Physics prof blasts holes in science of Star Trek’

Peter Kauffner

With real-life spaceships crashing into the Pacific replacing the Soviet Sputniks which once circled the skies, millions of Americans now explore space vicariously with the starship Enterprise and its crew. Captain Picard and his “Star Trek” cohorts take viewers on faster-than-light space travel and teleport between destinations in adventures more fantastic than even the moon shots of old.
And fantasy it largely is, said Lawrence Krauss, physics department chairman at Case Western University in Ohio, at a multimedia presentation Wednesday night at Northrop Auditorium on the physics of “Star Trek.” Krauss is also the author of a book by that title.
While he hopes to use the broad popularity of the show and the voyages of the starship Enterprise as a starting point for explaining real life science to the public, Krauss doesn’t expect Star Trek to deliver scientific accuracy.
“(Producer Gene) Roddenberry said, The Enterprise is a vehicle for drama.’ Star Trek is science fiction and that means that it has no obligation to get the science right,” Krauss said.
Lawrence Rudnick, a professor of astronomy at the University, is a viewer of the show.
“They’ve got the flavor of the scientific jargon, but the details are often wrong,” he said.
“I understand that they have a team of expert consultants, but that it’s all theoretical,” said Scott Thurk, a word processing specialist in the school of nursing who attended Krauss’ lecture.
“I’ve been a Star Trek’ fan since I was a kid,” Thurk added.
The transporter is perhaps the technology “Star Trek” is best known for. Starships use the transporter to “dematerialize” objects so that they can be move instantaneously between a vessel in orbit and a planet’s surface, where the “beamed” object is finally “rematerialized.”
Krauss said that the electromagnetic bonds that hold matter together are so strong that it would require an immense amount of energy to break down. For an object the mass of an adult human, this would require over 1,000 times the current annual energy output of the world, Krauss said.
The show is not entirely consistent about what happens during the teleportation process. In some episodes, the transporter malfunctions and creates a duplicate person. This suggests that the transporter uses new material to reconstruct a person after transport. If a person is made of different material after beaming, it raises the question of whether a new person has in fact been created.
Rudnick said his students’ ideas about astronomy have been influenced by the way the show portrays interstellar travel.
“Sometimes, you hear students comment on things like going faster than the speed of light,” he said.
The space ships in “Star Trek” have warp drive, a fictitious type of engine which allows them to travel faster than the speed of light.
“I know many of you have been taught in physics class that the speed of light is the maximum speed, but actually that is not an absolute limit,” Krauss said.
Albert Einstein’s theory of general relativity holds that gravity has the power to curve and stretch, or warp, space and time.
“It’s possible for space to expand faster than the speed of light,” Krauss said. So while the idea of real world warp drive is remote, science does not entirely rule it out.
Krauss also presented a list of Star Trek science bloopers. In one episode, an object is said to have a temperature of -293 degrees Celsius. The absolute zero, the coldest temperature possible, is -273 degrees Celsius.
In another episode, a “baryon sweep” of the Enterprise is performed. Baryons are a class of subatomic particle which includes protons and neutrons — particles that make up the bulk of ordinary matter.
Phaser beams on Star Trek are always visible, but real-life laser beams are visible only if when they pass through dust or hit a material object. In the vacuum of space, for example, a laser beam is visible only at the point of impact.
“Alien’ got it right, but Star Trek’ didn’t: In space, no one can hear you scream,'” Krauss said. Although sound waves cannot travel across a vacuum, the crew of the Enterprise can often hear large explosions that occur outside the ship.
Krauss said jokingly that if enough people send him additional “Star Trek” science errors, he will publish a sequel entitled, “The Physics of Star Trek II: The Wrath of Krauss.”