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Issue 03/10/11 - Vol. 42, Issue 09

Star Trek - Then and Now
by Kent Ballard

I've always been a Star Trek fan. I had a book about the making of Star Trek (the original series) which was written after the series was canceled and before the first Trek movie came out. This was during the time period where the show exploded in popularity while in syndication. There was a great deal of talk in that book about the scientific possibilities of some of the more unusual devices they portrayed on the show, and interviews with a few scientists who said they did not appear to violate the laws of physics and were therefore (remotely) possible to build someday. I forget the exact date of it, but the book came out sometime in the 1970's.

One of the cable networks produced a show in the early 2000's called "How William Shatner Changed The World." Who else would they have to host it? William Shatner, playing himself, was a riot in the show, claiming for all practical intents and purposes that he WAS Captain James T. Kirk and therefore should be given a percentage of the profits for all the Star Trek-type devices now being studied or manufactured around the world. He was a hoot in the show. His combined outrageous bragging and self-mocking sense of humor often reminded me of Groucho Marx at his best.

One scene showed him driving a hot rod convertible down some Hollywood street, bragging and boasting and generally taking credit for everything from the USS Enterprise to the wild green women portrayed on the series, while explaining to the audience that more of their props were being investigated by science and more were actually going into production every day.

No one gives it a second thought now, but back in the day when you'd see someone reach into a pocket, pull out a small rectangular device, flip it with his wrist, and when the hinged lid opened begin talking, you knew PRECISELY where you'd seen that action twenty years earlier. The size, shape, and operation of flip cell phones was indistinguishable from the many times we'd seen Shatner do that on Star Trek.

During the TV special, Shatner interviewed people in colleges, manufacturing R&D centers, DAPRA, and the military on some of the props used in the old 1960's series that were currently being studied for development into real-world devices. Some of the most humorous moments were when he was told they were researching some mind-blowing prop or plot device in one of his old shows. He'd look at them with wide eyes and say, paraphrased, "You...you think this thing is really POSSIBLE? Are you people crazy? You watch too much science fiction! Didn't you ever go out on a date when you were a kid?"
There were a couple of times when Shatner seemed genuinely curious about some development, and asked pointed questions about the progress of the research into it. A few of the people he spoke to said they really couldn't say much more about it, because it was a corporate secret. Shatner never batted an eye. In a deeply serious tone he said, "You can tell me. I have a top-level Starfleet Command security clearance." Everyone broke up, but he got no more information from those folks.

That cable special is now nearly ten years old. But science fiction is still becoming science fact. The book, "The Making Of Star Trek" told how agents from U.S. Naval Intelligence once appeared at DesiLu Studios, the makers of the original series, and showed all their badges and paperwork and politely asked to be escorted to the bridge set of the USS Enterprise. Once there, they photographed the entire set from many different angles, took measurements with tape measures, asked a few strange questions, then left without giving a word of explanation why they were there. This apparently freaked out everyone until Gene Roddenberry came up with an idea--they were interested in the bridge design for possible future U.S. warships. Ships that were still more dreams than reality.

There are now strong rumors that the bridge of the USN nuclear attack submarine "Seawolf"--and possbily others--would look very familiar to any Star Trek fan. No huge surprise there, really. It's actually a very logical layout. (No Spock pun intended.)

In the 1990's weapons developers were working on particle beams as part of the Strategic Missile Defense Initiative program. One of the serious problems they encountered was called "blooming," where the beam would hit a target and the scattering of the particle beam would then "bloom" outward, stopping the entire beam from hitting the target and generally rendering it ineffective. Several researchers pointed out that if they timed--or "phased"--the particle beam to shoot in extremely brief bursts, like a machine gun, this blooming could be overcome and they'd have a dandy weapon after all. It never worked out that way in reality--or so they said. And no publication released to the press ever dared use the word "phaser." But it's rumored to have been the common working term inside the R&D centers during testing. So what do we have now?

The dreaded "heat ray" crowd dispersal weapon mounted on Humvees that can fire invisible rays to heat human skin to intolerable temperatures, breaking up any riot or advancing crowd. According to the military, the effects are not long-lasting. In fact, a reporter from CBS's "60 Minutes" volunteered to be shot by the thing. He ran away yelping, but as soon as he got out of the beam he was fine--although apparently scared half out of his wits.

If you know history, someday they'll crank up the power in that thing and be able to fry people in their tracks, or to heat tanks and aircraft until they explode. Not exactly a direct link to Star Trek, but an example of research and development into energy weapons. And Star Trek offered us a wide variety of them. The children and young people of the late 1960's saw these. Then they went on to become physicists and engineers ... and they remembered.

Do you recall the little plastic squares that Capt. Kirk would plug into the arm rest of his seat to record his log entries? They became the "hard" floppy discs we all used in our computers for years. They're now obsolete. In fact, when "The Making Of Star Trek" interviewed the writers of the series, one universal gripe they had was that they were barely able to keep ahead of current technology, let alone try to portray what our technology would be like in 250 years. The book told of angry letters from the attorneys of more than one Fortune 500 company wanting to know who leaked the information to Desilu Studios and/or NBC concerning highly-secret projects they were actually working on. Among these were the beds in the Enterprise's sick bay where the bed itself monitored heartbeat, respiration, and other vital life signs by merely laying a patient on it.
The US Navy is also busily making a horrendously powerful new type of laser designed to blow incoming missiles and aircraft out of the sky at the speed of light, at long ranges and in all weather conditions. "Wired" magazine said they have one already, a much weaker development model, that is far too large to put on a ship, and requires many times the power any current ship could deliver--but the one they're working towards will theoretically burn through 22 FEET of solid steel in one second. All they have to do now is scale it down and work on the power systems, which, of course, could take years. This is in addition to their parallel research into electromagnetic "rail guns," another device first mentioned in science fiction, which can fire a "shell" (actually a rod) with such velocity that explosive warheads aren't even needed. The rod flies so unimaginably fast that sheer kinetic energy destroys the target. The top speed they're trying to obtain is classified, but some physicists have pointed out that such a gun could probably fire a rod into earth orbit if so desired. The Navy is working its way up to this. The "baby" model they have now can shoot through reinforced concrete several feet thick.

You'd think all this was a great return from a TV science fiction program from over forty years ago that never had the budget to do everything they wanted. But it doesn't stop there. Gene Roddenberry did not have the budget for the special effects required to show the Enterprise landing on the surface of a planet. That's why his idea of a "transporter beam" came about. And yes, quantum mechanics allows this, but in a strange way. Physicists claim to have already "teleported" a single photon from one place to another. Like everything else concerning quantum mechanics, the math and science involved would stagger any average man or woman. But if they can do that now, what will another twenty years bring? Or maybe even ten years?
There appears to be no subject in the Star Trek "canon" so far-fetched (or shall we say silly?) that someone, somewhere is not looking into it. The R&D budgets for Star Trek technology are easily in the billions of dollars. And slowly but surely, they're making headway. I knew about some of these projects from merely surfing the Internet, and dismissed others as mere foolishness. No way would humans control that kind of technology. Not now, maybe not even in three hundred years. But being the curious sort, I decided to do a little research. Handsome, intrepid reporters do that on TV, and I figured I could at least copy them on the research part of it. I couldn't match the handsome part.

For instance, take the goofy idea of a "tractor beam." They'd shoot a big whizbang flashlight at some multi-ton object and draw it in closer to the Enterprise. We've known for decades that light pressure could PUSH an object. Solar sails are the development from this understanding. But to PULL an object with light is sheer fantasy, right? Yeah, sure. Except that "optical tweezers" have been in use for some time now. They focus a particular type of laser beam on a very tiny object and are able to move it around. Now researchers in Hong Kong and China have announced that a different kind of laser beam, one which is known as a "Bessel beam" can be used to pull something towards the laser! No one has made a working model of this yet, and the power and range are extremely limited--for now. But it's breakthrough research and sooner or later...well, if you want to know more, visit BBC News at http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-12620560

Okay, I thought, what about "replicators?" Those were the gizmos on Star Trek that appeared merely as a door. The cast would walk up to one and say "Chicken soup, hot" and the door would open to reveal a nice bowl of chicken soup. Ridiculous. Except I've seen the great granddaddy of a Star Trek replicator. Was I given a tour of Lockheed's Skunk Works, or the Army's Aberdeen Proving Grounds? NASA? Boeing? Nope. I saw it in a high school.

They call it a 3D printer. Students studying CAD-CAM (Computer Assisted Design and Computer Assisted Manufacturing) would use ordinary desktop computers to "draw" a blueprint, then feed it electronically into the 3D printer. This was no ordinary printer. Instead of ink, it held a form of powdered plastic. As the jets moved back and forth, like an inkjet printer, they sprayed tiny layers of this self-adhering plastic with each pass. But like a regular printer, it would only spray where it had been programed to spray with pretty impressive accuracy. The kids were making gears, platforms that later contained printed levers, wheels, all sorts of things. None of them were very strong, and all of the objects were fairly small, maybe the size of your hand.

But this technology is advancing by leaps and bounds. They're experimenting with a form of printed liquid steel. Liquid forms of aluminum, powdered and held in suspension by unique fluids. If it became a high national priority, I believe we could develop one that would make a bowl of hot chicken soup in ten years. Maybe half that. So I knew I'd have to go REALLY far out to find a "Star Trek technology" I could make fun of.

Okay, let's see ... Oh! What about the scenes in Star Trek TV episodes and movies where a hole is torn in the hull of a starship, but the shields held the air in? Preposterous! But just to make sure, I looked into it. And it turned out I'd have to eat that word.

Ever hear about U.S. Patent 5,578,831? Me either. It's called a Plasma Window. With current technology, they can hold up to nine atmospheres of air pressure. They're being used all over
the place in electron beam welding, because while it can hold air back, it can allow radiation to pass through. This includes lasers and electron beams. You can make your own, if you're a tinkerer, by cutting a hole in a pipe and filling it with plasma held in place by magnetic fields. The plasma window will arrange itself as a square plate over the hole in the cylinder. And that sucker will hold in ordinary air pressure, and nine times more.

This led me to thinking about shields in general. Early science fiction writers called them "force fields." This time before I made up several merry wisecracks to mock the idea, I checked first. Good thing I did.

In November 2008, the scientific journal "Plasma Physics and Controlled Fusion" printed a paper by British and Portuguese researchers who were working on the problem of shielding astronauts during long missions from hard radiation and other sub-atomic junk that zips through space and can cut a DNA helix like a scalpel. Many thought this was the greatest hurdle to a manned mission to Mars. We might be able to get them there and back, but they'd soon die from cancer or other disorders due to exposure to high radiation. On Earth, our magnetosphere deflects these nasty things and we needn't worry about them. Outer space is a different matter. Everyone knew they could haul up heavy lead radiation shielding, or maybe huge tanks of water, but the cost of that would be mind-boggling, more than the entire rest of the mission.

They figured on creating a "mini-magnetosphere." At first they took the shotgun approach and thought about mounting such a device inside the ship where it could draw power and generate an artificial magnetosphere hundreds of miles across. But such a device would be large, heavy, and draw enormous amounts of power, power that the ship couldn't spare. They rechecked their calculations, did some wonderful imagining with the help of an old TV series, and came up with the idea of sending a separate, independent "satellite" to fly alongside the manned Mars ship which would create a sufficient magnetosphere much smaller, hundreds of yards instead of hundreds of miles across, and that would be independently powered by solar panels. The whole shielding "satellite" would draw a fraction of the power of a telecommunications satellite. "The idea is really like in 'Star Trek,'" said Bob Bingham of the UK's Rutherford Appleton Laboratory, "when Scotty turns on a shield to protect the starship Enterprise from proton beams--it's almost identical, really." They've already applied for patents.

Great news for astronauts. Lousy news for a frustrated writer sitting on some good one-liners. And there's more still.

The University of Washington at Seattle is working on the idea of surrounding a spacecraft with a plasma shield held in place by a superconducting mesh. They're already fiddling with models of it. And there are possibilities with superpowerful magnets, the kind the mad scientists over in Nottingham, England, use to levitate strawberries and living frogs. That's known as Diamagnetic Levitation, and you can watch them do it on YouTube. Just go to the search engine and type in--what else?--"Levitating Frog." I don't know if there's still a Sheriff of Nottingham, but someone had better keep an eye on those people.

My patience battered, I decided to go directly for the Big One, the one thing that could bring down Star Trek technology and prove that we writers still hold the upper hand, that we can still dream of things they will never do in a lab. Or a space dock. The whole deal boiled down to one simple question.

What about the outrageous idea of traveling much, much faster than the speed of light? Einstein proved that to move an object even to 99.999% of the speed of light would require more energy than is contained in the entire universe. No one, and I mean no one, questions this. Pretty much knocks THAT idea in the head, doesn't it?

Well ... no, not exactly.

In 1994, Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed a "warp bubble" that would side-step Einstein's law. The general idea would be to shorten the fabric of space in front of a starship and lengthen the fabric of space behind it. The ship would ride this "bubble" like a surfer rides a wave. At superluminal (faster than light) speeds within this "bubble," many of the effects of Einstein's Special Theory of Relativity simply do not occur. There are no freakish effects with time dilation, for one. A clock aboard a ship traveling inside a warp bubble would show the same time constantly as one left behind on Earth even though it was moving through space many times the speed of light. There would also be no crushing acceleration felt by the crew. The inertia of accelerating to "warp whatever" would not exist in the warp drive bubble. (Maybe this explains one of the great mysteries of Star Trek--why no seat belts?)

No one has the slightest clue how to develop a mechanism that could warp space itself--yet. We writers are still holding them at bay there. But those children of the 1960's--and beyond--all share a commonality between physicists and engineers. When they discover that something is possible, they sink their teeth into it and hang on like a pit bull until they figure out the problem. It would be very foolish to simply laugh at the idea of Warp Drive today. And before you throw your hands up and call the men in the white coats to chase me down with butterfly nets, you can see the mathematics and read a much more detailed description at Wikipedia. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Alcubierre_drive

And if you can understand THAT level of math, all I can ask you is: Didn't you ever go out on dates when you were a kid?
About The Author
There are those who say Kent Ballard must have come from another planet.  He is more than capable of telling tall tales, but he also is outstanding at researching and taking those facts he has gleaned and telling a rather fascinating story.

Regular readers will remember his “Last Flight,” and “The Blind Hill,” among others.  Both very powerful, very moving stories.

Kent and his bride, Tess, live somewhere in Indiana, on their 70 acre estate, which is covered with trees.  Occasionally, we persuade him to hunker down and write us an article.  More to come . . . we hope.