The Physics of Star Trek

The Physics of Star Trek


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The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence M. Krauss

What warps when you're traveling at warp speed? What is the difference between a wormhole and a black hole? Are time loops really possible, and can I kill my grandmother before I am born? Anyone who has ever wondered “could this really happen?” will gain useful insights into the Star Trek universe (and, incidentally, the real world of physics) in this charming and accessible guide. Lawrence M. Krauss boldly goes where Star Trek has gone-and beyond. From Newton to Hawking, from Einstein to Feynman, from Kirk to Picard, Krauss leads readers on a voyage to the world of physics as we now know it and as it might one day be.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780465002047
Publisher: Basic Books
Publication date: 06/04/2007
Pages: 280
Sales rank: 409,346
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.87(d)

About the Author

Lawrence M. Krauss is Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics and Professor of Astronomy and Director of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University. He is the only physicist to have received the top awards by the American Physical Society, the American Institute of Physics, and the American Association of Physics Teachers. He lives in Cleveland, Ohio.

Read an Excerpt

A CosmicPoker Game In which the physics of inertial dampers and tractor beams paves the way for time travel, warp speed, deflector shields, wormholes, andother spacetime oddities

Chapter One

Newton Antes

"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 21Ž2 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.

Table of Contents

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

What People are Saying About This

Stephen Hawking(in the foreward)

"Today's science fiction is often tomorrow's science fact. The physics that underlies Star Trek is surely worth investigating. To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit."


Exclusive Author Essay
Like most scientists I know, I got turned on to science by reading popular books written by scientists. This is one of the chief reasons why I devote some portion of my time to writing for a lay audience today. I want to return the favor. Nothing pleases me as much as when young people come to my lectures or book signings, actually having read my books. I don't care if they go on to do science, but the possibility that I may have helped instill in them what can be a lifelong enjoyment of the wonders of the universe is very pleasing.The Physics of Star Trek definitely changed things in this regard. Star Trek and science fiction in general seem to interest a lot of kids (as well as adults, of course), and it seemed to me that I might be able to tap into their excitement to seduce them into learning a bit about the actual universe. I really wasn't prepared for the strong response!

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.


Today's science fiction is often tomorrow's science fact. The physics that underlies 'Star Trek' is surely worth investigating. To confine our attention to terrestrial matters would be to limit the human spirit. -- From the foreword to The Physics of Star Trek

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The Physics of Star Trek 4.4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 11 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Really interesting book that investigates the feasibilty and physics behind all the speculative technology of Star Trek, written in plain English. Topics include the warp drive, the transporter and replicators, tractor beams, phasers, defense shields, possibility of encountering alien life, etc. Surprisingly, most of the techology in the series does seem plausible; the biggest hurdles being adequate energy sources and the vast, vast distances separating the stars. People who like thus book should also enjoy Prof Michio Kaku's Physics of the Impossible and Physics of the Future.
Guest More than 1 year ago
Do you like Star Trek? Do you like physics? Would you like to expand your mind to the plausible and implausible? If any of these apply to you, then you should pick up The Physics of Star Trek as soon as you get a chance. I recently read this book, and I found it fascinating, and relatively easy to read. Lawrence M. Krauss, the author, explores the futuristic elements of the Star Trek TV series and films and questions its validity throughout the book. These futuristic elements include warp speed, inertial dampers, holograms, ¿beaming¿ up, black holes, worm holes, `antimatter¿, and time loops. Among these are much, much more. Rather than picking out the impossibilities of the physical aspects of Star Trek, Krauss describes and breaks down the technology necessary to turn some of this science fiction, into fact. A foreword by Stephen Hawking is included in the book and he quotes ¿Today¿s science fiction is often tomorrow¿s science fact.¿ For example, Krauss describes how the ¿G¿s¿ in the acceleration to travel at light speed would kill a person, but suggests that if an artificial world could be created inside of the ship, the G¿s could be cancelled out, therefore making speed-of-light travel possible. This may be a stretch to think of for modern day physics, but in the future¿ who knows? The Physics of Star Trek is quite the mind-boggling novel. Krauss uses his investigations to take his readers beyond the standard thought of possibility. He examines the pure physics behind the futuristic aspects of Star Trek and explains what could be in the realm of possibility within the next century. Although I am not a very ¿Sci-Fi¿ inclined person, this book hooked me in the moment I read the Foreword. I would recommend this book to almost anyone, highschool and up.
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Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
Guest More than 1 year ago
This book explaines how everything works, it's great! This not only interested the trekker in me, but also the astrophysist! This is a great find!
Guest More than 1 year ago
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 Solution
Guest More than 1 year ago
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.
RWhitedMILTON More than 1 year ago
The novel The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence M. Krauss explains many of the scientific phenomena in the famous and long-running television series, Star Trek. Fans of the series will be delighted to read about the adventures of Captain Kirk and other members of the perennial starship crew. Unfortunately, the average reader of the novel will be more than disappointed. Compared to other reading materials regarding complex theoretical physics, The Physics of Star Trek is easy to read. Unfortunately, if one does not have an interest for science, the book is a bore. Readers with average attention spans will quickly become disengaged with the novel. Its 251 pages are packed to the brim with information regarding complicated subjects such as wormholes, antimatter, the String Theory, dark matter, and quantum physics. While these subjects may at first be fascinating, Professor Krauss gives each subject such little time, causing fascination to be fleeting. While The Physics of Star Trek can be considered a valuable piece to any Trekkie's collection, most people will not be interested in this novel. It is too complex for the Everyman but too shallow for the Science Buff.