50th Trek: The Physics of Star Trek

In honour of Star Trek's 50th anniversary, I'm writing a series of posts discussing a favorite example of Star Trek related media.

The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence M. Krauss  Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry.
The Physics of Star Trek
by Lawrence M. Krauss

Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry.

If Trekkies helped spawn the current fashion for fan-themed documentaries, The Physics of Star Trek would inspire the trend of books which blended two kinds of stereotypical nerdery - academia and pop culture. Virtually every successful franchise seems to have been subject to this kind of treatment: comic book superheroes and supervillains, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Harry Potter, even that other, less rational sci-fi series with “Star” in its title. Compared to the era when Carl Sagan or David Attenborough or Fritjof Capra would rarely deign to reference popular entertainment, our current big-brained public figures promoting education such as Michio Kaku or Phil Plait are more likely to  mention the latest film, television show, or graphic novel, if it will help them make a point about how science functions in the real world. If author Lawrence Krauss may have initially treated the idea of a science book based on Star Trek a joke, it almost makes sense in retrospect as the logical start for the trend. When the book was published in 1995, Trek had already been talking about the future for almost 30 years.

The title for the book is somewhat misleading. The first half does cover the history of modern physics in more-or-less chronological order, from the classical mechanics of Isaac Newton, the two theories of relativity by Albert Einstein, atomic theory, to the weirdness that is quantum mechanics. But this is Star Trek after all, so Krauss must venture into the fields of astronomy and cosmology in later chapters. He even gives his two cents about biology, psychology, computer science, and philosophy, because of course he does. Unsurprisingly, it’s that last part where Krauss is at his least sure footed. At barely 175 pages, TPOST is a slim volume. But it’s hardly a quick read because of the nature of its subject matter. Nevertheless, Krauss does his best to cut down on the jargon, and there’s not a single mathematical equation in sight. The most he does to illuminate some of the more complex ideas being discussed is to use several schematic drawings. It’s about as plain-spoken as a physics-based science book written by a Ph.D. can get.

What does become apparent as the book progresses is the enormous difficulty of the task Krauss has set up for himself. Star Trek was already a massive franchise in 1995, which included The Original Series, The Next Generation, seven feature films, the first two seasons of Deep Space Nine, and the first season of Voyager. Given that TNG was the most successful part of the franchise, the book tends to reference it more than any of the other Trek series. Like a later-day positivist version of Capra, or a real world Sheldon Cooper, Krauss has to demonstrate fluency in two different realms, then attempt to draw a connection between them as both a trusted expert in his field, and as a judgemental fan.*

That’s not so simple because like any form of speculative fantasy, Star Trek isn’t just cribbing from the textbook. There’s a lot of artistic license involved in the writing of any episode. Trying to make sense of Trek’s fictional universe is like translating a book from English to Chinese, then into Korean, then French, then back into English. Basically, Krauss is assembling his own head-canon. When examining technologies such as the matter transporter or the holodeck, Krauss has to surmise from multiple episodes which aren’t always consistent with each other just how those technologies function before he can give an explanation on whether they might even be feasible in this universe. Is the matter transporter just transmitting a data-rich signal to the receiving device, or is it sending with it a matter stream as well? Is the holodeck just producing holograms, or is it also manipulating solid matter whenever necessary? When he synthesizes a model for how the warp drive might work, Krauss rather optimistically explains, “This scenario must be what the Star Trek writers intended when they invented warp drive, even if it bears little resemblance to the technical descriptions they have provided.” You don’t say?

As for the answers Krauss provides for Star Trek’s three key technologies (warp drive, time travel, matter transporter), here’s the (spoiler alert!) Cliff Notes version of his analysis. All of these technologies would generate stupendous energy requirements that make them virtually unfeasible. And while general relativity does make warp drive and travel to the past at least theoretically possible if not practical, matter transporters run into the theoretical limits of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which puts an absolute limit on the precision for measuring the fundamental properties of a subatomic particle. So no one’s beaming up any time soon.

Science has naturally moved on since 1995, though so far not in a direction that would change any of Krauss’ basic answers. The development of quantum teleportation uses particles for encoding and transmitting information, but still won’t allow us to transport a living person. Newer measurements about the fate of the Universe have led cosmologists to speculate about dark energy. The long hypothesized Higgs Boson particle was found in 2013. Another hypothesized phenomena, gravitational waves, was finally detected earlier this year. The discovery of thousands of exoplanets has only deepened the mystery of why we have not yet found new life and new civilization outside of the Earth. Even our own solar system has gotten so complicated that astronomers reclassified Pluto as a “dwarf planet”, whatever the hell that means. And as for exploring strange new worlds, NASA now faces competition from the private sector. But these companies arguably wouldn't exist in the first place without Stat Trek serving as inspiration.

However cleverly organized, TPOST utilizes only a very narrow set of tools to study the franchise. So it comes as no great shock that the book has galvanized other experts to give their own interpretations based on their particular field of knowledge. To date, this has included biology, computer science, ethics, business management, history, metaphysics, and religious studies. But I suspect that the book which will resonate most with the current market is the one that tackles how the Federation managed to build a post-scarcity society from a post-apocalyptic setting. If Lawrence Krauss has succeeded, however accidentally, in proving one thing, it’s that Star Trek can be viewed to be just about anything.
*Krauss prefers the label "Trekker" when talking about Star Trek fans.