Home > Newsletter Archive > Newsletter #29
2. The Science of Star Trek
I love a good walk and a good mystery. So when the two come together, I'm as happy as a pig in mud. It happened like this. One of my dear friends Andrew "Dogs" Barker and his family were up here recently in Dundee for a couple of weeks. Dogs and I went to university together he a mathematician, I a physicist. He's helped me with ideas for several of my books and appears among the acknowledgments for "Equations of Eternity," and, more recently, "The Universal Encyclopedia of Mathematics," and we've enjoyed many a long ramble together among the Cumbrian fells, talking about higher dimensions, the paradoxes of time travel, and other subjects off the beaten track. There's plenty of good walking in the environs of Dundee, and we chose as our first objective Lundie Craigs, about five miles north of the city. It's a very atmospheric place, heather and bogs, windswept moor and small hidden lochs just where you might expect something unusual to turn up. And sure enough it did: frog spawn. Not any old frog spawn, floating in a pond. This stuff was nowhere near water. It was lying, high and dry, in the heather by the side of the path. The question was: how had it got there? By some curious meteorological event, like one of those freak whirlwinds that brings frogs and fish raining down out of a blue sky? Or perhaps by more sinister means of the X-files variety?
As it happens, the puzzle was cleared up sooner than either of us expected. Shortly after Dogs had returned home he e-mailed me with this message:
"In one of those peculiar coincidences I was reading Mathematics Today (the journal of the Institute of Mathematics and its Applications') on Thursday night and came across an article entitled 'View from the Pennines: The Poincare Conjecture'. This series, by Paul Glendinning of UMIST, is always topped and tailed by some moorland observation sometimes, and sometimes not, related to the maths in between."
Glendinning's observation on this occasion concerned "a pale translucent gel on the moors in the early summer." He goes on: "It is often on the pathways in relatively large quantities and does not seem to be attached to any plant or insect reproductive process that I can see. I have puzzled over this jelly for some years, and finally learned the explanation from New Scientist last summer. (ref The Last Word, 24th July 2004, p. 89)" After a discussion of the Poincare Conjecture, Glendding gets back to the jelly: "It is obvious that a frog is not large enough to hold frogspawn in the aqueous form that we see in ponds after they lay their eggs. It is held as mucus in the oviduct linings, and swells when in contact with water. If a fox or bird of prey eats the frog then the mucus expands (whether inside the predator is unclear!) forming the jelly I see on the moorland paths. In some cases this will contain the eggs of the frog, but more often than not the eggs are absent as spawning is not imminent."
So, as Dogs commented, "an explanation from the most unlikely of sources!"
I plan to mention the frog spawn incident on my next Coast-to-Coast radio appearance on May 17-18, starting at 11 pm Pacific Time. Incidentally, this has been put back from April 26 because of the new publication date for my latest book, Teleportation: the Impossible Leap, which is now mid-May. The book is all about the science of teleportation how it's being achieved in laboratories today, and how it might develop in the future, right up to and including human teleportation. But in the introduction I talk about all kinds of weird and wonderful ideas that people have had about objects and people mysteriously disappearing in one place and rematerializing somewhere else. In fact the word "teleportation" was coined by Charles Fort (of "fortean" fame) who believed it was some as-yet poorly understood force that acts between dimensions. I've no doubt that strange occurences of frog spawn feature somewhere in his annals of the unexplained!
And while on the theme of things beaming in where they're least expected let's go straight to our main topic for this newsletter . . .
2. The Science of Star Trek
Yes, it's true I'm a Trekker. A lot of scientists I know have been inspired to go into their profession by science fiction of one sort or another. My SF fare as a teenager consisted of heapings of Asimov, Bradbury, and Clarke, washed down with plenty of Star Trek and Dr. Who. And still being a kid at heart I continue to watch Trek episodes and films to this day. In fact, I draw a lot of inspiration from them for my books.
So, how much of the science in Star Trek is feasible or may come true? Since I've just written a book about teleportation and recently devoted a newsletter (#26) to it, I'll leave aside the famous transporter and its technological offshoot, the replicator. Those interested in these devices can get more information here:
One of the less credible aspects of Star Trek is the fantastic density of advanced life throughout the Galaxy that it portrays. Of course, it'd make for a very dull show and low ratings if every week they landed on a planet that was completely barren or inhabited at most by colonies of slime mold. Where would the fun be without all those antagonistic Vulcans, Klingons, and Romulans running around? But the ST universe seems to be absolutely heaving with complex and intelligent creatures. What's more a lot of them are just minor variants on the human form (understandably enough since human actors have to fit inside the alien suits and makeup!). For some thoughts on anthropomorphism in science and science fiction, see:
But you have to give Star Trek some credit for astrobiological imagination. It's come up with more than its fair share of exotic life-forms, including the silicon-based Horta, various noncorporeal entities, and an intelligent race descended from dinosaurs:
And even when the aliens are humanoid there's often something unusual about them. They may be telepathic:
They may, like Mr. Spock and his fellow Vulcans, have a completely different type and color of blood:
blood, of extraterrestrials
Or, they may be part human and part machine. Surely, in all science fiction there's never been a more terrifying adversary than the Borg. Founded on the notion of hive intelligence
its (or should it be "their") one goal is to assimilate to subjugate the individual and absorb it into the collective. The Borg episodes pit the best aspirations of democracy (as championed by the Federation) against the darkest fears of dispassionate communism on an extraterrestrial scale. And they represent the culmination of a well-trodden SF path that began with those Cold War SF novels and B movies about aliens that "took over" the minds of their victims. Could the Borg, or something like them, be out there in the Galaxy, waiting to make us part of their commune? I rather doubt it. Some kind of collective consciousness may lie in our future, but I suspect it will come about peacefully and gradually not as the result of being brutally turned into a nightmarish cyborg. For more thoughts on the possible character of ET, good or evil, see:
extraterrestrial intelligence, character of
Of course, some of the physics and astronomy in Star Trek is already real. The great battle between the Federation and the Borg took place near Wolf 359, which happens to be a red dwarf that's the third nearest star system to the Sun. Among the other factual stars mentioned on the show are Alpha Centauri, Deneb, and Rigel. Mr. Spock's home planet, Vulcan, apparently orbits the (real) star 40 Eridani. And while no planetary companions have yet been found around this star, it was suspected for a while that the Sun might have a tenth planet that moved inside the orbit of Mercury a hypothetical world that was called Vulcan:
Star Trek has its own science advisor, Andre Bormanis, whose job is to make sure the technobabble that fills the bits between the real dialogue has at least half a foot in the world of twenty-first century science. But that's not to say that new substances and particles can't be conjured up as the plot demands. Antimatter and neutronium both make regular appearances and are known to exist in reality:
On the other hand, there's no such thing (as far as we know!) as tetrion beams, omega molecules, or, that perpetual favorite resuscitation drug of the starship sickbay, anaprovaline.
A particularly intriguing piece of ST technology is the cloaking device, used by the Romulans and Klingons (and acquired by the Federation in the Deep Space Nine series to equip the battleship Defiant) to make their spacecraft invisible. Is such a thing possible? In a sense, "cloaking" is what camouflage is all about. Perfect camouflage means that you can look straight at something and not realize it's there. The problem with camouflage, though, is that it's hard to maintain once you start moving. Some amazing new stealth technology, originally developed in Japan, gives the illusion of seeing through an object by projecting on to a screen the view of what's being blocked. There's a neat photo of someone wearing a jacket with this technology here:
But this still isn't the same as invisibility. The only way to achieve that, it seems, is to bend light around an object -- presumably with a very powerful gravitational field so that you see the background directly without the object sitting in front of it. The trouble is, the bending field would have to be so powerful that whatever was generating it would probably end up disappearing down a black hole the ultimate cloaking device!
For more on the science of Star Trek, visit:
science of Star Trek
All contributions to this, or other areas of the on-line Encyclopedia of Astrobiology, Astronomy, and Spaceflight, are most welcome and will be fully credited if published.