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The Physics of Star Trek

I find it fascinating that based on what we now know, we can’t yet say that it’s impossible to travel in time. 

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.


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