‘Star Trek’ Tech: How Long Before We Really Have Transporters, Tricorders and Holodecks?
Burning Question: The new "Star Trek" movie has stirred up an old debate I have with my friends: are transporter beams ever going to be possible or not?
— M. Dunne
Let's not stop our nerd-out there. Let's go full-on dweeb for a second. And why not? "Star Trek: Into Darkness" debuted this week.
To answer your question — and discuss other "Star Trek" technologies ranging from tricorders to photon torpedoes — we wrangled David Saltzberg, a professor of physics and astronomy at the University of California, Los Angeles — and an advisor for the sitcom "The Big Bang Theory."
That's right. We're giving you yet another "Big Bang"-on-"Star-Trek" mashup. Bazinga me up, Scotty.
We asked Saltzberg about your particular hangup first — transporter beams.
"We've known since the 19th century that light has pressure," Saltzberg points out. "You can make tweezers out of light. People actually are using light to grab things."
In other words: A transporter sometime in the future? Not a completely crazy idea.
But what about...
"This is a problem that every science fiction story has had to overcome somehow, because things in space are just so far apart. Even at light speed, it would take you 4 years to get you to the closest star. Lawrence Krauss, who wrote 'The Physics of Star Trek,' tries to explain it in terms of general relativity. Creating a warp connects two pieces of space together. But the amount of energy that would create is unfathomably large, and so, probably, you would die in the process. I wouldn't mind going on record as saying that warp drive is probably impossible. I might bet that in 400 we wouldn't have warp drive, but I wouldn't know how to collect."
Unless, by then, we have...time travel?
"Like with warp speed, there are perhaps loopholes in the equations of general relativity that vaguely look like you do it. But again, the amount of energy released at that time would kill you. I wouldn't bet on it."
"The photon torpedo is just a blast of laser energy, right? Photons do carry energy. You could certain make a weapon out of light. You already can."
"On 'The Big Bang Theory,' Leonard once displayed a holographic movie, to impress his girlfriend and win her back. That's based on real science, but that's is only visual.
"Then you have other senses: smell, taste and touching. That's more problematic from a scientific point of view.
"I would imagine that it, in the future, it would probably be easier just to access the brain directly, delivering the tactile cues, the smells, the tastes and the auditory cues, by pumping that information directly into the brain, eventually."
"I can tell you that the one they used on the original show wouldn't work because they made it out of a salt shaker. But I there is a new kind of radiation, T-rays. Right now the FBI uses it to see inside of people's houses. I wouldn't be surprised if the tricorder would have some T-wave technology that would allow for some imaging like that."
(Geek bonus points: Just last year the brainiacs behind the X Prize announced a competition to, yes, come up with a real, live, working tricorder. This is going to happen, people!)
Curve ball! In 'Star Trek IV,' Scotty discussed transparent aluminum. Doable?
"I remember that! We have something called lead glass that we use in particle physics. It's clear and it's as heavy as lead.
"For short times you can make metals transparent at a particle accelerator. If you remove an electron from every atom of aluminum without disrupting the crystalline structure, you can make something transparent.
"It only lasts for 40 femptoseconds. For quadrillionths of a second, you can make it transparent."
And you know what that means, folks. Any day now we'll be boldly going.
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