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14 July 2014
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The Science of Star Trek

light 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:

Warp Drive

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 concept.

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 Barrett Roddenberry?

The Transporter

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."

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