The Physics of Star Trek | In Their Own Words | Big Think
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The Physics of Star Trek

July 3, 2013, 11:52 AM
Star-trek

I wrote about the physics of Star Trek partly because people are not only fascinated by science fiction and Star Trek but they're less inhibited by it.  If you go to a party and say you’re a physicist, then people say "How about those Yankees?" But if you talk to people about warp drive or time travel, they suddenly get interested. They don't realize in some sense that those are the very things that people like me get paid to think about.

Now what is interesting about the real universe verses the universe of Star Trek is that the real universe is actually far more fascinating, which is why I wrote the book.  The things that exist in the real universe are things that no science fiction writer would ever dare propose.  But, nevertheless, you can ask what in Star Trek might be possible and what isn’t. I don’t like to harp on what’s impossible because as I say I think for everything in Star Trek that’s impossible, there’s something that’s possible in the real universe that’s more interesting.

But if you look at the technologies of Star Trek, certain things, of course, have been possible.  In 1965, there wasn’t even ultrasound.  So if you wanted to explore people, you had to open them up.  Now, clearly, it's a good idea to be able to diagnose people without opening them up.  And so they had a tricorder in Star Trek, but now we have ultrasound and MRI and CAT scanning.  We have new kinds of techniques allow us to diagnose people without opening them up. That medical technology has come to pass.

A lot of computer technology, talking to computers and interacting with them has come to pass.  So those kind of things have come to pass, not because they were predicted in Star Trek and scientist went out and said, "Oh, you know, we should develop them."  But because it’s creative people from different areas addressing problems in a reasonable way.

What’s amazing to me is that some of the most fantastical things in Star Trek, including time travel and warp drive, while they're completely impractical, the amazing thing is we cannot say they're impossible.  I find it fascinating that based on what we now know, we can’t yet say that it’s impossible to travel in time.  That is amazing.  Unfortunately, however, the one thing that really motivated me to write The Physics of Star Trek, which was transporters, I would argue is impossible because I was fascinated by transporters, 'cause I go in airports a lot and I'd like to get - not have to go through security and airplanes and all the rest.  And I started to think one day when I was on a train from New York City to New Haven where at the time I taught, about how would I make a transporter.

And I thought of all the neat physics that would be involved, and be fun to talk about that, but, unfortunately, I have argued, and I think it’s still true, that due to the laws of quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, it turns out, I could not make a transporter.  I could not disassemble you here and reproduce you somewhere else either instantaneously or a short time later with the resolution required to make you the same human being.  And it's sad, in my opinion, but true, and I wont go into any more details because I would say if you want more details, there’s a good book you can turn to to find them. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

 

The Physics of Star Trek

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What is Big Think?  

We are Big Idea Hunters…

We live in a time of information abundance, which far too many of us see as information overload. With the sum total of human knowledge, past and present, at our fingertips, we’re faced with a crisis of attention: which ideas should we engage with, and why? Big Think is an evolving roadmap to the best thinking on the planet — the ideas that can help you think flexibly and act decisively in a multivariate world.

A word about Big Ideas and Themes — The architecture of Big Think

Big ideas are lenses for envisioning the future. Every article and video on bigthink.com and on our learning platforms is based on an emerging “big idea” that is significant, widely relevant, and actionable. We’re sifting the noise for the questions and insights that have the power to change all of our lives, for decades to come. For example, reverse-engineering is a big idea in that the concept is increasingly useful across multiple disciplines, from education to nanotechnology.

Themes are the seven broad umbrellas under which we organize the hundreds of big ideas that populate Big Think. They include New World Order, Earth and Beyond, 21st Century Living, Going Mental, Extreme Biology, Power and Influence, and Inventing the Future.

Big Think Features:

12,000+ Expert Videos

1

Browse videos featuring experts across a wide range of disciplines, from personal health to business leadership to neuroscience.

Watch videos

World Renowned Bloggers

2

Big Think’s contributors offer expert analysis of the big ideas behind the news.

Go to blogs

Big Think Edge

3

Big Think’s Edge learning platform for career mentorship and professional development provides engaging and actionable courses delivered by the people who are shaping our future.

Find out more
Close

The Physics of Star Trek

July 3, 2013, 11:52 AM
Star-trek

I wrote about the physics of Star Trek partly because people are not only fascinated by science fiction and Star Trek but they're less inhibited by it.  If you go to a party and say you’re a physicist, then people say "How about those Yankees?" But if you talk to people about warp drive or time travel, they suddenly get interested. They don't realize in some sense that those are the very things that people like me get paid to think about.

Now what is interesting about the real universe verses the universe of Star Trek is that the real universe is actually far more fascinating, which is why I wrote the book.  The things that exist in the real universe are things that no science fiction writer would ever dare propose.  But, nevertheless, you can ask what in Star Trek might be possible and what isn’t. I don’t like to harp on what’s impossible because as I say I think for everything in Star Trek that’s impossible, there’s something that’s possible in the real universe that’s more interesting.

But if you look at the technologies of Star Trek, certain things, of course, have been possible.  In 1965, there wasn’t even ultrasound.  So if you wanted to explore people, you had to open them up.  Now, clearly, it's a good idea to be able to diagnose people without opening them up.  And so they had a tricorder in Star Trek, but now we have ultrasound and MRI and CAT scanning.  We have new kinds of techniques allow us to diagnose people without opening them up. That medical technology has come to pass.

A lot of computer technology, talking to computers and interacting with them has come to pass.  So those kind of things have come to pass, not because they were predicted in Star Trek and scientist went out and said, "Oh, you know, we should develop them."  But because it’s creative people from different areas addressing problems in a reasonable way.

What’s amazing to me is that some of the most fantastical things in Star Trek, including time travel and warp drive, while they're completely impractical, the amazing thing is we cannot say they're impossible.  I find it fascinating that based on what we now know, we can’t yet say that it’s impossible to travel in time.  That is amazing.  Unfortunately, however, the one thing that really motivated me to write The Physics of Star Trek, which was transporters, I would argue is impossible because I was fascinated by transporters, 'cause I go in airports a lot and I'd like to get - not have to go through security and airplanes and all the rest.  And I started to think one day when I was on a train from New York City to New Haven where at the time I taught, about how would I make a transporter.

And I thought of all the neat physics that would be involved, and be fun to talk about that, but, unfortunately, I have argued, and I think it’s still true, that due to the laws of quantum mechanics, the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, it turns out, I could not make a transporter.  I could not disassemble you here and reproduce you somewhere else either instantaneously or a short time later with the resolution required to make you the same human being.  And it's sad, in my opinion, but true, and I wont go into any more details because I would say if you want more details, there’s a good book you can turn to to find them. 

In Their Own Words is recorded in Big Think's studio.

 

The Physics of Star Trek

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