Star Trek Realism: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly
Last Revised: 1999.04.25
The Star Trek writing staff seems to have had great success in choosing good (or at least good-sounding) terminology. Could they have known in the late 1960's that lithium would eventually be used as a target for the antiproton production facility at Fermilab? Who knows, but countless trekkies have derived considerable satisfaction from seeing the seemingly miraculous coincidence that "dilithium" was described as the power source of TOS starships. In any case, the Trek writers have a habit of choosing appropriate terminology, probably because their advisors do a little bit of homework before assigning a name to a new device.
The inertial dampers are a good example. Without bothering to describe how they might work (a repeating occurence in the world of Treknology), the term clearly describes a device which would compensate for the reaction force that would normally crush someone to pulp upon high accelerations. The Heisenberg compensators are another good example: they describe technology which is used to deal with the Heisenberg uncertainty principle (which would make transporters impossible). Amazingly, researchers at IBM labs have developed something which could be called a "Heisenberg compensator", although its operating principles are such that it could never be applied to a Star Trek transporter.
Other terms like "plasma conduit", "pattern buffer", "phase transition coil", "impulse engine", and "power coupling" are sprinkled throughout Star Trek, and can be easily interpreted to be meaningful in the context of their observed function on the show. It must be stressed that it's much easier to name a device to solve a problem than to design a device to solve that problem, but one cannot fault the Trek writers for at least making an attempt.
Power generation ideas
The annihilation of matter and antimatter is described as the power generation method of a Federation warp core, which is good because it is an excellent choice for a science fiction power source. 90,000 TJ of energy can be generated from a single kilogram of matter/antimatter, a figure which is not exceeded by any other power source. This was a good choice even though the writers made some mistakes in their actual conceptualization of this technology; for example, why would anyone with gravitic force application technology use magnetic containment fields, particularly when they are attempting to contain electrically neutral antideuterium? Also, why would they design the reactor so that the antimatter velocity is reduced by a wildly implausible "porous" dilithium crystal, rather than the same technology they used to manipulate it into the chamber in the first place? These nitpicks are annoying. However, they don't change the fact that a good choice for a science fiction power source is matter and antimatter.
Although matter/antimatter annihilation is an excellent choice for a science fiction power source, it is not the only choice, or even the best choice. Romulan warbirds use an "artificially generated quantum singularity" (read: black hole) for their power source, which may actually be superior to the "warp core" in terms of its suitability as a science fiction power source. The natural Hawking radiation decay of a black hole produces the same ideal amount of energy per kilogram of reactant: 9E16 J/kg. But unlike matter/antimatter, the "fuel" does not require complex containment schemes, for a rather obvious reason: nothing escapes a black hole's event horizon. Furthermore, the reaction products of black hole decay are all gamma radiation, as opposed to the "mixed bag" of products that result from a matter/antimatter reaction. And finally, the power source and fuel storage is much more compact, again for the obvious reason that the matter in a black hole is the densest matter in the universe. There are problems with the idea, of course; it is not possible to control the power output of a black hole; its decay process is a fundamental property of its mass (although there are theoretical methods for extracting power from it in other ways, apart from simply collecting gamma radiation from edge decay). Also, it should evapourate in a monstrous burst of gamma radiation when it expires, probably taking the ship with it. But again, the nitpicks are annoying but not fatal. The idea of using a small black hole as a power source is a good choice.
There are criteria for a good science fiction power source besides sheer power output. For stability and realistic feasibility, nothing beats nuclear fusion. Controllable nuclear fusion reactions have been produced in the real world, and current research efforts are directed at a commercially viable nuclear fusion-based power generation plant sometime in the middle of the 21st century. Furthermore, the fuel for nuclear fusion is hydrogen, which is the most common element in the universe, and the consequence of a containment failure are much less severe for fusion than for matter/antimatter. However, the writers have again chosen the right idea but conceptualized it poorly. They chose ICF (inertial containment fusion), which is based upon the use of laser beams to induce fusion in frozen D-T pellets. ICF has several serious disadvantages compared to steady-state fusion reactor concepts, such as the pulsed nature of the reaction (which is highly stressful for the chamber and energy collection systems), and the inherent driver inefficiencies, as well as the critical reliance upon the precise shape and microstructure of the pellet. Tokomaks, stellarators or torsatrons, spheromaks, reversed-field pinches, and tandem-mirrors are all good examples of potential steady-state fusion reactor concepts. It is strange that the writers would have chosen the only pulsed fusion reactor concept when so many interesting alternate possibilities exist. My personal choice would have been a series of networked, redundant compact spheromaks.
Black holes and quantum singularities
The Star Trek writers are quite fond of black holes. They write about them constantly, but they have often described them poorly, or shown that they don't really understand the concept.
Lawrence Krauss already identified the most objectionable abuse of black holes, which occured in a Voyager episode in which the crew found a "quantum fissure" (read: crack) in the event horizon of a black hole, through which they escaped. He was quite amused by this blunder, and described it several times in "The Physics of Star Trek". Without parrotting him, I will only say that it is impossible for an event horizon to have a crack.
Another serious error is that black holes are assumed to magically "suck in" everything around them. When the crew of the USS Voyager first encountered the Hirogen, they deactivated the "containment field" around a quantum singularity and it immediately "sucked in" every starship in the vicinity, except for the Voyager itself which barely escaped. However, a black hole's gravity field does not possess any unusual properties once you get outside of its event horizon. The strength of the gravity field is determined by the mass of the black hole, and an object can potentially orbit the black hole just as it would any other object. Only a fairly large star will collapse into a black hole, but once a black hole is formed, it will remain a black hole even if it gets quite small. A small black hole (such as the one in the Voyager episode) can potentially have much lower mass than a planet, and correspondingly low gravity. It is even possible that small, primodrial black holes exist within our solar system right now, beyond our ability to detect them.
The slingshot effect
I mention this because it's a serious blunder, but Lawrence Krauss describes the Trek writers' blunder in this area more effectively than I can. Suffice it to say that the gravitational field of a star would not cause time travel.
In my opinion, any fortunate coincidental or intentional use of appropriate terminology in Star Trek is completely nullified by their absolutely horrific abuse of scientific units.
In "Survivors", Worf reported that the Enterprise had just been hit with "four hundred gigawatts of particle energy." GW are a unit of power, not energy. In the TM, the "power usage" for a warp drive is charted in units of "megajoules". MJ are a unit of energy, not power. In "True Q", Data said that they were currently generating "twelve point seven five billion gigawatts per second" (the "per second" term was cut off in the televised episode, but it was in the original screenplay). GW/s are not a valid unit for power output, since GW already incorporates a per-second term: GW is equivalent to GJ/s. The writers of Voyager have taken the abuse of SI units to new heights: they once described the output of a warp core in units of "teradynes per second", an utterly meaningless unit for power output since dynes are a unit of force.
Why bother using SI units at all, if they're going to butcher them? It would be better if they stayed away from SI units entirely, either by inventing new units or by refraining from quantifying their equipment specifications on screen.
Warp drive has often been touted as the most realistic aspect of Trek physics. Sadly, this may be true but it still doesn't mean that warp drive is anywhere close to being realistic. It is just the least of many evils. Lawrence Krauss described how warp drive might be rationalized to work, but he noted two serious problems with the idea:
The configurations of mass/energy required for warp drive require large amounts of negative-energy matter to be present.
The gravitic space-time distortions required by warp drive would not propagate fast enough to make the idea worthwhile.
To expand upon the two aforementioned problems, the requirement for huge amounts of negative-energy matter is not a trivial problem. Negative-energy particles exist in nature; the virtual particle/antiparticle pairs in the quantum foam are said to be composed of a positive-energy virtual particle and a negative-energy virtual particle. However, real particles (as opposed to virtual particles) cannot have negative energy, and negative-energy virtual particles cannot exist for noticeable lengths of time. Worse yet, negative-energy matter destroys everything it touches (the negative-energy particles that fall into a black hole during the process of Hawking radiation decay actually destroy part of the black hole, causing its mass to decrease), so a starship designer would definitely not want to surround his precious starship with the stuff!
The other major problem with warp drive is that gravity propagates at the speed of light. Therefore, the warp "bubble" cannot possibly travel ahead of the starship any faster than c, thus rendering gravitic distortions useless as a form of superluminal travel. Now, an intrepid Star Trek fan might object here that a warp bubble is produced by subspace fields rather than gravitational fields, but this particular dissertation is based on real science, and subspace is a non-entity in real science. The abundant, overenthusiastic claims regarding the real-life scientific feasibility of warp drive are based on the assumption that gravitational fields can explain the phenomenon in the context of general relativity. They cannot.
One of my E-mail correspondents once mentioned the term "edgy science" to describe the sort of cutting-edge theoretical physics which are routinely accepted as mainstream science by the Trek writers, who go on to flesh them out and give them form by arbitrarily filling in the gaps in our knowledge and assigning capabilities and characteristics to ideas which are still very much in the preliminary stage of development, not even having yet passed from the theoretical stage into the experimental stage.
Trek writers are over-eager to voraciously consume the latest, most inspiring theories (particularly from the field of quantum mechanics) in search of new Trek technology ideas, as are their fans. The problem with this mentality is two-fold:
Edgy science is just that- it exists on the fringe, because it has a theoretical framework but it does not have consistent support from experimental data. For example:
The Casimir Effect has been widely touted as the "proof" of the existence of vacuum zero-point energy (I distinguish vacuum ZPE from other forms of ZPE, because ZPE also has other applications- it can also describe the ground energy state of matter). The Casimir Effect may very well be due to ZPE- I'm certainly no expert in the field. However, current ZPE theories predict that the amount of vacuum energy in the universe will be so large that it will significantly affect the rate of expansion of the universe (remembering that energy, like mass, distorts space-time). Since the measured rate of expansion of the universe is not consistent with the predictions of current ZPE theories (forcing an upper limit on the value of the vacuum ZPE which is more than a hundred orders of magnitude lower than the theoretical predictions), the theories themselves must be flawed in some way that we have not yet discovered.
Tachyons are widely described and discussed in Star Trek. In Star Trek, they are described as a peculiar type of particle which always travels faster than light. However, unless something has happened within the last 5 years, no one has ever detected a tachyon. They are a mathematical possibility, not a confirmed physical phenomenon. Furthermore, tachyonic matter simply refers to matter which travels faster than light- there need not be any particular type of particle which exhibits this behaviour- the superluminal speed itself is what defines the tachyonic nature of something.
The writers run the risk of looking foolish when they leap onto a bandwagon only to discover that the bandwagon is missing two wheels. The DS9 TM writers decided that partial liberation of the energy present in less than one cubic metre of vacuum would release dozens of megatons of energy. Since it would release less than one ten billionth of a joule based on the vacuum energy density upper limit drawn from observation (as opposed to theory), this claim ends up looking somewhat strange.
Shields and cloaking devices
Shields have been described in the Star Trek technical literature as gravitic distortions. Supposedly, a shield creates a gravitational space-time distortion which literally bends light 90 degrees before it strikes the ship. However, as Lawrence Krauss noted in his books, such a device would be completely indistinguishable from a cloaking device, since it would make the ship invisible. A number of weak technobabble explanations have been advanced by Star Trek fans to explain this problem, but they invariably don't work, or are based on serious misinterpretations of the nature of gravity. Perhaps one may be able to concoct a self-consistent and plausible explanation for Star Trek shield function, but it would not be the explanation in the TM.
Star Trek cloaking devices are even worse than gravitic shields for plausibility. In fact, a Star Trek cloak is frankly one of the most blatantly unrealistic concepts in all of science fiction. If it merely minimized reflections, it would be similar to modern stealth technology and it would violate no fundamental laws. But that is not what it does. Instead, a cloaked ship is transparent, even when sitting on the ground in a park as seen in ST4. There is no way the ship can be transparent while retaining the ability to see its surroundings. This is because you cannot receive photons, or any other information-carrying particles, without intercepting those particles. If you intercept a particle, you alter its properties. This is a fundamental problem, and it cannot be resolved. A cloaked ship should be blind, just as it is invisible.
How many times have we heard Captain Picard order "full stop?" Immediately after this command, the vessel turns off its impulse engines, and appears to "stop". However, there is no such thing as a "full stop" in space. A full stop would be the achievement of near-zero velocity, but with respect to what? The galactic plane? It is spinning. The nearest system? That's pretty arbitrary. The nearest planet? That's even more arbitrary. The fabric of space-time itself? It's moving too. The location of the Big Bang? If you stop with respect to the origin of the universe, you will be travelling at incredible speed relative to the Milky Way galaxy and everything in it.
Another problem with this ridiculous notion is that you need more than a deactivated impulse engine to lower your velocity in space. You need retro-thrusters. Even if we accept the scientifically meaningless "mass-lightening" technology in Star Trek, this equation still won't change. A "mass-lightening" field would only change the amount of thrust or retro-thrust that is required to achieve a desired velocity change, not the fundamental need for thrust to accelerate or retro-thrust to decelerate.
Materials science is a particularly strong beef of mine, since I specialized in the subject in university and I can see how the Trek writers have completely butchered materials science every time they've laid their impertinent hands on the subject. The Trek writers take great pains to make impressive sounding names for their shipbuilding materials (there's that recurring theme- they work hard on the names but don't worry about the concepts), but they have made almost no effort to maintain consistency with real science. Their abuses of materials science are legion, but I will restrict this particular discussion to their most offensive abuse: the abuse of the term "alloy".
For example, duranium is described as a "metal alloy" in the STE, and mentioned in "Menagerie" and "Threshold". Polyduranium is described as a "metallic alloy" in the STE, and mentioned in "The Search". Polycomposites are described as a "synthetic material" in the STE, and mentioned in "Force of Nature". Tritanium is described as a "metal alloy" in the STE, and mentioned in "Menagerie" and "Threhold". Molybdenum-cobalt alloys are described as a "sophisticated metallic compound" in the STE, and mentioned in "The Most Toys". Every single one of these material names and descriptions is, quite frankly, a joke:
Duranium is described as a "metal alloy", but duranium ore can be found on the surface of Bajor (ref. DS9 TM) and duranium-235 is used in phaser banks (ref. TM). There is no such thing as an alloy ore, and duranium-235 is consistent with the standard element name-atomic number notation for describing element isotopes. Finally, real alloy names are either catalogue numbers, eg. AISI 1040, or commercial names, eg. Stavax. Real alloys are never given names that use the element name suffix "ium", like duranium.
Polyduranium is described as a "metallic alloy", but again, the writers don't seem to have any familiarity with real material names. The "poly" prefix is used to describe chemical compounds which form into linked chains, such as polyethylene, polypropylene, and other plastics. It is not used to describe alloys. Metallic alloys are characterized by a crystal lattice structure, metallic bonding, and mechanical insertion of foreign constituents, rather than a linked chemical compound formation like polymers.
Polycomposites are perhaps the silliest material name ever invented, because the term has no meaning whatsoever. There is nothing in the name to actually describe what the material is, since "poly" refers to "many" and "composite" refers to a combination of many constituent parts. Describing a material as a combination of combinations is hardly meaningful.
Tritanium is described as a "metal alloy", but the TM claims that it takes several TJ to vapourize a single cubic metre of tritanium, thus implying that tritanium has many times the thermal toughness of any real element. What the writers (and most of the fans) don't seem to realize is that it is impossible for an alloy to have a higher melting point or significantly different specific heat than its prime constituent. If you want to create a material with superior thermal toughness, you will need to either produce a new element, or you will have to find a way to generate extremely stable chemical bonds between existing elements. Therefore, we are left with two possibilties for the mystical Trek alloy known as "tritanium". Either it is a new element, or it is a new chemical compound based on existing elements. It cannot be an alloy.
Molybdenum-cobalt alloys are described as a "sophisticated metallic compound" in the STE, but alloys are not the same thing as chemical compounds! A metallic compound cannot exist- it is a contradiction in terms, because a metallic material is characterized by the fact that its internal structure is based on metallic bonds rather than exclusive ionic or covalent bonds. Compounds, on the other hand, are characterized by exclusive covalent or ionic bonds rather than metallic bonds. "Metallic" and "compound" are polar opposites- the term "metallic compound" is an utterly meaningless oxymoron. One could try to give the Mike Okuda (the STE writer) the benefit of the doubt (although he doesn't seem to deserve it, with his nonexistent effort to understand materials science) and assume that by "metallic compound" he meant a chemical compound in which one of the elements is a metal, but we already have a name for those kinds of materials: ceramics.
I have dealt with trekkie science misconceptions long enough to know that the fanatics among them will never simply accept the word of a qualified materials science expert on the idea that an alloy will never have a melting point or specific heat that is significantly different than that of its prime constituent. Therefore, the idea deserves some expansion. Unlike a refractory ceramic such as tantalum carbide, an alloy is a mechanical mixture of foreign elements in a metallic matrix. For example, steel is iron with a high carbon content (and by "high", I'm talking about 1-2% by weight). Small "blobs" of carbon sit in the crystal lattice of the iron, acting as blockages and increasing the difficulty of deforming the structure. It doesn't matter what the foreign elements are; when the matrix melts, the material melts. Therefore, it is impossible for an alloy to have a higher melting point than its prime constituent, regardless of how sophisticated the alloying techniques are. Alloying is a method for increasing the mechanical strength of a material, not its thermal properties. The melting point of all iron-based alloys is the same as iron, and the specific heat is never significantly larger or smaller than that of iron. People who think that alloying can someday be used to change thermal properties obviously don't understand what an alloy is.
"But what if they've found new ways of bonding elements together in the future?" ask the trekkies (and yes, I've been given this exact retort more than a dozen times by various trekkies). If you are asking this question right now, I suggest that you go back and re-read the above paragraph, carefully. Alloys are not formed through the use of exclusive chemical bonds. They are mixtures, not compounds. If they've developed new materials based on exotic bonding techniques in the future, then they would be called ceramics or polymers or some entirely new name, not alloys. If you invent a new family of materials, you invent a new name. You don't redefine an existing name. When plastics were first developed, they didn't call them "metal" or "ceramic". They used a new name, because they had a new family of materials: polymers.
Time travel, as we all know, is heavily used throughout Star Trek. However, the concept is so fraught with paradoxes that anyone with a logical mind can easily see that none of it makes any sense. Lawrence Krauss talked about the subject in his book, but it does not take a respected theoretical physicist to see the problems with the idea. Anyone can see the problems with the idea- it is almost a philosophical question rather than a scientific question.
Who hasn't thought of the Terminator paradox? If you've seen the film "The Terminator", then you know what I'm talking about. If you haven't seen the film, I suggest that you do, before you read any further (because I'm about to give away the entire plot). If you haven't seen it but don't mind spoilers, it features Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton in a James Cameron-directed story about a woman named Sarah Connor. In the story's future, humanity will be conquered and almost exterminated by a deadly sentient computer network known as "SkyNet", and its mechanical armies. John Connor is the man who leads humanity in its desperate fight for survival, and teaches mankind how to fight back. John Connor's forces win the day- they destroy SkyNet's armies and are on the verge of crushing Skynet itself, when SkyNet unleashes its last desperate ploy: it sends a deadly "terminator" cyborg back through time, with orders to find and assassinate John Connor's mother, Sarah.
Of course, the good guys manage to break in, hijack the equipment, and send a lone soldier (Kyle Reese) back through time to stop this deadly machine (why they didn't send a few hundred men instead of just one is a mystery). Kyle finds Sarah Connor, and together they destroy the deadly terminator, although Kyle dies in the process. Here's the paradox: Kyle and Sarah made love while on the run from the terminator, and it turns out that Kyle is the father of John Connor. Moreover, if you read the novelizations for Terminator and Terminator 2, it is quite clear that John Connor knows that Kyle is his father before sending him back through time. The paradox is: how could John exist, if his father could never have gone back in time without him in the first place? If Kyle doesn't go back in time, John Connor is never born. If John Connor is never born, he can't possibly lead humanity to victory over SkyNet in the future, and send Kyle back in time. Kyle Reese has to go back in time in order that the condition might be created to make it possible to send him back in time.
Time travel paradoxes like this occur often in science fiction, and they generally lead to the conclusion that it must not be possible to travel back in time and affect history. Yes, I know, there are a lot of silly sci-fi explanations for this, such as "the act of time travel creates an alternate timeline" etc, but they're almost worse than the paradox itself. Some scraps of dialogue suggest that time travel in Star Trek subscribes to this "alternate timeline" idea. If this is the case, then new universes are being spawned constantly, and an infinite number of "parallel universes" may exist. This is frankly silly, since it suggests that whole universes spring into being each time someone time travels. But it appears to be the Trek belief structure, since numerous episodes have revolved around these "parallel universes," and in fact, "Parallels" involved an accidental merging of parallel universes where 285,000 Enterprise-D's all appeared in the same place. These stories verge on the ridiculous- even a timeline which has diverged from our own hundreds of years ago is somehow presumed to miraculously develop in such a way that the same handful of people end up in the same place in the present, although with different backgrounds. The more Star Trek explores time travel, the less credible it becomes.
In Star Trek, not only can an entire alternate timeline be created each time someone jumps back in time (thus creating a parallel universe, suggesting that perhaps the infamous "mirror universe" was created by a foolish time traveller), but people can exist in the wrong timeline. In STFC, the crew found themselves in a timeline in which the Borg had conquered Earth hundreds of years ago. They felt that they had been "isolated from the changes in the timeline" by the "temporal wake" of the Borg sphere which caused this problem (love that meaningless technobabble), but this is even worse than causality paradoxes. Not only is it possible to go back in time and change history, but it is possible for people to exist who were never born! If you are "protected by a temporal wake", someone can go back in time and kill your mother before you were ever born, and you will continue to exist even though your birth never happened! This is truly bizarre, and may be one of the strangest constructs in science fiction history.
In most science fiction, even though it involves paradoxes and oddities, time travel is portrayed as a "closed loop". People may go back in time thinking that they can change history, but they are in fact doomed to repeat it. The paradox is "how was this loop formed in the first place?" but at least the timeline is self-consistent. In the Terminator example, the loop is closed but once it has been closed, it is consistent with itself. Kyle Reese is always John Connor's father, and John Connor is always Kyle Reese's son. There is no one running around who is "apart" from this timeline, ie- no John Connor running around who is not Kyle Reese's son. The theme of time travellers who are doomed to repeat history is an old one in science fiction, and the closed loop is self-consistent. But in Star Trek, timelines are routinely changed without altering everything in the timeline. How can Captain Picard and his crew be walking around on a starship which was never built, in a timeline in which the Borg conquered Earth two hundred years before he was born?
If you've read through this document, then you already know about my intense dislike for Star Trek technobabble, or "treknobabble". Apart from the fact that most of it is meaningless jibberish, full of element names which don't exist and physics concepts which aren't real (eg. subspace), it commits two other sins: it ignores the manner in which real technical people speak, and it mutilates real science in an attempt to lend credibility to its plot points, which leads naive Star Trek fans to believe that much of this nonsense is actually based on real science. I located a good example of ugly technobabble in the Star Trek Encyclopedia, which is chock full of science butchery:
In the entry called "quantum reality", it defines a quantum reality as "one of an infinite number of possible universes or realities that exist side by side along the space-time continuum. Every occurrence and outcome that could exist does exist in a different quantum reality, realities that become increasingly divergent. In 2370, following an exposure to a quantum fissure, Worf experienced several such quantum realities, until his "shifting" could be corrected and he could be returned to his original reality. ("Parallels" [TNG]). This idea of multiple realities is based on Dr. Richard Feynman's theory of "sum over histories", where a particle would not have a single history or path in space-time, but would instead follow every possible path."
Dr. Feynman is a visionary physicist who has won the Nobel Prize for his work. I would be completely out of my league to even think of questioning his work. Luckily, I don't have to. Dr. Feynman never said that the entire universe macroscopically acted as a single subatomic particle and followed a sum over histories. He said that on the scale where quantum effects become important, we can rationalize the movement of a particle from point A to point B as a "sum over histories". He never claimed that this behaviour of subatomic particles could be directly applied to macrosopic objects. While quantum mechanics does affect the macroscopic universe because of the aggregate effect of quantum behaviour, that doesn't mean we can assume the entire universe acts like one subatomic particle! This particular piece of technobabble displays the worst excesses of treknobabble, in its unique ugliness. It uses excessive terminology to make the impossible seem possible. It attempts to confuse the reader by making it seem as if real scientists support the notion. And worse yet, it maligns Dr. Feynman by implying that he personally might support the notion.
Finally, I exhort all readers to watch "Apollo 13", in which much of the dialogue is taken from real transcripts of the communications between the real Apollo 13 crew and the real Mission Control, during the actual event. Listen to the terse, no-nonsense, technobabble in Apollo 13, and compare it to the verbal diarrhea of Star Trek (particularly Voyager, in which the technobabble has gotten so wildly out of control that some form of euthanasia should be applied to the series). Witness the difference between real technobabble and the garbage foisted upon us by Star Trek writers whose primary motivation is to fill airtime so that they can stretch a 20 minute plot into a 40 minute episode.
In Apollo 13, Jim Lovell informs Mission Control that "we have a main bus B undervolt." 7 words, and he's done. A Star Trek writer would have said "we are currently monitoring a significant decrease in the electrostatic potential across the power coupling terminals on the secondary electron conduit." Far more words, no more information. Ask yourself what actually sounds more like the way a real person would talk. The Star Trek version of the dialogue wastes words, and if you hear something like that over the radio, the excessive word count actually makes it harder to understand what is going on. The human brain responds best to the most simplistic method of relaying a piece of information, which is one of the reasons that technical people quickly distill technical concepts into short forms, abbreviations, slang, and acronyms.
Phasers are an utterly ridiculous weapon. Some Star Trek fans such as myself, are forced to invent elaborate theories involving fictional nuclear forces, to rationalize the behaviour of phasers, which violate virtually every law of physics known to exist. Their behaviour in ship to ship combat isn't too objectionable, but the behaviour of hand phasers is ridiculous. Let us list the unrealistic aspects of hand phasers:
On maximum setting, a Type II hand phaser can vapourize a 50kg adult female (eg. "Vengeance Factor"), or an 80kg adult male (dozens of incidents), without any excess energy in either case. If it carries enough energy to vapourize an 80kg adult male, then where does the extra energy go when it vapourizes a 50kg adult female? Why doesn't it excavate a crater under the victim's feet?
When a Type II hand phaser vapourizes a person, there is no vapour. Vapourization is the act of turning something into vapour. So how do we even know that vapourization occurred at all, if there is no vapour? Where does all of the matter go? Some trekkies claim that the matter just dissipates as invisible room-temperature vapour, but the >3000x volume increase from solid to vapour phase at any given temperature and pressure means that a pressure shockwave would result from the creation of such a cloud.
Phasers have recoil and momentum sometimes, but not other times. A phaser hit can occasionally lift someone right off his feet and throw him backwards, but other times, someone like Jake Sisko can hold a phaser rifle awkwardly in one hand and fire enough blasts to cause a cave-in, without any noticeable recoil at all.
Phasers have heating effects sometimes, but not other times. A phaser can be used to heat a rock or vapourize a small quantity of material, but when it vapourizes a person, the effect is non-thermodynamic (conservation of energy is not conserved, conservation of mass is not conserved).
It is possible to concoct convoluted rationalizations for all of these unrealistic behaviours (this site includes such rationalizations), but the cold hard reality is that no real physics can explain the behaviour of phasers. We all understand that phasers were cheaply visualized in the original 1960's television series, but the bizarre behaviour of phasers continued in the films, TNG, DS9, and Voyager even though they were no longer under the same constraints.
How many different abuses of radiation can the Star Trek writers commit? Not only do they seemingly invent a new type of radiation every week, but they have created the most comical science fiction construct that I have ever seen: a radiation vaccine.
Don't believe me? Sadly, it's true. In STFC, Beverly Crusher discovers that there are high levels of radiation in the missile complex where Zefram Cochrane's warp-ship is being readied for launch, so she says that everyone must be "innoculated." Innoculated against radiation! What's next? A vaccine to make you immune to bullets? An injection to make you impervious to being whacked in the head with a baseball bat? A drug to let you walk into a blast furnace without getting burned? Radiation is a physical assault upon the human body, not a viral assault. No vaccine will ever make your body immune to radiation, any more than it can allow you to walk into a blast furnace, shrug off a baseball bat to the head, or bounce bullets off your chest.
Lest you think that perhaps this was an isolated incident, the radiation vaccines have been mentioned elsewhere, such as "Booby Trap" and "The Omega Directive". The Star Trek writers clearly believe that radiation can be treated as if it is a virus. All you can do is shake your head ...
Who watched Star Trek: Generations? For those of you who did, you are probably familiar with the scene at the end, in which Picard watches a star darken from the cessation of its nuclear fusion reactions, and then explode in a supernova. How unrealistic is this event? Where can I begin?
Picard sees the missile streak toward the star and impact, within a few seconds. Regardless of whether the missile was superluminal or not, the image of the missile, and its moment of impact, would propagate to Picard at light speed. Therefore, he must have been standing on a planet which was only ten light-seconds away from its star! Our own planet is more than eight light-minutes away from its star, and the "Generations" star could not have been an extremely dim star, because its colour spectrum was similar to our own sun. A planet this close to our own sun would not be anywhere close to habitable.
The star darkens and collapses within seconds of the missile's impact, which supposedly halts all nuclear fusion reactions within the star. However, energy released by nuclear fusion reactions does not propagate all the way to the surface instantaneously, or even at the speed of light. In fact, the energy that you see coming from our sun today was generated by nuclear fusion reactions that occurred in its core eons before you were ever born.
Not only does the energy released from a star's surface come from ancient nuclear fusion reactions, but the process of gravitational collapse itself should take millions of years to occur. In fact, before physicists hit upon nuclear fusion as the mechanism through which stars generate power, it was thought that a star might simply be converting gravitational potential energy to light! The only problem with this theory was that a star would only be able to do this for twenty or thirty million years. Too short to explain the luminosity of a star, but a lot longer than the 10 seconds witnessed by the intrepid Captain Picard.
Is it asking too much that science fiction writers try to learn a little bit about the basic properties of a star? It's rather disillusioning when they don't even bother to learn the correct distance to our sun, never mind learning about its power generation physics. Are these incompetents really the same people who are routinely touted by their fans as the makers of the most scientifically realistic science fiction series in the world?
Lawrence Krauss's Examples
Lawrence Krauss discussed some serious Star Trek science blunders in his excellent book, "The Physics of Star Trek". I would not presume to copy his work here, so I suggest that if you are interested in learning more, pick up a copy of this book. Contrary to popularly disseminated fan belief, the book does not claim that Star Trek science is all feasible. In fact, it claims that none of it is feasible, and most of it is not even possible in principle. At the end, it contains some rather amusing examples of the worst Star Trek science blunders in history, as collated by Dr. Krauss.
I suppose that any good trekkie would indignantly point out that Star Wars is not scientifically realistic either. They would be right- Star Wars is not scientifically realistic, and neither are most science fiction series. But this document was not made to claim that Star Wars, Babylon 5, or Battlestar Galactica is scientifically realistic. It was made to refute a widespread myth about the scientific realism of Star Trek. If there weren't so many Star Trek fans propagating the myth of Star Trek's supposedly flawless scientific realism, then this page would not be necessary.
Is it excessive to compare Star Trek's realism to something like Transformers? Perhaps, and perhaps not. Transformers is based on metallic life forms which somehow evolved naturally. In Star Trek, everything from lava rocks to crystals has naturally evolved into life, and organisms have even naturally evolved in the vacuum of space! Transformers also features robots which ludicrously change their mass (growing from a lightweight walkman into a multi-ton robot) during the transformation process, supposedly by keeping some of their mass in an alternate dimension. Utterly ridiculous and unworthy of a serious science fiction series, right? Well, Star Trek has the same thing: subspace mass-lightening. Transformers also has size changes (a tiny walkman turns into a towering robot). Pretty silly? Guess what- a runabout was shrunk to the size of a thimble in the DS9 episode "One Little Ship". Transformers has flexible, self-healing metal. Ridiculous, right? Star Trek has it too- watch the Borg in action.
How about Star Wars? Is the Death Star's sheer size ridiculous? It's extreme, but Star Trek features the Dyson Sphere. Isn't the Death Star's power generation technology ridiculous? Not compared to Star Trek- in Trek, the "omega particle" dwarfs the energy density of matter/antimatter annihilation. Isn't the Force truly silly? If anything, it's far more reasonable than S-8472 or the Q. The only distinction between Star Trek and Star Wars or Transformers (or Battlestar Galactica or any other science fiction series) is that the Star Trek writers insert reams of technobabble into their episodes to fool the gullible into believing that their unrealistic technology is more realistic than other series' unrealistic technologies. Did I mention how I hate fakery?
In Star Trek, it is possible to use sound waves as a weapon against a starship in the vacuum of space, cool something below absolute zero, live on an inhabitable planet which is only ten light-seconds from its star, find a crack in a mathematically defined radius, measure power in units of joules and energy in units of watts, shrink a shuttlecraft to the size of a thimble, make gravity propagate at superluminal speed, intercept photons without changing their energy or direction, see non-incident non-radiating particles, come to a meaningless "full stop" in outer space, expand the scale at which quantum effects are significant to encompass the entire universe, live without being born, fly a ship that was never built, dig up miraculously naturally-occuring alloys, vapourize something without producing any vapour, subject metals to high-energy plasma bombardment without damage, find magical "omega particles" that have greater energy density than matter/antimatter annihilation, and take a drug that protects you from radiation.
Is this the science fiction series that its fans tout as the most "scientifically realistic" series in the world? Is this technology the same technology which some fans describe as "feasible?" I believe that Star Trek is neither feasible or realistic. Many renowned scientists watch Star Trek, but they do so because they derive entertainment value from it, not because they think it is realistic!
James Teeple, for general discussion.
Ryan McReynolds, for clarifying some misconceptions about the Star Trek writing staff and technical advisory staff.