Star Trek producer Gene Roddenberry, along with the writers who later worked on the show, aimed to take what we as a society know about science and spice it up to fit in with the fantastic inventions and storylines associated with the hugely popular science fiction entertainment franchise. While these creators knew enough about astronomy and science to get the ball rolling, they were of course writers, and not scientists, meaning that they were fated to get some of the details wrong.
Speaking in general terms, though, Star Trek is written rather intelligently and is a more accurate representation of scientific principles than any other science fiction series that has featured on TV. Because of this, Star Trek has attracted not only casual science-lovers for generations, but it has gained the attention of those who are professionally involved with engineering and advanced sciences, which it depicts in a positive light.
Therefore, Star Trek can be forgiven for some of its inaccurate use of scientific data as it is, at the end of the day, just fiction. Still, it is worth exploring the aspects that this television show got right and wrong, as Star Trek is perhaps the most faithful-to-science show out there. Take a look at some of the standard, recurring features of Star Trek, along with whether or not they can be backed up by science.
The American Association for Artificial Intelligence is one of the most important research organizations for robotics. At a conference relating to cybernetics one year, someone asked the president of this organization what the ultimate goal was in his field of study, and his answer was “Lieutenant Commander Data.” Making Star Trek’s Mr. Data would indeed be a rather monumental feat in the cybernetics industry, and the debate of whether or not this could ever be achieved continues to be a hot topic. While one day it may be possible to put a self-aware computer into a human-esque body, such a feat, if possible, is a long way off.
Mr. Data’s brain circuits are named after the “positronic” circuits Dr. Isaac Asimov created for his own fictional robots. Currently, doctors could use positrons or to create pictures of our organs and brain, but there is no evidence to suggest that these “antielectrons” would ever make new, usable artificial brains. While there exists a number of remote-controlled machines and robots today, none of them have artificial brains because the pathways, transmitting and encoding of thoughts is still only understood in a rudimentary way. That said, brain-to-machine processes are already here, allowing paralyzed or otherwise impaired people to control machines and prostheses with their minds. This means that complex brain-to-machine systems are certainly being worked on, making the idea perhaps not not so far-fetched after all.
With 3,565 exoplanets having been discovered by the NASA Kepler space craft, and an estimated 100 billion exoplanets thought to exist in our Milky Way alone, it is safe to say that planets are just as common in this galaxy as depicted by the writers of Star Trek. With our current knowledge of biochemistry, many scientists have since surmised that life is likely to exist outside of our own system. Despite all of our efforts, though, we have yet to discover light or radio transmissions from an intelligent extraterrestrial civilization. If they do exist, however, it seems unlikely that these aliens would predominately take the shape of the humanoid alien races shown in the show.
Cloaking devices have been developed in modern times, with many of them made up of layers of meta-materials that allow the light to bend around it, whilst being neither absorbed nor reflected, before coming out the other side. An object would therefore appear as if it wasn’t there since there is no light bouncing off it and reaching our eyes. Thus far, only very small objects have been made to look hidden, and only in a select range of colors. New varieties of these materials, however, will surely surface that will produce new and semi-useful effects, although at present they do not seem likely to produce authentic or total invisibility.
The Enterprise Computer
Modern day computers enable us to play games, movies, and software with special effects that are far more spectacular than those found on Star Trek: The Original Series (1966-1969). Computers can also scan databases for information, explore other planets such as the Mars rovers, render holodeck-type virtual reality, and allow us to design architectural structures. Suffice to say, 400 years from now it is certainly expected that computers will move on to even greater heights, and certainly to a level at least depicted on Star Trek: The Next Generation (1987-1994).
Much like communicators used in Star Trek, cell phones are everywhere now, and can transmit video and pictures instantly across the world. The communicators used by landing parties in Star Trek, on the other hand, only used verbal commands and did not send back pictures and videos like we do now. It is therefore safe to say that this particular piece of communication technology has well and truly been brought into reality, and then some!
Deflector Shields, Artifical Gravity and Tractor Beams
Deflector shields provide the Enterprise with limited protection against damage, although the technology is never fully explained in the show. Today, we can deflect electrical objects using electromagnetic fields, and it has been suggested that perhaps we could protect astronauts from space radiation in this way by creating a “mini-magnetosphere” bubble. This is about as close as the laws of physics has let us get in terms of reproducing the powerful effects that the shields on the Enterprise possessed.
In the meantime, a tractor beam projected at something to bring it closer is nothing but fiction at this time, as is the artificial gravity experienced by the Enterprise crew. Admittedly, specially designed magnetic fields might be able to replicate something similar to artificial gravity, but would ultimately interfere with the ship’s metal equipment and systems. The elusive graviton may one day help create the real thing, but for the moment it remains just a hypothetical elementary particle.
Dr. Crusher on Star Trek is able to instantly heal wounded bone or skin by shining a healing ray on her patients. While this is currently complete fiction, there are surgeons in our time who use laser-based technology to seal or cauterize some tissue damage, treat cancer, as well as a range of other medical applications. There is also a bit of evidence to suggest that a weak current of electricity could speed up the healing of bones, therefore something similar to Star Trek’s healing ray may one day be possible.
Subspace Communications, Teleportation
Star Trek uses its own completely unique subspace communications where signals can travel as swiftly as its fastest starcraft, or Warp 9.9999 or 199,516 the speed of light. This is made possible by travelling through subspace, which exists alongside normal space on the space-time continuum. However, it is a fictional concept that is simply a convenient way to receive and transmit messages almost instantaneously by Star Fleet, and has no actual physics to back it up.
In the meantime, Star Trek’s transporter technology allows for the conversion of a person or object into an energy pattern which is then beamed to a different loction before being reconverted into matter. While this might seem far fetched, in 2014 scientists at Delft University of Technology successfully teleported atoms between two points using quantum entanglement, a phenomenon in which entangled particles mirror each other’s state. More recently, NASA managed the same feat over several miles, paving the way for future information exchange over potentially interplanetary distances. That said, this process works just on single molecules, and not on the huge numbers needed to move actual objects, such as a person.
The transwarp technology that enables Faster-than-light (FLT) travel to distant star systems remains a dream for now, and was originally used as a plot device to facilitate Star Trek’s storyline. While it would also seem to violate Einstein’s theory of Relativity, its concept did help inspire Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre in 1994 to propose a theoretical warp drive capable of propelling a spacecraft at FLT speeds while inside a “bubble” of curved space.
In other words, rather than contravening Einstein field equations, the technology would warp the space around a starship by squeezing the space in front of it while stretching the space behind it. Other scientists have since tweaked Alcubierre’s calculations to accommodate ways to satisfy its enormous energy requirement, and currently NASA is experimenting with lasers and designing quantum optics capable of detecting any minute warp effects that may emerge. Any success would subsequently enable scientists to amplify the mini-warp effect, although research is currently in its infancy.
Time Travel/Wormhole Travel
Einstein’s theories of relativity have helped us to understand that massive objects or travelling fast can slow down time, and that time travel to a point in the past may be possible through a theoretical construct known as a wormhole or Einsten-Rosen bridge. Outside of movies, however, no one has traveled back in time, while even if a wormhole was ever detected, using it as a traversable passage could bring a variety of dangers, such as high levels of radiation or its sudden collapse.
Phasers, Replicators and Holodeck
Star Trek also uses numerous other inventions which may one day be seen to have had their origins in our present times. Energy blasters called Phasers, for instance, may have inspired the US army to work on a new weapon by the same name which uses high-powered microwave radiation to disable most electronic devices and systems. Likewise, a comparison has been made between Replicator technology and “3D Printing“, which can use other materials aside from plastic to create on-demand creations, such as wood, metal and even some types of food. Even today’s crude virtual reality environments may one day develop into the Star Trek’s sophisticated Holodeck.
In conclusion, Star Trek is a thorough combination of imaginary science gathered from old lore, creative license by the writers, and a hint of real science. The real science is implemented in an effort to remain faithful to some of humanity’s most impressive scientific achievements–an ode, if you will–and it at once expands the thought processes of the mind as much as it entertains it. A classic series that tries to adhere to the notions of science, showing it great respect in the process, Star Trek is well-loved by scientists and casual viewers all around the world, even if scientists feel the need to nitpick it occasionally. Furthermore, many of the advanced technologies in the show have inspired many scientists to devise innovations in our own time, and the show will no doubt continue to encourage inventors to for many generations to come. Live long and prosper!