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Are you a Trekker, Trekkie, or a scientific type who likes to nitpick about technical details missed by Star Trek's writers? If you fit into one of the three categories it's likely that you'd enjoy this book. Dr. Krauss points out many scientific impossiblities in the four incarnations of Star Trek, such as the result that moving a craft the size of the Enterprise at even one half the speed of light is simply not practical. However, this book is not a just a 'nitpicker's' guide to the Star Trek genre. He also highlights phenomena, seen on the shows, that are in fact possible according to what we understand about the universe. For instance, time travel is a completely valid solution to Einstein's gravitational field equations. So you might enjoy this book if you're the type that likes to investigate the science that is in science fiction.
New York Times Book Review
”This book is fun Krauss is always enlightening.”
St. Petersburg Times
“A fascinating way to learn more about physics.”
Cleveland Plain Dealer
“One of the year’s best gifts for a science-fiction fan.”
“The Physics of Star Trek is a fun, readable little book by an eminent physicist that boldly goes where few serious scientists have ever gone before.”
"No matter where you go, there you are."
—From a plaque on the starship Excelsior, in Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, presumably borrowed from The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai
You are at the helm of the starship Defiant (NCC-1764), currently in orbit around the planet Iconia, near the Neutral Zone. Your mission: to rendezvous with a nearby supply vessel at the other end of this solar system in order to pick up components to repair faulty transporter primary energizing coils. There is no need to achieve warp speeds; you direct the impulse drive to be set at full power for leisurely half-light-speed travel, which should bring you to your destination in a few hours, giving you time to bring the captain's log up to date. However, as you begin to pull out of orbit, you feel an intense pressure in your chest. Your hands are leaden, and you are glued to your seat. Your mouth is fixed in an evil-looking grimace, your eyes feel like they are about to burst out of their sockets, and the blood flowing through your body refuses to rise to your head. Slowly, you lose consciousness . . . and within minutes you die.
What happened? It is not the first signs of spatial "interphase" drift, which will later overwhelm the ship, or an attack from a previously cloaked Romulan vessel. Rather, you have fallen prey to something far more powerful. The ingenious writers of Star Trek, on whom youdepend, have not yet invented inertial dampers, which they will introduce sometime later in the series. You have been defeated by nothing more exotic than Isaac Newton's laws of motion—the very first things one can forget about high school physics.
OK, I know some trekkers out there are saying to themselves, "How lame! Don't give me Newton. Tell me things I really want to know, like 'How does warp drive work?' or 'What is the flash before going to warp speed—is it like a sonic boom?' or 'What is a dilithium crystal anyway?'" All I can say is that we will get there eventually. Travel in the Star Trek universe involves some of the most exotic concepts in physics. But many different aspects come together before we can really address everyone's most fundamental question about Star Trek: "Is any of this really possible, and if so, how?"
To go where no one has gone before—indeed, before we even get out of Starfleet Headquarters—we first have to confront the same peculiarities that Galileo and Newton did over three hundred years ago. The ultimate motivation will be the truly cosmic question which was at the heart of Gene Roddenberry's vision of Star Trek and which, to me, makes this whole subject worth thinking about: "What does modern science allow us to imagine about our possible future as a civilization?"
Anyone who has ever been in an airplane or a fast car knows the feeling of being pushed back into the seat as the vehicle accelerates from a standstill. This phenomenon works with a vengeance aboard a starship. The fusion reactions in the impulse drive produce huge pressures, which push gases and radiation backward away from the ship at high velocity. It is the backreaction force on the engines—from the escaping gas and radiation—that causes the engines to "recoil" forward. The ship, being anchored to the engines, also recoils forward. At the helm, you are pushed forward too, by the force of the captain's seat on your body. In turn, your body pushes back on the seat.
Now, here's the catch. Just as a hammer driven at high velocity toward your head will produce a force on your skull which can easily be lethal, the captain's seat will kill you if the force it applies to you is too great. Jet pilots and NASA have a name for the force exerted on your body while you undergo high accelerations (as in a plane or during a space launch): G-forces. I can describe these by recourse to my aching back: As I am sitting at my computer terminal busily typing, I feel the ever-present pressure of my office chair on my buttocks—a pressure that I have learned to live with (yet, I might add, that my buttocks are slowly reacting to in a very noncosmetic way). The force on my buttocks results from the pull of gravity, which if given free rein would accelerate me downward into the Earth. What stops me from accelerating—indeed, from moving beyond my seat—is the ground exerting an opposite upward force on my house's concrete and steel frame, which exerts an upward force on the wood floor of my second-floor study, which exerts a force on my chair, which in turn exerts a force on the part of my body in contact with it. If the Earth were twice as massive but had the same diameter, the pressure on my buttocks would be twice as great. The upward forces would have to compensate for the force of gravity by being twice as strong.
The same factors must be taken into account in space travel. If you are in the captain's seat and you issue a command for the ship to accelerate, you must take into account the force with which the seat will push you forward. If you request an acceleration twice as great, the force on you from the seat will be twice as great. The greater the acceleration, the greater the push. The only problem is that nothing can withstand the kind of force needed to accelerate to impulse speed quickly—certainly not your body.
By the way, this same problem crops up in different contexts throughout Star Trek—even on Earth. At the beginning of Star Trek V: The Final Frontier, James Kirk is free-climbing while on vacation in Yosemite when he slips and falls. Spock, who has on his rocket boots, speeds to the rescue, aborting the captain's fall within a foot or two of the ground. Unfortunately, this is a case where the solution can be as bad as the problem. It is the process of stopping over a distance of a few inches which can kill you, whether or not it is the ground that does the stopping or Spock's Vulcan grip.
Well before the reaction forces that will physically tear or break your body occur, other severe physiological problems set in. First and foremost, it becomes impossible for your heart to pump strongly enough to force the blood up to your head. This is why fighter pilots sometimes black out when they perform maneuvers involving rapid acceleration. Special suits have been created to force the blood up from pilots' legs to keep them conscious during acceleration. This physiological reaction remains one of the limiting factors in determining how fast the acceleration of present-day spacecraft can be, and it is why NASA, unlike Jules Verne in his classic From the Earth to the Moon, has never launched three men into orbit from a giant cannon.
If I want to accelerate from rest to, say, 150,000 km/sec, or about half the speed of light, I have to do it gradually, so that my body will not be torn apart in the process. In order not to be pushed back into my seat with a force greater than 3G, my acceleration must be no more than three times the downward acceleration of falling objects on Earth. At this rate of acceleration, it would take some 5 million seconds, or about 212 months, to reach half light speed! This would not make for an exciting episode.
To resolve this dilemma, sometime after the production of the first Constitution Class starship—the Enterprise (NCC-1701)—the Star Trek writers had to develop a response to the criticism that the accelerations aboard a starship would instantly turn the crew into "chunky salsa."1 They came up with "inertial dampers," a kind of cosmic shock absorber and an ingenious plot device designed to get around this sticky little problem.
The inertial dampers are most notable in their absence. For example, the Enterprise was nearly destroyed after losing control of the inertial dampers when the microchip life-forms known as Nanites, as part of their evolutionary process, started munching on the ship's central-computer-core memory. Indeed, almost every time the Enterprise is destroyed (usually in some renegade timeline), the destruction is preceded by loss of the inertial dampers. The results of a similar loss of control in a Romulan Warbird provided us with an explicit demonstration that Romulans bleed green.
Forward, by Stephen Hawking
Preface to the Revised Edition
A Cosmic Poker Game
1. Newton Antes
2. Einstein Raises
3. Hawking Shows His Hand
4. Data Ends the Game
Matter Matter Everywhere
5. Atoms or Bits
6. The Most Bang for Your Buck
7. Holodecks and Holograms
The Invisible Universe, or Things That Go Bump in the Night
8. The Search for Spock
9. The Menagerie of Possibilities
10. Impossibilities: The Undiscoverable Country
In any case, it is a pleasure to talk about those books that first got me interested in science, and also more recent books that I think are useful for people who are looking for good places to begin to read about the forefront of developments in physics and cosmology.
At the end of the last century and for perhaps the first 40 years of the 20th century, it was not unusual for scientists to write popularizations, because at that time having some basic scientific literacy was considered an essential part of being an educated person. Some wonderful books were written then. In fact, I vividly recall one of the first books that really exposed to me some of the truly deep issues that physics could confront was Physics and Philosophy by Sir James Jeans. Even though it is not current, many of the interesting philosophical issues he addressed are still relevant today. Similarly, Albert Einstein and Leopold Infeld's classic book The Evolution of Physics is still worth reading. Jumping ahead 50 years or so, one can find several great books by George Gamow, a remarkable physicist and writer who wrote several profoundly important scientific papers that helped lay the groundwork for the Big Bang model. His book One Two Three & Infinity is a great. Also, when I was in high school, Jacob Bronowski had a very influential TV documentary series and also wrote several books that had an impact on me. I think my favorite is his book The Origins of Knowledge and Imagination. Much later, when I was a beginning graduate student, Steven Weinberg's classic book The First Three Minutes introduced me to many of the exciting ideas then just emerging at the interface of particle physics and cosmology, the area of physics I would eventually specialize in. Among the books in the last decade or so that I think can provide readers with good insights into the way physicists think about physics are Feynman's wonderful brief book The Character of Physical Law, and a book by my friend and colleague Frank Wilczek, written with his wife Betsy Devine, called Longing for the Harmonies. Finally, Kip Thorne's book Black Holes and Time Warps is a nice personal introduction into the world of general relativity.
Dr. Lawrence M. Krauss received the 1999 American Association for the Advancement of Science Public Understanding of Science and Technology Award "for his global impact as a scientific communicator, especially his ability to maintain an active scientific career while at the same time writing several accessible books about physics for the general public." Dr. Krauss is the chairman of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University.
Posted April 23, 2002
This is an excellent book for both the scientist and/or the nonscientist. If you've ever wondered the technology and science behind the Star Trek series, this book is definitely for you. The book's only weakness is that Dr. Krauss is at times too confident of our current knowledge of physics. Some things may seem impossible to us now but maybe to another civilization or to our own civilization in the future, that which is impossible now could very well be accomplished. Our knowledge of physics is too limited. God knows how many theories and laws are out there to be discovered that might allow us to pull off some 'magical things' However, I still think this book deserves 5 stars with no hesitation.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted November 9, 2001
Posted August 2, 2001
Did you know that many of the world's best physicists like to watch Star Trek, and then discuss what's right and wrong about the science displayed? Well, apparently they do. Drawing on contacts within the scientific community and on-line bulletin boards, Professor Krauss has written a sprightly review of what physicists think about when they see these shows. He translates these observations into simple concepts that the average reader should be able to follow, assuming an interest in Star Trek or science. As a non-scientist, I had always assumed that 70 percent of the 'science' on a Star Trek show was just so much imagination. The reason I thought that was because I could see so many obvious errors (seeing phaser light in space, hearing sounds in space, effects occurring too soon on the space ship, holograms acting like they were made of matter, and permanent worm holes) based on what little I knew. Was I ever surprised to find out that these obvious errors were the bulk of all the errors in the shows! Apparently the writers have been working closely with scientifically knowledgeable people to keep what is covered reasonably possible . . . along with some poetic license. The physics of cosmology are fascinating, but I can quickly get lost in matching quantum mechanics to general relativity and so forth. I was also pleasantly surprised to see that I could follow the arguments much better when they used a familiar Star Trek episode as a reference. Like the child who learns math when it involves counting his or her own money, I can learn physics more easily when it relates to Star Trek. Very nice! The book takes a look at the common Star Trek features like warp drive, transporters, replicators, phasers, sensors, subspace communications, and tractor beams. You also get special looks at less common features like multiple universes and special forms of radiation. You can read this book from several perspectives as a result: (1) to appreciate what's happening in an episode; (2) to learn some science; (3) to think about where Star Trek could become real and where it is less likely to become so; and (4) what problems have to be solved in order for Star Trek technology to develop. I found the last perspective to be the most interesting. Professor Krauss's speculations about how rapidly technology might develop and what could be done with it were most fascinating. Where the book fell down a little was in being quite strong in stating that certain 'laws' of physics would never be changed. If we go back in 100 year increments, we find that a lot of earlier 'laws' are later somewhat amended if not totally changed. That may happen in the future as well, as we learn more. Professor Krauss is a little too confident in many places that there is nothing else to learn. Most modern technology would look like Star Trek science fiction to someone living in 1700, despite being based on sound scientific principles not understood then. After you finish enjoying this interesting book, think about what questions no one is trying to solve. Why not? What benefits would occur if they were solved? How could curiosity be stimulated about these questions? Ask and answer important questions in interesting ways to make faster progress! Donald Mitchell, co-author of The Irresistible Growth Enterprise and The 2,000 Percent SolutionWas this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.
Posted August 9, 2000
A great book, talks about everything from warp drives and time travel to transporters and the holodeck to wormholes and matter-antimatter as a power source all in the context of modern physics and in the context of Star Trek. looking at Einsteins relativity dark matter and more.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.