The real science of Star Trek

TV presenter Rick Edwards and Dr Michael Brooks delve into the world of real-world warp drives, wormholes and Romulans as Star Trek returns to TV

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Entire books have been written about the science of Star Trek. NASA scientist David Allen Batchelor describes it as “more faithful to science than any other science fiction series ever shown on television”.

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Star Trek technologies (treknologies? We’ll leave that with you) run from the actually-not-nearly-as-impressive-as-now (for example, Captain Kirk’s communicators are just very rudimentary mobile phones – no pictures! No video! My God, no snapchat!) to the absolutely-beyond-the-realms-of-possibility (time travelling through wormholes doesn’t look likely I’m afraid).

Let’s take a closer look at some of the most iconic scientific features of the Star Trek franchise.


Warp Drives

Warp drives are the engines that allow the USS Enterprise and other ships to travel faster than the speed of light. This is handy for the plots in Star Trek, since travelling more slowly (and realistically) would mean centuries passing between episodes in different star systems. Without introducing something like cryogenic stasis, each episode would end up featuring the great-great-great-great-great-great-great… (imagine another 2500 greats)… grandchildren of the characters from the previous episode. Quite a fun idea, actually.

Our fastest spacecraft is Voyager 1, which is cruising along at about 61,500 km/h. That sounds quick, but Voyager would take nearly 80,000 years to reach Proxima Centauri, the next closest star.

Various organisations are looking into ways of going faster. These include the Stephen Hawking-backed Breakthrough Starshot project, which is developing a technology where a huge, very thin reflective sail (it may end up spherical, like a giant disco ball) is pushed along by laser beams generated back here on earth. These could fly at up to 20% of the speed of light. Still not quite a warp drive though…

The problem is, Einstein’s theories say no object can travel faster than the speed of light. Some physicists and engineers are trying to dream up ways of getting around this, though. The Tau Zero Foundation, for instance, was set up by Marc Millis, a former NASA Glenn physicist, in order to explore faster-than-light propulsion. It openly consults with science fiction writers to get better ideas. They even use a quote from Star Trek: The Next Generation on their website (“We look for things. Things that make us go”).

One option they are considering is a ‘space warp’. It works a bit like an airport moving walkway, which lets you cover distance much more quickly relative to someone who isn’t on the walkway. In space it might be possible to create a ‘moving walkway’ by squashing the space in front of you, and stretching out the space behind. It’s still a theoretical idea, though, and the reality will take so much energy it might prove impossible.

Which brings us neatly onto power generation…


Power Generation

Arguably one of the best scientific bits of Star Trek is the way they generate power for the engines, through the mixing of matter and antimatter. This is good science: for every particle there is indeed a corresponding antiparticle, identical to the original particle in every way but with the opposite charge. For example, the antiparticle of an electron is a positron (you may recall that the android Data’s brain has ‘positronic circuits’, but that doesn’t seem to have anything to do with real antimatter). When matter and antimatter collide, they annihilate each other and produce a large amount of energy, as predicted by Einstein’s most famous equation, E = Mc2. So if, as in Star Trek, it was possible to use matter and carefully contained antimatter, you could generate a lot of power for your propulsion system.

The good news is that facilities like CERN are already able to produce antimatter. The bad news is that they can only produce tiny quantities of it. It’s been calculated that at the current highest rate of production, it would take CERN one hundred billion years to generate one gram of antihydrogen. Another possibility is to harvest the abundant antimatter in space using some sort of magnetic trap. For now, though, the antimatter drive remains a distant dream.


Cloaking devices

For some reason, Federation vessels in Star Trek don’t use cloaking devices, but those sneaky Romulans and Klingons do. This technology is supposed to render a ship invisible to sensors. The closest we have come to this is the use of so-called ‘metamaterials’. These do strange things to electromagnetic radiation, such as bend light around an object. Normally, light hits an object and scatters, which is how we see the object. Metamaterials would allow light “to flow around it like water, in a nice, curved way,” as Professor John Pendry, one of the pioneers of metamaterials, puts it. That would mean you just can’t see the object.

The theory on this is good but in practice it’s proving difficult. The cloaking materials we have at the moment can only divert certain frequencies of light – so rather than making your ship invisible, it would make it a bizarre colour, and likely much more noticeable. Size is also a big problem. Researchers at the University of Texas recently calculated that the larger the cloak (and the object being cloaked), the smaller the range of wavelengths it can reroute. Until we create some new metamaterials, it’s not looking promising for a Klingon-style cloaking device.


Humanoid aliens

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The Klingons of Star Trek: Discovery

One thing that many of the aliens in Star Trek – Klingons, Vulcans, Romulans, Ba’ku, Bajorans and so on – have had in common, over the years, is that they look suspiciously human. That’s not a huge surprise, since it is significantly easier and cheaper to get an actor wearing blue face paint than to create a convincing, say, floating octopoid. But there is good reason to believe that alien species would be humanoid.

Imagine alien life evolving from scratch. It would eventually become intelligent, because intelligence lets you predict and affect what’s happening around you, and tackle problems. So we can give our alien a big brain. Awareness of environment is useful, so our alien is likely to have some analogue of our sensory detectors: eyes, nose, ears and so on. Symmetry is a very common feature of life on our planet, possibly because it allows the ‘instructions to build’ (in our case, contained within our DNA) to be a bit more concise.

Any intelligent alien we meet will have developed technology, so it will have the ability to manipulate objects. That might mean something like our fingers – digits that can grip and rotate. A land-based alien is going to want to move around. Legs are a decent form of locomotion. But our alien isn’t going to want to use all its limbs for walking or skipping or however it’s getting around – it’ll need to keep some free for object manipulation. Before you know it, we’ve arrived at an alien which is standing upright on two legs.

We shouldn’t be surprised. University of Cambridge palaeontologist Simon Conway-Morris believes that evolutionary processes tend to end up at similar solutions to environmental problems. That means a tech-savvy sentient creature on any world (or at least, a world similar to ours) would look ‘eerily similar’ to us, he reckons. Hello, Klingons!

Of course, science fiction is just that: fiction. But when it comes to Star Trek, there’s a surprising amount of fact in there, too.

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Science(ish): The Peculiar Science Behind the Movies by Rick Edwards and Dr Michael Brooks is out now