an arbitrary configuration of mass/energy, it is theoretically possible to distort space-time enough to permit superluminal travel. But when a physicist says "arbitrary configuration of mass/energy", what he really means is "a solution that works on paper in the equations of general relativity but is impossible to produce in reality." Sure enough, he notes later that huge amounts of negative energy are required to make it work. In light of this, he was rather surprised that so many people took the idea seriously, and was forced to mention other serious problems with the concept in his second book, "Beyond Star Trek". This is the sort of misunderstanding that can occur when laypeople read science-related material but don't understand the "lingo." A physicist's reluctance to call an idea "impossible" should not be misinterpreted as a claim that it is therefore feasible. Ask a physicist if warp drive is completely impossible, and he will probably give you a qualified "No". Ask him if this means we will someday have warp drive, and he will probably answer "Hell, no."
Regarding transporters, he quite clearly describes transporters as an "apparent impossibility." I don't know how to put it more emphatically than that. Frankly, I cannot understand how someone possibly could read that book and interpret it as proof of Treknology's feasibility. It beggars the imagination.
Krauss himself was rather disturbed at the abuse of theoretical physics (including the abuse and misinterpretation of some of his own writings) committed by numerous Star Trek fans, and in his second book, he wrote a brief discussion of the problems with this kind of thinking. It is quoted and discussed on the general science myths page. If you don't have time to read it, let's just say that he strongly discourages people from attempting to use quantum mechanics jargon to rationalize violations of fundamental scientific principles- something that trekkies are too often prone to doing.
If you are interested in any more trivia about Star Trek realism, go to Star Trek Realism: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.
This myth is unusually irksome. Unlike some of the myths described on these pages (particularly the various silly anti-SW myths), it is not restricted to a small minority of Star Trek fans. Instead, it is accepted by a lot of Star Trek fans, perhaps most of them.
Cracking the myth
First, the obvious question: is this really a myth? Or is it the reality of Star Trek? Well, it is pretty obviously a myth. The Borg were unable to assimilate Species 8472 life forms or bioships in "Scorpion". They were unable to assimilate Data when they captured him in STFC. The Hirogen border their territory and have resisted assimilation for thousands of years. The Dyson Sphere seen in "Relics" has undoubtedly been sitting around for millions of years, given the extent to which its star's aging process had progressed, yet it showed no signs of Borg encroachment. The Voth also border Borg territory, and appear to have no fear of Borg assimilation whatsoever. We have several concrete examples of their inability to assimilate biological life forms and/or technologies. Is any more evidence necessary? The Borg obviously cannot assimilate any and every life form or technology, and we have canon proof for this conclusion.
The standard trekkie response is that these were "special cases", and they then go on to explain why these cases were unique and in no way a disproof of Borg godlike and omnipotent assimilation capabilities. I have heard literally dozens of variations upon this excuse, expounding upon the precise reasons why these particular incidents would never ever be replicated anywhere, for any reason, under any circumstances. But the people who write such rebuttals fail to see the point: once we know that their assimilation techniques are not omnipotent, then the myth is broken.
It doesn't matter how "special" their failures were; they were still failures. And as long as we know that they can fail to assimilate a life form or technological object, then we know that they cannot automatically be assumed to be capable of assimilating any and every alien race or technology that they encounter. They might be able to do it, but they might not. It certainly is not a foregone conclusion.
The Borg and Kal'el?
This myth probably stems from a superhero-style mentality on the part of some Star Trek fans. I've said this numerous times- it isn't necessarily a stiff-necked adherence to real science that characterizes a scientific approach to science fiction. It is a mentality. Science is all about determining cause, effect, and limits. If we don't know how something works, we can at least derive lower and upper limits for it. If we cannot derive these limits from theory, we can generate preliminary limits by simply looking at what they've done or failed to do. In any case, we do not simply say that if we're not sure what the limit is, then there not be any limit at all!
Why do I call this a superhero-style mentality? Because that's basically the way that superheroes and their superpowers are described. Look at Superman's power of flight. He can fly, but does anyone ever worry about what his maximum speed in atmosphere is? How about his maximum speed in space? Does he have any altitude limits? No one ever asks these questions because flight is one of his "special powers." Similarly, look at his laser vision. Does anyone ever worry about what his maximum power output is? Does he have a maximum firing duration? Does he have a recharge time? Does he have a minimum power output? Are there limits to how tightly he can control the frequency and/or power of the beam? No one ever asks these questions because laser vision is one of his "special powers." So what about the Borg? Is their assimilation an actual technology, complete with capabilities, restrictions, and limits, or it is a "special power?" From the comments of some of my E-mail correspondents, it's quite clear that it is regarded as a "special power" rather than an actual technology. "Silly" is about as apt a description as I can come up with.
Where did this myth come from?
I'm still trying to figure out exactly how the idea spread that the Borg become godlike, invincible and immune to a weapon once they figure out what it is. While it is true that the Borg seem to be able to resist Federation weapons quite well once they figure out what they are, there is no indication that this means they are completely immune to any and all weapons once they figure out what they are. Obviously, this is just another example of the Star Trek fan "superhero" mentality, as applied to another Star Trek concept (see previous section).
I am guessing that the myth spread because the Borg were seemingly impervious to the attacks of a single Federation starship in "Q Who?". However, the clash between the scientific mentality and the superhero mentality again rears its ugly head. Rather than describe the ability to resist the weapons of a single Federation starship as a lower limit, the fans have instead decided that it is proof of godlike omnipotence! Why worry about limits when you can simply assume that "adaptation" is a "special power" and that they can adapt to anything? The most stunning example of this nonsense is the recurring trekkie claim that a Borg cube could shake off a Death Star superlaser blast once a previous cube had been destroyed, because it would have "transmitted enough information to the collective to make the other cubes immune." If you can read and understand the various multi-syllable words in this paragraph, then I am sure that you can see how obviously unscientific and oversimplistic the "superhero Borg" mentality is.
Cracking the myth
This myth is clearly refuted by the canon films and episodes. In STFC, we see that although a Borg cube can become seemingly impervious to the weapons of a single Federation starship, it cannot withstand the massed attack of dozens of Federation starships. This demonstrates that Borg "adapted shield" lower limits are somewhere above the firepower of a GCS and below the massed firepower of a fleet containing dozens of Federation starships. We can also see Borg cubes being blasted into fragments by Species 8472 bio-ships and destroyed by simple planetary debris in "Scorpion". And of course, we all know that Borg drones are helpless against any sort of physical attack, whether it's the claws of Species 8472, the bullets of Picard's tommy-gun in STFC, a well-thrown elbow, or one of Worf's various artfully sculpted slicin' and dicin' toys.
As usual, the Star Trek fans who espouse this particular myth complain vigorously that these are "special cases" and should not be taken as disproof of the omnipotent, godlike, invincible, unlimited abilities of the Borg special "adaptation" superpowers. They can come up with an endless string of rationalizations about why these special cases should be ignored. The phrase "self-deception" comes to mind ... they obviously don't want to relinquish their superhero interpretation of the Borg, so they pretend that the various incidents which contradict their preconceived notions "don't count."
As noted in the previous section, it doesn't matter how "special" the Borg failures were. They were failures, therefore they disprove facetious claims about the omnipotence of Borg "adaptation" superpowers. Furthermore, the very assumption that the technology has no upper limits is like a banner, declaring that they are incapable of applying the scientific mentality to their favourite science fiction show.