THE PHYSICS OF STAR TREK

Lawrence M. Krauss

Flamingo, London, 1997.


Although this book risks irritating science buffs who might wonder "why bother?", and annoying Star Trek fans by looking suspiciously like a catalogue of nit-picking, it is very entertaining and informative: scientifically erudite, but not sniffy about science fiction.

What's valuable is the practice of going beyond what may be easily enough imagined, to see the real implications of an idea. For instance:

"Each time the Enterprise accelerates to half the speed of light, it must burn 81 times its entire mass in hydrogen fuel... this means that over 300 million metric tons of fuel would need to be used..." (p.25)

My favourite section concerns the famous transporter beams. Do they send a person's atoms, plus information about them all, or just the information? There are horrendous energy costs incurred in somehow processing the atoms, so perhaps sending the information is preferable. Think again:

"The storage requirements for a human pattern are ten thousand times as large, compared to the information in all the books ever written, as the information in all the books ever written is compared to the information on this page." (p.77)

The amount estimated is 1022 gigabytes.

The same kind of problem besets psychokinesis and other so-called psi phenomena, as illustrated in my airliner disaster scenario.

Interesting issues arise about the conceivability of transporting:

"If I were to re-create each atom in your body, in precisely the same chemical state of excitation as your atoms are in at this moment, would I produce a functionally identical person who has exactly all your memories, hopes, dreams, spirit? There is every reason to expect that this would be the case... What then happens to the soul during the transport process?" (p.69).

The most amusing realization here is that religious viewers keen on Star Trek have unwittingly swallowed a kind of atheist-materialist joke, an issue carefully dodged on the Enterprise.

Discussing the possibility of encountering other life-forms, Krauss refers to (generous) Fermi solution calculations about the Enterprise's propulsion:

"to power a rocket by propulsion using matter-antimatter engines at something like 3/4 the speed of light for a 10-year round-trip voyage to just the nearest star would require an energy release that could fulfill the entire current power needs in the United States for more than 100 000 years!" (p.128).

Travelling at the imaginary "warp 9" (about 1500 times the speed of light), it would take 15 years to get from the Sun to the centre of our galaxy. These figurings place the yarns in Schnabel's "Dark White" in another doubt-boosting context.

The vexed question of dimensions is touched on in the well-titled chapter, "The Menagerie of Possibilities". The idea that 10 or more dimensions may be necessary to account for all the fundamental forces of nature is sometimes invoked now to prop up the belief that aliens might exist "in another dimension". But the current theories that propose the extra dimensions specify that they would "curl up with diameters on the order of the Planck scale (10-33 cm)". Not much room, then, for lurking aliens.

"They also cannot be mixed up with the four dimensions of spacetime in a way that would allow objects to drift from one place to another in space by passing through another dimension." (p.147)

Another example of truth being staggeringly stranger than (science-) fiction is the story of neutrinos:

"Six hundred billion neutrinos per second pierce every square centimetre of your body every second of every day, coming from the Sun" (p.158)

Krauss's remarks about an episode where characters were rendered "out of phase" with normal matter, and thus enabled to walk through walls, can be usefully applied to ghosts. How come they can sit down or walk on floors?



Krauss - Beyond Star Trek - Physics from Alien Invasions to the End of Time.

[BACK]

MAIN SCIENCE PAGE



Paul Taylor 2001