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The Science of Star Trek
At Best Computer Science Degrees, we thought it would be fun to take a look at the science and technology behind Star Trek. In this infographic, we analyze the scientific plausibility of various aspects of the Star Trek universe, listed from most plausible to least plausible.
Wormholes. Warp engines. Transporters. Replicators. Certainly, much of the universe as imagined by "Star Trek" creator Gene Rodenberry is truly science fiction. But how much of it is reality - or could ever be reality?
LISTED MOST PLAUSIBLE TO LEAST PLAUSIBLE
That cellphone in your pocket? Pretty advanced stuff; and more convenient than the communicators Kirk and Spock would flip open on an alien world to talk with the ship. You can share images and videos on top of all that person-to-person communication, something that didn't even happen on "Star Trek".
The basic principal behind a single, all-controlling computer on a starship-voice commands, auto-pilot, navigation systems, simple questions-exist today in a variety of forms. From true voice command of computers to Apple's Siri assistant on its new iPhones.
Today's computers can render videogame and movie special effects far more realistic than what appeared in the original "Star Trek" series and often more believable than those in newer series-if not the newest in the film series. Computers are capable of combing databases to help track down criminal suspects and potential terrorists, helping law enforcement connect those dots. Computers have helped revolutionize every industry, from construction to health care.
Matter-antimatter power generation
The essential philosophy behind the propulsion of starships in the Star Trek universe is the reaction between matter and antimatter. Scientists recently have created antimatter in microscopic quantities and are currently studying the physics applications of it. So while it isn't yet possible to produce amounts of the substance that would be useful for power generation, this is another area where the science of Star Trek is basically plausible.
Impulse engines are rockets based on a fusion reaction. The technology doesn't exist yet, so we'll have to make due with our chemical-fueled rockets for now, but such innovation is within the bounds of real engineering-many years from now.
Lt. Commander Data, a fully artificial individual, is perhaps the ultimate goal of those striving to advance the cause of artificial intelligence. The android Data is a self-aware and intelligent human-seeming machine. The sophistication required to allow a computer to totally replace a human brain simply doesn't exist-and may never-but the bounds of computer science are being expanded all the time.
Most scientists now agree that life probably exists in other solar systems. They may not be as intelligent as we are and they probably don't look anything like us, but the chemical elements for carbon-based life (like that on Earth) are common throughout the universe.
Sensors and tricorders
Today we can employ vibration sensors, sonar, radar, laser ranging, various kinds of light wavelength detectors and energetic particle detectors, and gravimeters. We can take a 3D scan of the interior of solid objects (like the human body). While not all of the sensors on the show are possible (like long-range sensors providing data immediately), the tricorders imagined on the show aren't that far removed from a doctor looking at a patient's X-ray on an iPad.
Very crude cloaking materials have been developed, but nothing resembling the ability to hide an entire ship from view.
Scientists have conceptualized ways to protect space travelers from cosmic radiation by deflecting electrically charged objects using electromagnetic fields; this theory might resemble the impressive power of a starship's deflector arrays.
Large magnets, though not in beam form, potentially could tow some metal objects through space.
Specially designed magnetic fields could do a similar job to the artificial gravity imagined in the realm of Star Trek, though it would wreak havoc on metal equipment. Scientist believe the creation of artificial graviton particles is imaginable, but it's far beyond any technology or process that exists today.
There are no realistic physics behind the idea of subspace communications that would enable face-to-face discussions over distances of thousands of light-years. But the concept of subspace within a space continuum was discovered decades ago and is alive in physics today; theories say that our space-time may have a dozen dimensions.
The military currently has phaser-like stun weapons, using microwaves to cause extreme discomfort to skin. Laser weapons, while still in development, have greatly advanced in capabilities.
The closest thing to the magical medical device that can heal broken bones or seal wounds is the laser surgery doctors often use to cauterize or seal tissue and repair detached retinas. There is some evidence that weak electrical currents can accelerate the healing of bones-nothing like the almost immediate healing of the Star Trek sickbay.
Replication of simple structures is possible today via a printer-like device that creates objects by building layer upon layer of thin material. That's a far cry from a meal materializing from a replicator.
Nothing in today's world of physics comes close to the ability to take matter-a person-and beam them over great distances, sometimes through other matter, reconstituting them in perfect working order at the destination.
Small numbers of atoms and photons have been teleported, though the principal use of this trick is likely to be in quantum computer development, which has the potential to solve highly complex mathematical problems extremely quickly.
The potential for immersive realities has long been a dream of videogame makers, but the problem exists in creating fully interactive, tangible environments. Assembling light in a hologram to produce a three-dimensional structure is simply too far beyond our capabilities today, though crude virtual reality environments do exist now.
Universal language translator
A purely imaginary device, the universal translator enabled plots to advance that involved people of many species without the hassle of learning each other's languages. There is little possibility such an invention could ever become reality, as the device translates to and from languages of newly discovered species.
Interstellar warp drive
Warp drive would depend on revolutionary discoveries in quantum physics, as even those physicists who are experts in space-time continuum research all say nothing can travel faster than the speed of light.
Wormhole interstellar travel and time travel
Neither of these discoveries, while a common occurrence throughout the Star Trek universe, is remotely possible by today's understanding of science.
SOURCE: David Allen Batchelor, NASA Goddard Space Flight Center