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Science of the Future

Star Trek
Elliott Marks

Data Point: The Borg investigate the biophysics of Data in "Star Trek: First Contact."

Lawrence M. Krauss talks about the physics of 'Star Trek'

By Richard von Busack

One of the more burning questions facing the scientist of today is "How do they do all of that stuff on Star Trek?" Physicist Lawrence M. Krauss' The Physics of Star Trek (HarperCollins; $10) is an unauthorized and yet authoritative text, an easy-to-comprehend musing on the technology of the year 2400.

For those of us who can barely understand the physics of our own checking accounts, Krauss explains the basics of modern physics cleanly and briefly. Far from holding up the Star Trek franchise to the derision it occasionally deserves, he gives these imaginary builders of the future the benefit of the doubt.

Is a warp drive possible? "The answer is a resounding 'maybe,' " Krauss offers, explaining that the "space-time shenanigans" of the Enterprise have a basis in observed science. Photon torpedoes aren't really made out of photons; the transporter room is more of a technical challenge than even the warp drive itself; holograms can't pick up objects.

Krauss, however, seems fairly enthralled by the rest of the show, demonstrating the love behind the critical impulse. You can shudder at Kirk's famous split infinitive ("To boldy go where no man ...") while still falling under the spell of Shatner's bewitching thespianing.

The professor is also the author of Fear of Physics, which has been translated into 12 languages. Krauss will appear April 9 at Flint Center in Cupertino.


Metro: Though I've only seen a couple of dozen of all of the episodes of the franchise (and all of the movies), I feel a deep sentimental longing that we could some how rig the laws of space and time to go visit all of those planets--or even that the human race could survive into the 2400s, despite its present conduct. Do you wish that the things that happen in Star Trek were true?

Krauss: Of course! I think that is what makes Star Trek so popular. It is about the marvelous possibilities in the universe. Moreover, it presents a hopeful view of the future--something which is increasingly rare. Star Trek shows us a future where science has helped contribute to the elevation of the human spirit. And on the whole, I think it does, which is one reason why it was reasonable to write a book called The Physics of Star Trek. The other is that physics is about the possibilities in the universe, just as Star Trek is. And I would love to soar through the galaxy meeting extraterrestrials, even though I know it is not going to happen.

Metro: Would you even describe yourself as a Trekkie?

Krauss: Well, I never dressed up in a uniform or anything, but I did watch the series growing up--as did almost all physicists I know, by the way. I didn't watch much Star Trek in recent years, simply because I don't watch TV very much. However, to write the book, I watched every episode of the classic show and The Next Generation again. And I must say, even when I could have fast-forwarded through the episodes to get at what I wanted to see, I usually didn't. I guess that makes me a Trekkie, although the new PC term is Trekker.

Metro: Would you say that one of the good things about Star Trek is that it's made a lot of people who might have been led into pastoral, anti-technical fantasy interested in the possibilities of technology instead?

Krauss: Well, I don't know whether I would go that far. I doubt that a TV show can convert people. Rather, it just usually reinforces some notions or tendencies that one already may have, but I think that science fiction like Star Trek does give people an outlet for their imaginations, and it helps turn young people on to thinking about the possibilities of technology. In that sense, it is a good thing. It is also fun.

Real-World Science Fiction

Metro: On the other hand, since seeing is so often believing, does Star Trek harm by advancing dodgy science?

Krauss: Well, probably. The main problem is that it makes everything look too easy. Whenever they are presented with a problem, they solve it by the end of the episode. In real life, people spend decades trying to solve such problems. This makes people a little impatient with real-world science, I suppose. But as I always try and remind people, Star Trek is science fiction, and I think most people recognize that fact, and don't confuse it with reality.

Metro: Have any of the Trek fans accused you of taking the show too literally?

Krauss: Absolutely not! I have been very pleased with the reaction of fans. One of the first letters I got was from a fan who said he had been waiting 30 years to buy a Star Trek book in the science-fact section of a bookstore. I think what people appreciate is that I didn't write a book which said, "This won't happen, this won't happen, etc." Rather than say something in Star Trek is impossible, I tried to relate it to something in the real world that isn't.

Metro: Considering the vast expenditure of energy it takes to cross space, would the cost of traveling to and from Earth be prohibitive enough to keep space aliens from coming here and enslaving us? I know that sounds like a stupid question, but some of the people who write me letters will sleep better at night after hearing an opinion from an expert.

Krauss: Yes.

Metro: What did you think of the last Star Trek movie, First Contact?

Krauss: I liked it. I thought it was good drama. But frankly, I was a little disappointed in the Borg, who were made less terrifying in the movie than they are in the show. I think they were one of the best alien creations ever, and realistic, too.

Metro: Is it a mathematical law that the even-numbered Trek movies are always better than the odd-numbered ones?

Krauss: As for mathematical laws, I usually prefer more than eight data points before generalizing.

Metro: If Newton's law has it that for every action there's an equal and opposite reaction, why doesn't William Shatner's overacting draw a reaction from Leonard Nimoy?

Krauss: It did, but offscreen.


Lawrence M. Krauss speaks April 9 at 7pm at Flint Center, De Anza College, 21250 Stevens Creek Blvd., Cupertino. The lecture is part of a series presented by the Tech Museum of Innovation. Tickets are $29. (BASS or 408/864-8816).

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