The Science of Star Trek

December 13, 2002

Star Trek: Nemesis, opening today in the United States, features alien species at every turn, enemy ships vaporizing in bursts of light and space ships traveling at "warp speed."

In the 24th century it all makes perfect sense—and also in the 21st. That's partly because Star Trek, from its first incarnation as a U.S. television series in 1966, has relied on real, or at least plausible, science for verisimilitude.

"One of the keys to the success of Star Trek is the fact that it is grounded in scientific credibility," says Andre Bormanis, a writer for UPN's Enterprise—the fifth Star Trek television series—who has a master's degree in science policy from George Washington University in Washington, D.C.

Now, though, science fiction and fact have thoroughly commingled as scientists pursue advances in alternative energy sources, artificial intelligence, cloning and interstellar travel.

"Is it real science? I'm not sure," says Brent Spiner, who plays the android Lt. Commander Data in Nemesis, and who helped write the script. "They do research and try to get as close to reality as they can. But I don't know that we're 'beaming' yet, are we?"

Beaming and Warp Speed

"Beaming," or teleportation, means to atomize something (or somebody) in one place for reassembly in another. Physicists in Austria, Australia, Denmark, the United Kingdom and the U.S. all claim to have achieved some form of teleportation, by "beaming" photons, or particles of light, from one point to another.

"Warp speed," another Star Trek mainstay, may not be so far-fetched, either.

A space opera needs speed, Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry realized. For example, Proxima Centauri, the sun's nearest stellar neighbor, is more than four years away even when traveling at the speed of light—approximately 186,411 miles per second—way too slow for an hour-long show based on interstellar exploration.

But Einstein's Theory of Relativity states that nothing travels faster than light. So Star Trek's writers invented "warp speed." By stretching out the space behind the spaceship and compressing the space in front, "warp speed" actually brings the destination closer, making it unnecessary to travel faster than the speed of light.

"Scientists have debated whether warp travel is theoretically possible," says astrophysicist David Batchelor of NASA's Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Maryland, who has been watching Star Trek since the series began. "It would require inconceivable amounts of energy to expand and contract even small regions of the universe."

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