Star Trek's technological devices and gadgets are both the butt of jokes
and the subject of obsessive theorising among fans of the series.
Many, such as the universal translator, are a blatant and understandable
means of speeding up the plot. Yet Star Trek is more faithful to
scientific ideas than many factual TV programmes, and its ideas have
received serious attention from many scientists and NASA experts, not to
mention famous fans of the show such as Dr Stephen Hawking.
Here is a brief assessment of the credibility of three of the series
most famous contributions to fantasy technology:
The Federation's greatest technological achievement would be, in physics
terms, very tricky indeed to perfect. At current estimates, the energy
needed to produce warp drive would require more power than our entire
universe could provide. Einstein's theories are holding up to the
scrutiny of modern day scientists, and it remains hard to prove that an
object could ever travel faster than the speed of light. However, the
possibility of discovering powerful new energy sources should not be
dismissed. And it should be remembered that the warp drive has produced
much of the programme's addictive drama (think of Star Trek without that
special effect), which arguably make it a forgivably unscientific
The Ship's Computer
This invention seems like the most plausible piece of Trek technology.
Developments in artificial intelligence make it likely that in 400 years
(when the Next Generation, Deep Space Nine and Voyager are set), a
computer could be equipped with these type of sophisticated functions.
But would anyone really want their computer to have the voice of Majel
A contemporary Scotty would have no
truck with the physics of beaming up (or down). Although there have been
modest successes in researching the viability of transporting laser
beams, the scale of the matter being transported in Star Trek - say,
William Shatner after a heavy lunch - defies all current scientific
logic. The transporter disassembles the molecules of a person then
reconstructs them again in a separate venue. Again, the power needed for
this feat and the precision needed to exactly reassemble individual
molecules renders Trek's most celebrated gimmick something of a pipe
dream. Which is of course part of its whole charm.
Much of the technology outlined in Star Trek is plot-driven. Most is
winningly imaginative. And a little is convincing. But we should
remember that the programme would lose its entertainment value instantly
if we were to take its 24th century inventions entirely seriously: it
is not a programme made purely for egg-heads. Star Trek represents the
technology of the future, and as renowned science fiction writer Arthur
C Clarke wrote: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is
indistinguishable from magic."