Installment One of Physics in the 24th Century

Inspired by Norman Spinrad, see my post, and egged on by my friends, a mixed bag of computer scientists, software engineers, electrical engineers, physicists, mathematicians, and linguists, I have decided to take a close look at the science1 of one of the world’s most beloved franchises, Star Trek. I will rely on Memory Alpha to keep me on the Star Trek canon. I will reject anything not in canon as apocrypha, even if it is in Memory Alpha. I do not want to be distracted by side notes, dreams or alternate universes.

Just keep in mind, I, like everyone else, loved Star Trek in the 60s, 70s and 80s and attended not only Comic-Con2, but also Star Trek conventions. I remember, at one convention, missing the first ever showing of The Cage, which I eventually saw, but seeing an advanced screening of The Questor Tapes. Let me be clear, I am a big fan. No, I am a mega fan. I narrowly avoided3 the fate that David Gerrold describes in his blog post, “How criticism destroys enjoyment and how get past it.”

This is my first installment and a brief introduction into this topic. Enjoy. On with the show, then!

Remember the first new Star Trek movie? Scottie at one point says4, when Spock gives him the equations for ship to ship transportation, “Imagine that! It never occurred to me to think of SPACE as the thing that was moving!”

Well, if he never thought of space as moving, then he surely could not have studied warp mechanics, or whatever they call studying warp drives. Because if their warp technology is anything like the Alcubierre drive or any engine where space is warped, it’s space that’s moving, not the ship. As a matter of fact, if done right, the ship, at least to the observers on board it, travels to its destination instantaneously.

The Alcubierre drive preserves Einstein’s second postulate of special relativity. If Einstein’s postulate is not preserved, then at best what you are reading or watching is Science Fantasy. At its worst it is Fantasy in Science Fiction drag5.

1. First postulate (principle of relativity)

The laws by which the states of physical systems undergo change are not affected, whether these changes of state be referred to the one or the other of two systems of coordinates in uniform translatory motion. OR: The laws of physics are the same in all inertial frames of reference.

2. Second postulate (invariance of c)

As measured in any inertial frame of reference, light is always propagated in empty space with a definite velocity c that is independent of the state of motion of the emitting body. OR: The speed of light in free space has the same value c in all inertial frames of reference.

Oops. They should have looked that one up. It’s always space that moves because space does not have a speed limit. Now, mind you, the idea of warping space has been around long before Star Trek. Star Trek just used the most popular FTL drive out there in science fiction, a warp drive. So, in the original series, we can forgive this even though by the 60s Einstein’s postulates were well known. (Star Trek inspired Alcubierre after all.) But should we forgive this in the new shows? Anything after 1994 should have included this.

As a matter of fact, I just read a short story in which “The Empire” engineered fast-space areas. Now that’s science fiction! Of course, once in a fast-space area, you’re in it till the end because you cannot stop or steer, or in anyway control the ship. The same would apply to Star Trek. (There go space battles and warp speed rescue operations.) And yet the Enterprise can maneuver while using the warp drive. They can call for help. What type of warp drive, then, are they using? Surely not a space warping drive.

To solve this problem, we have to assume that the ship is not traveling in normal space but in some sort of hyperspace where the laws of physics of our universe do not apply6. Then, in order to communicate with a starbase or with other ships also moving at warp speeds, we cannot rely on normal light speed radio waves. No! We have to create yet another space, subspace, and technology to go with it, subspace radio. It just snowballs from there.

Physicists, you may now weigh in.

I will continue the series by looking at other aspects of Star Trek not from a classical point of view but from a quantum mechanical and quantum computational point of view. I will then transition from physics to genetics and take a look at one of Star Trek’s most beloved episodes. Then, just when everyone becomes sick of Star Trek, I will switch over to briefly talk about something else: the Passive Frame Theory, a theory of consciousness and cognition7.

1.NB: I am not a physicist or a mathematician, though I did play one in grad school. (I had work-study at the Institute of Theoretical Physics at SUNY Stony Brook.) My two biggest claims to fame in theoretical physics is that my brother Randy, a preeminent east Asian linguist, was friends with Tu Chih-Li, and I taught Barry McCoy how to juggle. However, I did have a conference paper published in space sciences, a study of the Van Allen belt and other near earth phenomena.

2. I collected. I was and still am a comic book fanatic even though I, sob, sold my collection. Where were you when I needed you Lord Eccles?

3. Though, for awhile there, my wife would not go out to dinner with me because of my running commentary. That’s all over with.

4. I will also be relying on IMDB for my quotes. See IMDB.

5. Unless, of course, you just wrote a paper that challenges and changes physics as we know it.

6. Even though we see still see the stars as if we are in the normal universe.

7. This will be a refreshing change since this is a topic I know something about. I will look at the theory from the stand point of psychology, neurology and linguists and through the lens of pre-attentive vision. (See “A psychologically implausible architecture that is always conscious, always active.” Mark Vincent LaPolla and Bernard J. Baars. Behavioral and Brain Sciences. 1992 Sep;15(3):448-9. doi: 10.1017/S0140525X00069582. Also see “Consciousness creates access: Conscious goal images recruit unconscious action routines, but goal competition serves to “liberate” such routines, causing predictable slips” Bernard J. Baars, M. R. Fehling, M. LaPolla & Katharine A. McGovern In Jonathan D. Cohen & Jonathan W. Schooler (eds.), Scientific Approaches to Consciousness. Lawrence Erlbaum (1997))


  • Mike LaPolla says:

    Very nicely done! Exquisite! I’ve always had a problem perceiving warping space within the context of space. It’s like contracting a section of sponge for quick travel while the infinite sponge shape remains undaunted in totality.

    The movement of space is another tough one for me. The universe in my mind is all-encompassing, not in a bubble with a border edge. I can envision it however as the ocean with areas of stillness with speed variations within sectional movement, but in a never-ending universal container.

    • Mark LaPolla says:

      Thanks, Mike. You could think of folded space-time as waves on the ocean propelling a boat. A better analogy might just be tracing a pencil on a piece of paper. If you fold the paper up in an accordion, it becomes half, quarter, one tenth the size and more easy and faster to traverse with your pencil because there is less paper. The paper is the same size, you’re just bunching it up. Even if the paper were an infinite plane, you could conceivably fold a local part of the plane. I think of it as drawing circles on a contour map. The close the circles are draw, the less traveling you have to do. You’ll see on the next post. Installment two. Thanks for the comment.

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