The Science of Boldly Going Where We’ve Gone Before

Review: 'Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive' by Ethan Siegel


All the way back in its first season, Saturday Night Live ran a parody of Star Trek. It was nothing really. Just a quick, one-off sketch. Still, the comedy show managed a little fond mockery of the hokey sets in the older science-fiction series, poked a little fun at the actors (especially William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy) who had chewed their way through the scenery of distant planets, and tweaked NBC for canceling Star Trek—an inside joke, since NBC was also hosting Saturday Night Live, which was at risk of its own cancellation in those early days.

Forty-three years later, and Saturday Night Live ain't in much danger of going away. The sheer momentum of its long existence keeps the comedy show going even through its weaker seasons. It's an American institution, The Fantasticks of its time. And Star Trek has kept going, too, through 13 movies, dozens of novelizations, and five television series beyond its initial three-year run that began in 1966. Like the James Bond franchise, we will never be rid of the damn thing.

Should we want to be rid of it? Would society, the content of our imaginations, and the world of entertainment be better off without it all? Generally speaking, Hollywood and the television networks have suffered over the past 30 years a diminished capacity to come up with ideas not based on the pop culture of the 1960s and 1970s—which leaves us with the recycling and rebooting of Marvel comic books, Star Wars plots, and Star Trek spin-offs that show no sign of slowing down. Gene Roddenberry's 52-year-old ideas, the science-fiction notions of 1966, are simply here to stay. Like them or not, they are part of the furniture of modern American culture.

Which means, I suppose, that we might as well try to understand the science in that old science fiction. From Rick Sternbach and Michael Okuda's Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual (1991) to Lawrence Krauss's The Physics of Star Trek (2007), popular-science writers have looked at the technology of the series, with greater and lesser amounts of sympathy. And now Ethan Siegel takes up the science of tricorders, warp drives, and photon torpedoes in his new book Treknology.

Trained as an astrophysicist but making his living as a science writer, Siegel is well positioned to use the technologies of Star Trek as springboards—excuses, really—to talk about science. What would a universal translator look like, for example, and how far are we from actually having one? Dr. McCoy's scanners in the sickbays of the USS Enterprise: When can we expect something similar in our hospitals?

But Siegel actually appreciates the many incarnations of the series. He's a genuine fan, and nearly a fan-boy of the kind who treks off to Star Trek conventions to snag the autographs of Lieutenants Chekov and Uhura. He even loves the Can't-we-all-get-along? ethos that formed the low-rent morality tale that every episode threatened to become, and he admires the Aren't-we-all-socialists-now? assumptions that left the Star Trek universe without anything resembling a coherent economics.

What Siegel loves most, though, is the Star Trek technology. In discussing most of the 28 topics he covers in Treknology, he's careful to lay out the franchise's fictional timeline as it meanders from the prequel series Enterprise (2001–2005) to the original series (1966–1969), The Next Generation (1987–1994), Deep Space Nine (1993–1999), and Voyager (1995–2001)—to say nothing of all the old movies from 1979 to 1991, and the reboot of the original characters in the new movie series that began in 2009. (The book was written too soon to cover the latest prequel television series, Discovery, which started running in 2017.)

The result is not an unhandsome book. A little oddly shaped—that awkward size midway between a reader's copy and a coffee-table book—Treknology has a clean layout with plenty of pictures and diagrams (150 illustrations in a 216-page book) to help along the popular-science text. How might Geordi's visor work? Or Data's android body? Or the multiverse of the rival Kelvin and Prime timelines that rend the fictional universe?

Siegel knows the stories of Star Trek's origins and production, too. Thus, for example, in his discussion of the transporter—the beam of Beam me up, Scotty—he is aware that Roddenberry and his writers invented the implausible transportation technique simply to save time in the filming and add a few special effects. But mostly Treknology avoids meta-fictional explanations, taking the Star Trek universe as given and seeking the science that could possibly allow its marvels. Siegel considers the possibility that the transporter moves all the body's components to their new destination, but he finds more plausible the notion that the atomic and subatomic information about the body is what get sent hurdling down to the planet's surface. And that lets him talk a little about the Uncertainty Principle and the problems of quantum-level knowledge.

He takes up the warp drive in the same way. The timeline allows Treknology to compare the prequel of Captain Archer's Enterprise to Captain Kirk's canonical Enterprise to Captain Picard's advanced Enterprise—a technological path that suggests to Siegel the science behind the warp drive. And that, in turn, allows him to give good, popular-science accounts of Einstein's general relativity and Alcubierre's notion of defeating the speed-of-light constraint by bending space with a bubble of space-time.

Treknology covers Star Trek's phenomenal medical device, its computing marvels, its military phasers and deflector shields, and even such scientific peculiarities as transparent aluminum. The result is a fun, fast read, with plenty of candy for the eyes and a charming balance between the fictional technology and the real science.

The book is also a dead end, of course. However much Star Trek furnishes our cultural imagination, it's still 1960s hokum. Throughout all its incarnations, the human remains unchangedly human despite the changes of technology. In an era of Bonanza and Gunsmoke, Roddenberry originally pitched the series to NBC as "Wagon Train to the stars," and something of that pioneer sense never went away: Space proves simply a larger backdrop against which to act out all the hackneyed old human dramas.

To think much about technology today is to see a different future is bearing down on us. We aren't likely to be human the way we now understand human nature, once bioengineering gets up and running. You think people with gills will be just people who, unimportantly in any fundamental way, happen to have gills? You think people with cybernetic limbs will be just regular folks who, purely coincidentally, can snatch up a thousand pounds? You think people who can spend all day lost in the perfect fantasies of full-sensory computer immersions will be just ordinary neighbors?

For that matter, artificial intelligence in Star Trek appears a friendly monster: well contained, all in all, and a useful tool for human masters as they make their wagon trek to the stars. There are a few jars and bobbles along the way, technology run amok. But all in all, hardly anyone asks the powerful artificial intelligences how they enjoy being merely tools, bit players in a human drama. A 1960s sensibility like Gene Roddenberry's might have imagined that the computers would respond that they like being slaves just fine. Over 50 years later, as neural networks start to break down our old notions of robotics and artificial intelligence, it's possible to imagine that the cybernetic answer may prove very different. Very different indeed.

Joseph Bottum

Joseph Bottum   Email | Full Bio | RSS
Joseph Bottum is a professor of cyber-ethics and director of the Classics Institute at Dakota State University. His most recent book is An Anxious Age: The Post-Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of America.

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