By Ben P. Stein
The Physics of Star Trek, by Lawrence M. Krauss [New York, Basic Books, 1995]
Arguably the most successful science-fiction "enterprise" of the 20th century, "Star Trek" has captured the imaginations of millions since it premiered as a television series in 1966. As we watch the crew of the Starship Enterprise encounter life on other planets and try to get along with alien species, we begin to see why Gene Roddenberry's "Wagon Train to the Stars" has spawned three additional TV series, seven movies, and a devoted, hard-core fan base. Star Trek gets us to think about a future for the human race that is filled with hope and potential. It also taps into the peculiarly American brand of optimism. From episode to episode, Captains Kirk and Picard navigate the Enterprise and its crew out of seemingly intractable situations using their ingenuity and resourcefulness.
But how many things in the Star Trek universe are actually possible, based on our current understanding of the world? This is ostensibly the premise of physicist Lawrence Krauss's latest book, The Physics of Star Trek. However, the mission of the book goes deeper than this. A professor of physics at Case Western Reserve University, Krauss uses the book as an opportunity to introduce the readers to many of the exciting ideas in modern physics and cosmology. I was very impressed with the breadth of topics that Krauss covers in this book. He discusses not only the subjects directly relevant to Star Trek, such as wormholes and time travel, but brings in less-obvious topics such as holograms, solitons, and physicists' attempts to create the exotic state of matter known as the quark-gluon plasma.
Krauss is very talented at performing entertaining back-of-the-envelope calculations to argue why certain Star Trek inventions might be implausible. For instance, he discusses how much fuel the Enterprise would need in its nuclear-fusion-powered impulse engines to accelerate to sub-light speeds: Krauss calculates that it would need to burn 81 times its entire mass in hydrogen fuel to get up to that speed.
Indeed, much of Star Trek physics barely gets off the ground even with Isaac Newton's 17th-century science. Krauss points out that even if the Enterprise were able to travel at faster-than-light-speeds, its acceleration from 0 to Warp 10 in several seconds of air time would pulverize the entire ship because of the tremendous forces involved.
Still, the Star Trek writers are very creative in imagining possibilities that go beyond apparent limitations in science. Krauss explores the Enterprise's warp drive, which allows the Enterprise to travel between galaxies in minutes without either violating restrictions on faster-than-light speed travel or by expending enormous amounts of fuel. According to the series, the Enterprise traverses large distances by warping spacetime: expanding the space behind it and contracting the space in front of it. This allows Krauss to talk about Einstein's general theory of relativity, in which the presence of mass curves spacetime and can hypothetically allow this to happen.
In addition, the bending of spacetime could conceivably be used to deflect enemy fire from other ships. But Krauss points out that the energy requirements for significantly warping spacetime are phenomenally high: an object as massive as the Sun, he points out, produces a -gra-vitational field that bends light by only 1/1000 of a degree. Transporters are out, Krauss argues, because even if one were able to read and write the enormous amounts of information that constitute a human being, one would have to contend with the fundamental limits in knowledge prescribed by the uncertainty principle in quantum mechanics.
A discussion of matter-antimatter fuel allows Krauss to launch into an interesting history of antimatter research_ and the lingering mystery of why we are made of matter instead of antimatter. A description of the Holodeck_the room on the Enterprise that creates a living, breathing virtual reality environment_leads to an explanation of holograms. Krauss's section on time travel gives him ample opportunity to describe Einstein's special theory of relativity, and ideas for making time machines with such theoretical exotica as wormholes. An exploration of the possibility of life on other planets brings Krauss to discuss how different types of stars evolve from birth to death, and how volcanic activity in the early days of the Earth created our atmosphere.
While Krauss very generously sprinkles many of the latest and deepest ideas in physics throughout the text, many of his explanations are confusing even after a second or third read. For example, he introduces the notion of "negative energy" which would be needed to keep wormholes open or to warp spacetime. He mentions that "negative energy" has something to do with the way in which black holes can lose energy, but the general concept could definitely have been spelled out a bit more clearly.
Another quibble is that Krauss is clearly first a physicist, and second a Star Trek fan. From all indications, Krauss had taken a crash course in Star Trek prior to writing this book. While the text is liberally sprinkled with examples of Star Trek episodes and movie scenes, it is done without any great passion for the series. Perhaps it would have been better if Krauss had a Trekkie co-author, someone who could have added more enthusiasm for the show, or perhaps even debated some of Krauss's conclusions. However, in fairness, Krauss is not dismissive of any ideas in Star Trek until after carefully analyzing them.
Krauss acknowledges that he does not exhaust all of the physics topics that can be discussed in connection with Star Trek. He even suggests that a sequel, which he wants to call Star Trek II: The Wrath of Krauss. However, I would suggest that before he sets out to do this, a second edition of the book be prepared to clarify some of the confusing sections. Even in its present form, however, The Physics of Star Trek successfully shows that the ideas in physics can be just as exciting and bizarre as those in science fiction.
Ben Stein is a science writer in AIP's Public Information Division.
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