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Zero Gravity

Top Ten Star Trek Science Bloopers

By Lawrence Krauss

  1. In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream. The promo for "Alien" got it right, but Star Trek usually doesn't. Sound waves DO NOT travel in empty space! Yet when a space station orbiting the planet Tanuga IV blows up, from our vantage point aboard the Enterprise we hear it as well as see it. What's worse, we hear it _at the same time_ as we see it. Even if sound waves could travel in space, which they can't, the speed of a pressure wave such as sound is generally orders of magnitude smaller than the speed of light.
  2. Faster Than a Speeding Phaser. The Voyager episode "The Phage" involves an attempt to beat a phaser beam. Phasers are, we are told, directed energy weapons. If phasers are pure energy and not particle beams, as the Star Trek technical manual states, the beams must move at the speed of light. No matter how fast one moves, one can never move out of the way of an oncoming phaser beam. Why? Because in order to know it is coming, you have to first see the gun being fired. But the light that allows you to see this travels at the same speed as the beam. It is impossible to know it is going to hit you until it hits you.
  3. If the Plot Isn't Cracked, Maybe the Event Horizon Is. In the same episode, a "crack" in the event horizon of a black hole saves the day for the Voyager. The event horizon around a black hole is not a physical entity, but rather a location inside of which all trajectories remain inside the hole. It is a property of curved space that the trajectory of anything, including light, will bend back toward the hole once you are inside a certain radius. Either the event horizon exists, in which a black hole exists, or it doesn't. There is no middle ground big enough to slip a needle through, much less the Voyager.
  4. How Solid a Guy is the Doctor? There is a wonderful Voyager scene in which a patient asks the holographic doctor how he can be solid if he is only a hologram. The doctor answers by turning off a "magnetic confinement beam" to show that without it he is as noncorporeal as a mirage. He then orders the beam turned back on, so that he can slap the poor patient around. Magnetic confinement works wonders for charged particles, which experience a force in a constant magnetic field that causes them to move in circular orbits. However, light is not charged. It experiences no force in a magnetic field. Since a hologram is no more than a light image, neither is the doctor.
  5. To Interphase, or Not To Interphase? In the Next Generation episode "Phantasms," invisible interphase insects invade the Enterprise by clinging to the bodies of the crew. However, if they could observe the Enterprise from their "phase," they could interact with light, an electromagnetic wave. By Newton's First Law, they should in turn have been visible. In order to see or sense light, you have to absorb it. By absorbing light, you must disturb it. If you disturb light, you must be visible to someone else. Similarly, the force that allows them to rest on normal matter without going through it is nothing other than electromagnetism the electrostatic repulsion between the charged particles making up the atoms in one body with the atoms in another body. And once you interact electromagnetically, you are part of our world.
  6. Sweeping Out the Baby with the Bathwater. In the Next Generation episode "Starship Mine," the Enterprise docks at the Remmler array to have a "baryon sweep". It seems that these particles build up on starship superstructures as a result of long-term travel at warp speed, and must be removed. The only stable baryons are protons and neutrons in atomic nuclei. Since these make up everything we see, ridding the Enterprise of them wouldn't leave much of it for future episodes.
  7. How Cold is Cold? Another gaffe involves an object's being frozen to a temperature of -295 degrees Celsius. This is a very exciting discovery, because on the Celsius scale, absolute zero is -273 degrees. Absolute zero is the lowest tempeature anything can potentially attain, because it is defined as the temperature at which all molecular and atomic motions, vibbrations and rotations cease. Since temperature is associated with molecular and atomic motion, you can never get less than no motion at all; hence, even 400 years from now, absolute zero will still be absolute.
  8. I Have Seen the Light! Whenever the Enterprise shoots a phaser beam, we see it. But of course this is impossible unless the phaser itself emits light in all directions. Light is not visible unless it reflects off something. Thus, unless empty space is particularly dusty, we shouldn't see the laser beam except where it hits.
  9. Astronomers Get Picky. A NASA scientist pointed out an error I had missed. It is generally standard starship procedure to move into geosynchronous orbit around planets. Thus, the ship should remain above the same place on the planet's surface, jusst as geosynchronous weather satellites do on Earth. Nevertheless, when the Enterprise is shown orbiting a planet it is usually moving against the background of the planet's surface.
  10. Those Darned Neutrinos. In an episode of Deep Space Nine, Quark has gotten hold of a machine that alters the laws of probability in its vicinity. One can imagine how useful this would be at his gambling tables. The ruse is discovered, however, by Dax, who happens to analyze the neutrino flux through the space station. To her surprise, she finds that all the neutrinos are coming through left-handed. The neutrinos that spin in the opposite direction seem to be missing. Of all the phenomena the Star Trek writers could have chosen to uncover Quark's shenanigans, they managed to pick one that is actually true. As far as we know, neutrinos are only left-handed. They are the only known particles in nature that apparently can exist in only one spin state.

    Sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction.

    Adapted from "The Physics of Star Trek", by Lawrence M. Krauss (New York: Harper Collins/BasicBooks, 1995, pp. 162-172.


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Editor: Barrett H. Ripin