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"Star Trek" and Real Science


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Initial post: Sep 24, 2009 9:38:29 AM PDT
dailygalaxy.com (companion to the Discovery Channel) has some fascinating articles, whereby scientists have more or less "proven" some of Star Trek's science.

Most of these articles are from 2007, so the science may no longer be cutting-edge. But do they address how imagination, or even a stab-in-the-dark about how something might/should work, can many times be proven accurate later on.

"Neutron Stars and The Physics of Star Trek" --- A ST episode saw the crew studying a neutron star about to erupt as it accreted material. In June 2007, NASA's Chandra x-ray Observatory discovered a distant neutron star shooting out an extended x-ray jet.

"Great Galactic Barrier - Star Trek Science Fact or Fiction?" --- ST envisioned an energy field that completely encompassed our galactic disc of the Milky Way, and prevented conventional starship travel beyond our galaxy. In reality, there is not a barrier, but a couple of energy "halos" around our galaxy. The outmost invisible "halo" is dark matter.

"Star Trek Teleportation: Physicists Develop A Way to Beam-Up Atoms" --- Physicists have found a way to cool atoms to almost absolute zero, (when all atoms start behaving in the same way), and then zap them with two lasers.

"Star Trek Warp Speeds A Reality? Scientists Claim Quantum Tunneling Exceeds Speed of Light" --- A pair of German scientists claim to have broken the speed of light, by propelling photons faster than the speed of light.

Posted on Oct 19, 2009 8:24:39 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 19, 2009 8:27:15 AM PDT
This may not be a "Star Trek" type barrier, but you may want to check out this article from last week's Reuters.com:

http://www.reuters.com/article/scienceNews/idUSTRE59F0DY20091016

The article is titled MISSION FINDS BRIGHT RIBBON AT SOLAR SYSTEM BORDER. ("... bright ribbon of hydrogen atoms marks the edge of the solar system, where the Sun's wind meets emissions from the rest of the galaxy ...")

Posted on Oct 19, 2009 9:19:11 AM PDT
Hi Marilyn,

Actually, I believe it is the reverse of your first post. I think the people who created Star Trek kept track of cutting edge scientific discoveries and theories and included them in their thinking of episodes. This is in the grand tradition of 'hard' sci-fi instituted by Campbell. And as part of that, you have to have logical scientific reasons for things you include in your story, even if you make it up.

If you're really interested in this, you should buy The Physics of Star Trek

Posted on Oct 19, 2009 9:23:52 AM PDT
Star Trek is a big fat pain in the butt for Science Fiction writers. They jump on all of the newest theoretical physics and incorporate it into their stories. You've got to keep up with the latest stuff (and I don't have a budget to keep any physicists on retainer).

So, it's not surprising when Star Trek gets it right because they are starting out with material that is coming from theoretical physicists to begin with.

I believe Gene Roddenberry admitted that the transporter was incorporated into the stories because they didn't have the budget for landing crafts (even though they did land the Enterprise Shuttle once and awhile).

The real trick for a SciFi author is to come up with a concept that the physicists hadn't thought of yet. That is tough.

This is why you get a lot of black-box gadgets in scifi like the "Time Warp Modulator" and the "Ionic Acceleration Transponder".

( I wish that some of these authors would at least look up the definition of "transponder" before they tack it on the end of all of their devices. I used it in The Proving, but the device really was a transponder. )

I'm a stickler for those things (I hate lazy scifi) but I do remember Isaac Asimov's advice to writers that writing a good story was more important than the science behind it. He was right, good science doesn't always make a good story.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 19, 2009 12:04:45 PM PDT
M. Helsdon says:
""Neutron Stars and The Physics of Star Trek" --- A ST episode saw the crew studying a neutron star about to erupt as it accreted material. In June 2007, NASA's Chandra x-ray Observatory discovered a distant neutron star shooting out an extended x-ray jet."

Accretion-powered pulsars have been detected since the 70s; the Chandra observation confirmed earlier observations in greater detail. This is an example of Star Trek using known astronomical phenomena.

""Great Galactic Barrier - Star Trek Science Fact or Fiction?" --- ST envisioned an energy field that completely encompassed our galactic disc of the Milky Way, and prevented conventional starship travel beyond our galaxy. In reality, there is not a barrier, but a couple of energy "halos" around our galaxy. The outmost invisible "halo" is dark matter."

The dark matter halo is still theoretical; the halo stars have been known about for a very long time. The article seems to seriously stretch reality to match the imaginary 'energy barrier'.

""Star Trek Warp Speeds A Reality? Scientists Claim Quantum Tunneling Exceeds Speed of Light" --- A pair of German scientists claim to have broken the speed of light, by propelling photons faster than the speed of light."

This is a false claim: the photons don't violate relativity and don't travel faster than light.

http://www.newscientist.com/article/mg19526173.500

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 20, 2009 7:52:50 AM PDT
Hi Will and Bob!

We've discussed elsewhere in this forum, that using cutting-edge theories can sometimes backfire for sci fi writers. Meaning that a book comes out with string theory, or whatever, just as that "theory" is proved invalid, or at least unreliable.

There was also a discussion in this forum about how science fiction writers (from Jules Verne and H.G. Wells on) introduced ideas that just logically-fit into their stories, when writing stories about the future, that were later proven correct. (Even Tom Clancy couldn't get permission from the Navy to tour a nuclear sub. He just wrote what logically-fit, for "Hunt For Red October" I think, and was amazingly close to how a real nuc sub looks and functions.)

I guess my point in starting this thread, is that a lot more people watched "Star Trek" than read science fiction. Which is why dailygalaxy pulled a psychological gambit by linking new discoveries to something that would excite non-scientists --- "Star Trek".

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 20, 2009 8:34:52 AM PDT
Ronald Craig says:
That certainly makes sense.

Posted on Oct 21, 2009 4:42:18 AM PDT
Yog-Sothoth says:
I found articles describing how the writers/directors/propmasters of the new "Star Trek" movie had a hard time designing items of technology (phasers, tricorders, communicators, etc) that would appear less-sophisticated than the technology of the Original Series (i.e., less developed), but still appear to be "futuristic" compared to the 21st century.

That is funny in an ironic sense, because the technology of the Original Series ("24th Century") seems primitive compared to the cell phones, PDAs, Bluetooth devices, etc, we have in our real world!
Amazing they were predicting those things over 45 years ago, and many are common to us today. I've actually had teenageers remark how "funny" and "dorky" those "1960's cell phones" (communicators) looked in the original "Star Trek". They did not believe there WERE no cell phones then.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 23, 2009 12:54:06 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 25, 2009 12:52:19 PM PDT
Mrs. Garside says:
Hey, Will.

How do you misuse the word 'transponder'. It's a pretty specific device.

You're right though, too many writers use these words because they sound 'futuristic', without really stopping to think that these words do have actual meanings! With so much info (real info, too) available on the web, there's no excuse for that.

There's an episode of New Trek where Wesley's nanites get loose in engineering, and he has to explain what nanites are. I think the writers could have found a way to explain to viewers what a nanite was, without the other crew members needing to ask.

Posted on Oct 25, 2009 3:25:13 AM PDT
Yog-Sothoth says:
A "transponder" TRANSmits a reSPONSE to a signal it receives. For example, a transponder in an aircraft transmits an ID code when it picks up it is being "painted" by a radar signal. This will highlight the plane's position on the radar scope, and may provide a text ID as well. Ever wonder how those Air Traffic Controllers keep all those "blips" on their scope sorted out? (Yeah, I'm an aircraft electronics tech). I can concieve of "modulating" a time warp, but "ionic acceleration transponder" doesn't make sense to me, either. But it SOUNDS "exotic and scientific".

It always "irked" me that in the later Star Trek series, they always managed to get out of some predicament by use of a "phase-modulated tacyon beam" or "re-modulating the phase-shift frequency" - if it included the terms "tachyon", "modulation", or "phase", it ALWAYS seemed to work. Capt Kirk didn't have access to that type of technology, so HE had to rely on strategy, cunning, deception, and, "Not chess, Mr. Spock...poker!"

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 25, 2009 1:00:13 PM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 25, 2009 1:05:14 PM PDT
Mrs. Garside says:
We KNOW what a transponder is! (but thanks for the etymology; I didn't know that)

Our point is that too many writers either don't, or hope that we don't; they throw it around because it sounds 'hi-tech'.

Old Trek was also guilty of questionable science; I'll bet that imploding the warp-core would destroy the ship-but the idea sure sounds cool!

But, yes, that's one of the reasons I gave up on the all of the post TNG series.

Posted on Oct 27, 2009 9:50:41 PM PDT
Back in August I took the family on a trip to Philly to see the sights like Independence Hall, the Liberty Bell, and ... to run up the Rocky steps. They had a Star Trek exhibit going on, so we HAD to go see it. What really struck me was how fake some of the weaponry and costumes looked. They look much better on TV.

At least I got to sit in Kirk's chair, and they had a whole room mocked up like the Star Trek:TNG bridge. There were 5 of us so I got to assign all the seats (you take Data's spot, you take #1's spot, etc.). Had to stand and yell "Engage". My 14 yr. old thinks I need to get a life (I think he's right).

Re. mistakes in movies, I've heard that "Armageddon" is shown to new NASA employees to see how many mistakes they can spot. I believe that it's over 100!

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 28, 2009 1:48:48 AM PDT
Ronald Craig says:
Re: "Armageddon": that would be too cool if it's true. :)

That movie was just so bad in SO many ways. (I enjoyed "Deep Impact" much, much more. It had its problems, too, of course.)

Posted on Oct 28, 2009 12:54:31 PM PDT
Mrs. Garside says:
Re: Armageddon.

What got me was, all of these meteorites are already smashing into cities and causing all kinds of mayhem, and the officials STILL think they can keep a lid on this 'to prevent panic'. Uh, yeah.

Posted on Oct 28, 2009 9:29:43 PM PDT
Ronald, since you liked that, I went back and found the quote. It came from a report that I saw from the National Space Society (I'm a member). Here is the excerpt:

"Let's be absolutely clear that there is a universe of difference between real "rocket science" and the story lines that make Hollywood blockbusters. Even the producer/director of the 1998 asteroid deflection epic Armageddon, Michael Bay, was quoted as saying "the solution for the asteroid situation was great for the movie but not possible in real life." Indeed, NASA apparently shows the film as part of its management training program, to see how many inaccuracies prospective managers can spot (168 "impossible things" have been found so far). "

If any of you are interested in impact 'mitigation', go to http://www.nss.org/adastra/ then click over on the right the title link "The Threat of Impact" to download the pdf.

Posted on Oct 28, 2009 10:26:03 PM PDT
Yog-Sothoth says:
I always had a "problem" with the way the movies depicted meteors - always way too slow. "Deep Impact" showed the "Big One" going overhead, with folks watching it like it was an airliner flying over - even had the "whoosing" sound effects, no sonic boom. I'm sorry - you cannot "track" something coming visually in at low altitude going over 20,000mph. (Mach 28) Thats's nearly 6 miles PER SECOND! Tracer bullets are much slower than that! (about 1/3 mile per sec.)

Another TV movie last year had the Space Command knocking meteors down with Patriot missles ...

There was a made-for-TV movie several years ago - "Meteorites!", where the people had to get under cover every night, because for some reason, that's the only time the meteors came.

Of course, even Star Trek has "sound" in space (among other glaring scientific errors), so even our icon has its feet of clay.

Posted on Oct 29, 2009 12:35:09 AM PDT
Ronald Craig says:
Cheers, R.A. & LBOM, for the info! :)

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 31, 2009 8:49:34 AM PDT
To Marilyn Martin:
Re: "Even Tom Clancy couldn't get permission from the Navy to tour a nuclear sub. He just wrote what logically-fit, for "Hunt For Red October" I think, and was amazingly close to how a real nuc sub looks and functions."
That was at the beginning of his career, before he had gotten "big." Nowadays, he's the darling of the Pentagon and he can get pretty much whatever he wants, even stuff he doesn't want. He was once offered a flight in a front-line fighter (an F-18, I think) and he turned it down because he's afraid of flying! (His assistant accepted the flight in his place.) I would give anything to be able to fly in an F-18. Believe me, I was extremely annoyed when I read about his refusal.

The phenomenon of "accidental realism" happened also with the movie Dr. Strangelove. The U.S. Air Force did not allow Stanley Kubrick access to the interior of a B-52, so he genned up what he thought would look realistic. When the movie came out, the USAF was quite upset at how realistic his bomber interiors looked. Much later, after the Air Force had loosed up its rules, I got a chance to get inside a B-52, and can only marvel at how realistic Kubrick's sets were.

Posted on Oct 31, 2009 8:58:16 AM PDT
Hi Walter!

Thanks for the fascinating post. I also read somewhere that Roddenberry wanted the Enterprise zooming across the screen in the opening credits to have no sound --- just like in real space. But the network, if I remember correctly, told him he just HAD to add sound, scientific reality be damned.

I heard a story one time about some cheesy sci fi TV series in the '60s, that had non-scientific writers. In a story conference, a writer described a proposed scene where the hero would simply jump (with no helmet, protective gear or oxygen tanks) from one in-space craft to another in-space craft. When someone else objected, saying that there is no breathable air in space, the quick-thinking writer said "He'll just hold his breath!"

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 31, 2009 9:42:49 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 31, 2009 9:49:04 AM PDT
To Marilyn Martin:
Re: "In a story conference, a writer described a proposed scene where the hero would simply jump (with no helmet, protective gear or oxygen tanks) from one in-space craft to another in-space craft."

Actually, that exact same scene happened in the movie "2001: A Space Odyssey." To partially quote a description from Wikipedia, "When Dave [Bowman] returns to the ship, he asks HAL to open the pod bay doors to let him inside. HAL refuses to do so, stating that Dave's plan to disconnect him jeopardizes the mission. Risking death from anoxia, Dave enters the ship manually through the emergency air lock."

Reference: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2001_(film)#Jupiter_Mission

I think that a ship to ship transfer in vacuum would be just barely possible, provided that the exposure was no longer than about a minute.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 31, 2009 9:48:10 AM PDT
Last edited by the author on Oct 31, 2009 9:51:37 AM PDT
M. Helsdon says:
"In a story conference, a writer described a proposed scene where the hero would simply jump (with no helmet, protective gear or oxygen tanks) from one in-space craft to another in-space craft. When someone else objected, saying that there is no breathable air in space, the quick-thinking writer said "He'll just hold his breath!""

And in '2001' Bowman transfers, in vacuum, from the EVA pod to the Discovery without wearing his helmet. There is a possible minor error - in that when he blows the pod's door to enter the Discovery's airlock, the pod does not move as a result of its interior atmosphere being released - but possibly Bowman had set the pod to keep in position, using its thrusters to maintain its position.

A healthy human, prepared for the transition to vaccum (exhaling to empty the lungs, keeping the mouth open to minimise the effects of the loss of pressure to the air ways and sinuses etc.) might survive for a minute or so and be revived unharmed, but with asphyxia setting in after roughly 15 seconds bringing many side effects and ultimately unconsciousness.

So 'jumping' from one space craft to another is possible, and Clarke used this in another story as well.

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 31, 2009 9:50:08 AM PDT
M. Helsdon says:
Walter,

You beat me to it. Researched the effects of vacuum on humans for a friend's sf novel...

In reply to an earlier post on Oct 31, 2009 10:19:49 AM PDT
To M. Helsdon:
Well, we each came up with the same answer. That, after all, is the whole point of science: the reproducibility of data.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 1, 2009 7:05:57 AM PST
Hi Walter!

Would a ship-to-ship transfer in space, of an unprotected person, even be possible? The oxygen thing aside, wouldn't a body blow apart in a vacuum?

Personally, I haven't seen much realistic ship-to-ship transfers in sci fi movies, or even on TV. The most realistic depiction I've seen was in "Hunt for Red October", where a ship-to-ship transfer took place in another hostile medium, deep in the ocean.

They had a small rescue sub with one hatch fitted with a "universal collar" that could connect with and seal to another sub's round hatch. Much care and time was taken to ensure a total seal, before people transferred.

The International Space Station probably has something similar. And I would think that this realistic type of "sealed transfer" will be how people will actually transfer from ship-to-ship in space.

In reply to an earlier post on Nov 1, 2009 7:15:25 AM PST
M. Helsdon says:
"The oxygen thing aside, wouldn't a body blow apart in a vacuum?"

Only in bad science fiction.

Survival in Space by Richard Harding: "At altitudes greater than 45,000 feet (13,716 m), unconsciousness develops in fifteen to twenty seconds with death following four minutes or so later."

"monkeys and dogs have successfully recovered from brief (up to two minutes) unprotected exposures..."

The USAF Flight Surgeon's Guide:

Gastrointestinal Tract During Rapid Decompression.

One of the potential dangers during a rapid decompression is the expansion of gases within body cavities. The abdominal distress during rapid decompression is usually no more severe than that which might occur during slower decompression. Nevertheless, abdominal distention, when it does occur, may have several important effects. The diaphragm is displaced upward by the expansion of trapped gas in the stomach, which can retard respiratory movements. Distention of these abdominal organs may also stimulate the abdominal branches of the vagus nerve, resulting in cardiovascular depression, and if severe enough, cause a reduction in blood pressure, unconsciousness, and shock. Usually, abdominal distress can be relieved after a rapid decompression by the passage of excess gas.

The Lungs During Rapid Decompression.

Because of the relatively large volume of air normally contained in the lungs, the delicate nature of the pulmonary tissue, and the intricate system of alveolar airways for ventilation, it is recognized that the lungs are potentially the most vulnerable part of the body during a rapid decompression. Whenever a rapid decompression is faster than the inherent capability of the lungs to decompress (vent), a transient positive pressure will temporarily build up in the lungs. If the escape of air from the lungs is blocked or seriously impeded during a sudden drop in the cabin pressure, it is possible for a dangerously high pressure to build up and to overdistend the lungs and thorax. No serious injuries have resulted from rapid decompressions with open airways, even while wearing an oxygen mask, but disastrous, or fatal, consequences can result if the pulmonary passages are blocked, such as forceful breath-holding with the lungs full of air. Under this condition, when none of the air in the lungs can escape during a decompression, the lungs and thorax becomes over-expanded by the excessively high intrapulmonic pressure, causing actual tearing and rupture of the lung tissues and capillaries. The trapped air is forced through the lungs into the thoracic cage, and air can be injected directly into the general circulation by way of the ruptured blood vessels, with massive air bubbles moving throughout the body and lodging in vital organs such as the heart and brain.

The movement of these air bubbles is similar to the air embolism that can occur in SCUBA diving and submarine escape when an individual ascends from underwater to the surface with breath-holding. Because of lung construction, momentary breath-holding, such as swallowing or yawning, will not cause sufficient pressure in the lungs to exceed their tensile strength.

Decompression Sickness. (also known as "Bends")

Because of the rapid ascent to relatively high altitudes, the risk of decompression sickness is increased. Recognition and treatment of this entity remain the same as discussed elsewhere in this publication.

Hypoxia.

While the immediate mechanical effects of rapid decompression on occupants of a pressurized cabin will seldom be incapacitating, the menace of subsequent hypoxia becomes more formidable with increasing altitudes. The time of consciousness after loss of cabin pressure is reduced due to offgassing of oxygen from venous blood to the lungs. Hypoxia is the most immediate problem following a decompression.

Physical Indications of a Rapid Decompression.

(a) Explosive Noise. When two different air masses make contact, there is an explosive noise. It is because of this explosive noise that some people use the term explosive decompression to describe a rapid decompression.

(b) Flying Debris. The rapid rush of air from an aircraft cabin on decompression has such force that items not secured to the aircraft structure will be extracted out of the ruptured hole in the pressurized compartment. Items such as maps, charts, flight logs, and magazines will be blow out. Dirt and dust will affect vision for several seconds.

(c) Fogging. Air at any temperature and pressure has the capability of holding just so much water vapor. Sudden changes in temperature or pressure, or both, change the amount of water vapor the air can hold. In a rapid decompression, temperature and pressure are reduced with a subsequent reduction in water vapor holding capacity. The water vapor that cannot be held by the air appears in the compartment as fog. This fog may dissipate rapidly, as in most fighters, or not so rapidly, as in larger aircraft.

(d) Temperature. Cabin temperature during flight is generally maintained at a comfortable level; however, the ambient temperature gets colder as the aircraft flies higher. If a decompression occurs, temperature will be reduced rapidly. Chilling and frostbite may occur if proper protective clothing is not worn or available.

(e) Pressure
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Discussion in:  Science Fiction forum
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Initial post:  Sep 24, 2009
Latest post:  Jul 29, 2013

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