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Physics and Star Trek

Anyone who has ever watched an episode of Star Trek will have noticed the considerable emphasis on science and technology (commonly referred to as "treknobabble") used in the various incarnations of the show. It is well known that many members of the professional scientific community are also trekkers. For many people, Star Trek constituted their first (and, tragically, sometimes only) introduction to many scientific concepts. The impact of the show on the scientific world is certainly significant - NASA named the first space shuttle orbiter, a test platform never intended to launch, "Enterprise".

Star Trek has borrowed freely (and flexibly) from the scientific world to provide storylines. Episodes are replete with references to tachyon beams, baryon sweeps, quantum fluctuations and event horizons. Interestingly, the writers of Star Trek have inadvertently made numerous contributions of their own to the scientific world. Micromachines currently in research and development are frequently called "nanites", after the microscopic mechanical lifeforms invented for Star Trek: The Next Generation. Likewise, the writers used neutronium to describe a type of dense (and dangerous) matter - this term is now used very informally by many scientific researchers to describe the superdense matter found inside neutron stars. (To be fair, this term was created considerably earlier, but the writers of Star Trek have arguably helped push it into general scientific usage.)

It should be noted that Star Trek is first and foremost a vehicle for entertainment, and the primary aim of the writers is to deliver drama, not science. Many of the technologies "created" for the Star Trek universe were done so out of simple economic necessity - the transporter was created because the budget of the original series in the 1960s did not allow for expensive shots of spaceships landing on planets. Having said that, it can also be noted that Star Trek can be used as an introduction to many valid scientific concepts and theories. In other cases, understanding why many of the technologies used in the Star Trek universe are impossible is equally interesting and educational.

Table of contents
1 Flaws in Star Trek science
2 Star Trek technology
3 References

Flaws in Star Trek science

;"In space no-one can hear you scream..." : A constant feature of almost every episode is the reverberations of sound: the Enterprise blasting into warp, firing the phasers, villains' ships exploding. Simple fact - sound is a physical wave, and a physical wave must have a medium to travel through. Space is a vacuum, so no sound is ever possible.

;Getting rid of baryons : In the Star Trek: The Next Generation episode entitled "Starship Mine", the Enterprise docks at a space station to get those pesky baryons removed. Baryons (we are told) build up on the hull of the spaceship as a result of warp travel, and the ship needs to be "cleaned" periodically. There is a slight problem with this - the only stable baryons known to exist are protons and neutrons, which constitute the nucleus of all atoms, and hence are the core of all the visible matter in the universe. Getting rid of the baryons would unfortunately eliminate the Enterprise entirely.

;In space there is neither "up" nor "down" : In the television shows, however, whenever the ship makes a tight bank or rolls over "upside down" the entire bridge crew "falls down" from the ground to the roof. Now if the ship has artificial gravity which holds everybody "down" to the deck, it is "illogical", as Mr. Spock would say, for the nonexistent gravity of space to pull people away from the deck where artificial gravity should hold them.

Also in the earlier versions of Star Trek they used lasers not "phasers". These "lasers" were either red or blue depending on the era. Unfortunately science dictates that without a reflective medium, photons, the particles that lasers entirely consist of, are not scattered out of their direction of travel. In other words a laser is invisible in a vacuum.

Between now and the invention of the warp drive humanity lost all forms of the technology called the circuit breaker. The result is that regularly a power feedback or overload will fire a bolt of energy from a console and kill a bridge crew officer.

Star Trek technology

Individual technology is discussed in separate articles:

See also: Time travel, Worm holes

Compare with: Physics and Star Wars