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The Ship's Computer
Like Star Trek communicators, cell phones are ubiquitous now, to an annoying extent, and
images and videos made with them are now collected and exchanged obsessively. Landing parties
in past Star Trek shows only gave verbal reports, and did not send back images and videos, as
today's people would.
Matter-Antimatter Power Generation
Most of the things it does are within the plausible realm of artificial intelligence
that computer scientists anticipate. We have auto-pilot functions and navigational systems
today, and these are the most used functions of the Enterprise computer. Our computers
even approach the ability to interpret spoken orders that the Enterprise computer has.
Today's computers entertain us with video games and movie special effects that are
awesomely more spectacular than the special effects in the original Star Trek show.
Computers also search databases for data about US, mining data to find criminals and
terrorists. Mobile computers on rovers explore Mars and deep space for us. Computers
today are capable of rendering crude Holodeck-like virtual realities,
and they enable us to do computer-aided design with great impact on architecture
and industry. Supercomputers have advanced the state of the art of modeling weather and
In 400 more years -- the time when Star Trek: The Next Generation is set -- it is reasonable
to expect many of the abilities of computers in Star Trek to really be achieved. (Interestingly,
the Internet was not predicted by Star Trek visionaries, who remained focused on large,
This is one of the best scientific features of Star Trek. The mixing of matter and
antimatter is almost certainly the most efficient kind of power source that a starship
could use, and the way it's described is reasonably correct -- the antimatter (frozen
anti-hydrogen) is handled with magnetic fields, and never allowed to touch normal matter,
or KA-BOOM! This much is real physics. Let's not bother about the dilithium crystals part
. . . sorry, but that's just imaginary.
Antimatter has been created recently in microscopic quantities, and is being studied to
advance physics knowledge. But it isn't possible yet to produce amounts of antimatter that
would be useful for fuel or power generation.
These are rocket engines based on the fusion reaction. We don't have the technology for
them yet -- they are far ahead of our present chemical-fueled rockets -- but they are within
the bounds of real, possible future engineering.
Well, an important research organization for robotics is the American Association for
Artificial Intelligence. At a recent conference on cybernetics, the president of the
Association was asked what is the ultimate goal of his field of technology. He replied,
"Lieutenant Commander Data." Creating Star Trek's Mr. Data would be a historic
feat of cybernetics, and right now it's very controversial in computer science whether it
can be done. Maybe a self-aware computer can be put into a human-sized body and convinced
to live sociably with us and our limitations. That's a long way ahead of our computer
technology, but maybe not impossible.
By the way, Mr. Data's "positronic" brain circuits are named for the circuits
that Dr. Isaac Asimov imagined for his fictional robots. Our doctors can use positrons to
make images of our brains or other organs, but there's no reason to expect that positrons
could make especially good artificial brains. Positrons are antimatter! Dr. Asimov just
made up a sophisticated-sounding prop, which he never expected people to take literally.
Today there are many kinds of toy robots and remote-controlled machines. However, no
artifical minds have been created. The ways that thoughts are encoded and transmitted
within the human brain remain only crudely understood, preventing real telepathy from being
developed. However, simple brain-to-machine commands can be transmitted, enabling impaired
or paralyzed people to control prostheses and machines. Much more complex brain-machine
interfaces are in the works.
Sensors and Tricorders
Astronomers have discovered about 340 planets orbiting other stars than the Sun. There
are clear signs that life potentially has numerous home sites in the Galaxy. Yet despite
much searching, no radio or light transmissions from intelligent civilizations in the Cosmos
have been identified.
Most scientists now agree that life probably exists in other solar systems, now that we
understand biochemistry a little. The chemical elements for carbon-based life like the
lifeforms on Earth are common in the Universe, so maybe lifeforms like ourselves are
numerous in the Galaxy. We can imagine all kinds of intelligent creatures, with any number
of arms, legs, eyes, or antennae -- maybe a lot smarter than we are. It seems doubtful
that humanoid shapes would be as common as the alien races on the Star Trek shows, though.
Well, we have to allow the show some concessions to the shapes of available actors. Could
half-human/half-alien hybrids ever exist, like Mr. Spock? It seems almost impossible, but
with recombinant DNA, our scientists have already created interspecies hybrids. Mr. Spock
is not totally beyond biochemical reality, but definitely at the edge.
Deflector Shields, Tractor Beams & Artificial Gravity
We have vibration sensors, sonar, radar, laser ranging, various kinds of light
wavelength detectors and energetic particle detectors, and gravimeters. We also do a
little three-dimensional imaging of the interiors of solid objects, like the human body,
with magnetic fields and radioactivity detectors. The sensors and tricorders on Star Trek
are quite different and more revealing as plot devices than anything we have. But with a
stretch of the imagination, the tricorder scan could have today's magnetic resonance
imager as its ancestor. The Enterprise's sensors must use the more advanced (and
imaginary) "subspace fields," when it detects far-away
objects in space, because the crew never has to wait for signals to travel to a target
at the speed of light and return. Not all of the sensors on the show are possible.
We know how to deflect electrically charged objects using electromagnetic fields, and
there are concepts for protecting space travelers from cosmic radiation this way. That's
the only physics trick we know that resembles the powerful special effects of the
Enterprise shields. We can also make big magnets that have some respectable attraction,
and with the right electronic circuits regulating the strength of the magnets, we can
imagine towing some kinds of metal objects through space. A beam that is projected at
something to attract it is purely imaginary.
Artificial gravity is not about to provide the normal environment of weight that the
Enterprise crew experience. Specially designed magnetic fields could do a similar, weaker
job, but they would play havoc with metal equipment. Try a web search for "levitating
frog" to see how it's done, but it's not a feasible, safe substitute for gravity.
We don't have any way to create artificial
gravity. Generating artificial graviton particles is imaginable, but there's no way
to say how it might be done.
Crude cloaking devices have been developed today, but they consist of cumbersome layers
of metamaterials that only hide tiny objects from visibility in a limited range of
colors. (Metamaterials are made of arrays of tiny electronic devices that combine to produce
odd optical properties unlike the usual reflecting and refracting in glass that we are
used to.) New varieties of metamaterials undoubtedly will produce new, strange effects, but
they don't seem capable of providing complete invisibility.
Mathematicians discovered the concept of a subspace within a space continuum decades
ago, and science fiction writers appropriated the term to serve their needs for a
super-advanced way to reach other points in space, time or "other" universes.
The concept is alive in physics today, in theories that our space-time may have eleven or
more dimensions -- three space dimensions and time, plus seven more that are "curled
up" within a tiny sub-atomic size scale, where they conveniently explain mysteries of
the forces of physics. But Star Trek uses its own unrelated version of subspace, with
signals that can travel as fast as the fastest starship. This is just a convenient notion
to get messages to Star Fleet and back by the end of a TV show, with no realistic physics
According to the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual, phasers are named for
PHASed Energy Rectification. They are really just spectacular energy blasters, with no
detailed physics explanation. The original concept was that they were the next
technological improvement upon LASERs. To the extent that they differ from LASERs, they
are just fanciful props, descended from generations of blasters in science fiction of de
Today the army has phaser-like stun weapons, using microwaves to cause extreme
discomfort to skin. LASER weapons are in development and have advanced in capabilities.
Star Trek's Dr. Crusher shines a healing ray on her wounded patients and the skin or
bone heals immediately. That's just a magical medical miracle of the imaginary 24th
century. Surgeons today do work with lasers to cauterize or seal some tissues, and repair
detached retinas. Some dentists use them, too. Also, there is actually a form of adhesive
that can stick human cells together like Elmer's Glue (tm), and synthetic skin for
temporarily protecting wounds! But the body's own healing is usually as fast as any other
method. On the other hand, there is some evidence that weak electric currents can
accelerate healing of bones, so something similar to Dr. Crusher's procedure -- but not
instantaneous -- may become possible some day.
Today, we know how to create microchip circuits and experimental nanometer-scale
objects by "drawing" them on a surface with a beam of atoms. We can also suspend
single atoms or small numbers of atoms within a trap made of electromagnetic fields, and
experiment on them. That's as close as the replicator is to reality. Making solid matter
from a pattern, as the replicator appears to do, is pretty far beyond present physics.
Replication of simple structures can be performed today via a technology like multi-layer
photo-copying that creates solid objects by building up many layers of hardened fluid.
That's not a palatable substitute for an instant cup of "Tea, Earl Grey, hot."
We don't have a clue about how to really build a device like the transporter. It uses a
beam that is radiated from point A to point B where it STOPS at just the right precise
place -- even passing through some barriers along the way -- and reconstructs the person
it carries on the spot. Or it captures a person's pattern, dematerializing him or her, and
brings the person to some other point. All of the rematerialized atoms and mol ecules are
somehow in the precisely correct positions, with the right temperatures and adhering
together just as if the transportee had not been dematerialized. Rematerializing, why
doesn't everything fall to pieces if a gust of wind or just normal gravity disturb the
reappearing atoms? Nothing in the physics of today gives a hint about how that might be
possible. Arthur C. Clarke's 3rd Law says, "Any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic." But we can't assume every magical feat could be
accomplished, given sufficiently advanced technology.
Today, small numbers of atoms and photons have been teleported. The principal use
of this trick will be in quantum computer development, which has the potential to solve
extremely complex mathematical problems extremely fast.
The Star Trek transporter wasn't used much for one of its greatest powers: space battles,
when the transporter would be devastatingly effective at removing patches of the hull of
an enemy starship. Maybe that's too easy to fit the show's plots.
Universal Language Translator
Clarke's 3rd Law applies to this one, too. Holograms are apparent images with three dimensional
structure. We can't yet imagine a way to assemble matter in the same way as the light in a
hologram. We only have some relatively crude virtual reality environments today.
It's interesting that in the original Star Trek show, virtual reality was outlawed. Virtual
reality invented by advanced aliens (Talosians) destroyed Talosian society by addicting them to
endless fantasies. The United Federation of Planets enforced the death penalty on anyone who
even visited the Talosians. But in Star Trek: The Next Generation, virtual reality on the
Holodeck was treated as a vital form of recreation, and was installed
on every large starship to entertain the crew!
Warp Interstellar Drive
As this is used on the Star Trek shows, it's just an automagical device to enable
characters to get through the stories. It would be too tedious and repetitious in a
one-hour show for the characters to overcome real language barriers in a realistic manner
in every show. The way the Enterprise crew can encounter an alien spacecraft, "hail
them on standard frequencies," and establish instant telecommunications on their
viewscreens is a preposterous shortcut to keep the plot from faltering. We can certainly
dismiss the possibility of such an invention ever being built.
Wormhole Interstellar Travel and Time Travel
This must be the crowning achievement of Federation technology! Despite its fundamental
role in the show's plot, it violates known physics to an extent that can't be defended.
The detailed explanation of the warp field effect in the ST: TNG Technical Manual only
raises mo re questions than it resolves. It is said to involve huge discharges of energy
and subspace fields that aren't understood in today's science. However, barring a very
unlikely demolition of Einstein's theory by future, revolutionary discoveries in quantum
physics, warp drive can't exist. Physicists of today understand the space-time continuum
rather well, and there is very good reason to think that no object can move faster than
the speed of light. This doesn't stop scientists like the great expert on relativity and
quantum theory, Stephen Hawking, from enjoying the fun of the TV series, however.