Physics of Star Trek

Posted by tigerhawkvok on May 11, 2009 02:15 in General , physics , sci-fi

So, I'm sitting in the Berkeley BART, soon to head off to Pleasanton to go catch Star Trek with Jessica and some others (it occurs to me this is one of my few friends without a blog or site to link to!). Since I will have a lot of down time, and probably 3 hours of battery on my Eee PC, I decided I'd throw some "Physics of Star Trek" out there.

VOY: "Blink of an Eye"
Case: Time-Distorted Planet
Plausibility: Highly unlikely

While a nice episode with an interesting premise, the catch here that prevents it from entering the realm of plausible is the fact that time went faster for those on the planet, rather than Voyager. General Relativity provides for various forms of time dilation, including gravitational an other odd spacetime constructs that distort spacetime. However, all of these distortions increase your dilation, as "neutral" is flat, empty space. For your rate of passage though time to increase, your speed would have to be imaginary, so that when squared (IE, when calculating your spacetime interval along a Minkowski metric), you need to increase your rate of passage through time to be greater than unity (or c, depending on how you look at it).

Case: Food replicators
Plausibility: More likely than transporters

So. Assume you can store the precise subatomic structure of a person, break own their form into pure energy (all several hundred exajoules of it), then remotely reassemble them just with the energy that you stored on a subatomic level. In that case, building food from miscellaneous vats of partially pre-assembled components seems easy. However, since you're just constructing them from energy, why bother having the various "base components"? You've got to break it down anyway. If you'rejust playing with matter rather than energy, then it would be interesting fusing atoms all over the place to get things where you want them! However, think of the hundreds, or thousands, of foods available in the replicator system. Assume only atomic resolution, then take something fairly simple like pudding. To construct it, you might, say, store a representative sample of 1 gram that is then just replicated in a general amorphous pattern. You still will need to store the precise atomic configuration of roughly a mole of atoms in three-space. Allocate eight bits for atomic identification, another eight for bonds comprising molecules, approximately another 18 bits in each direction to store its location at angstrom resolution, three bits for rotational directions, 9 bits for atomic temperatures. Assume the food is stationary. Thus, for a reasonable description of each atom in a pudding (fairly uncomplicated!), you want about 11 bytes per atom. Thus, you're looking at about a yottabyte (1024) bytes to store a pudding. This is not an argument against storage capacities — I can't imagine them in the 24th century — but I do believe the makers of ZFS filesystem, which would store up to a yottabyte, implied it would take enough energy to boil all the oceans on Earth to write a yottabyte of information.

Case: Photon Torpedoes
Plausiblity: A sure thing

Photon torpedoes are, simply, antimatter warheads. These would be the most effective bombs in history, as, quite literally, they detonate by breaking. An antimatter warhead would be contained by magnetic fields, an the faliure of these magnets would let the antimatter react with the casing, thus causing a massive explosion.
As a best-guess, quantum torpedoes are an attempt to utilize "zero-point energy", or the energy that can be harnessed by virtual particles / spacetime itself. Given the necessarily vague description, I think I'll refrain from passing judgement on them.

ENT: "Rogue"
Case: The Enterprise discovers a rogue planet with alien life on it
Plausibility: Nigh-impossible

All life revolves around the sun. OK, that's maybe a bit to anthro-centric. All activity revolves around energy. Better. So, when the Enterprise (NX-01) encounters a rogue planet ... with green life, an several animals, this is a problem. In a best-case scenario, the planet had an improbably hot core when it went rogue, and it is still quite warm. Now, all those layers of rock work as really good insulators, which is why, after 4.5 GYr, our planet still has a molten core. But this same fact means that the core is utterly, completely insufficient to warm a planet to livable levels. Our core is molten iron, measure in millions of Kelvin. Our surface averages at perhaps 10 C, or 283 K. The gap from "millions" to 283 is not much different than the gap from "millions" to 2.73, or the vaccuum of space. The heat on the surface would not be significantly different than our own planet's contribution. Consider that Antarctica is on a planet that gets a bunch of sun, and it just happens to not be really in the way of direct sunlight and gets some chilly water currents. Enough said.

TNG: Space Child
Case: The Enterprise finds a spacegoing organism
Plausibility: Powerfully dubious at best

Oh, a space organism. Such a staple of sci-fi. But how does such a thing live? They tend to feed off of spaceship batteries or warp reactors, so presumably they have some powerful containment mechanisms in them and they live off of massive ion potentials, fusion, or antimatter. However, all of these need incredibly powerful electromagnetic fields to contain the reactions into something useful. Considering that nerves do utilize electricity to "go", I won't throw it out — but I am powerfully skeptical.

And my train is finally getting close to my destination, so I'll call it quits for now. Hopefully this was somewhat interesting, even if a bit link-free — no internet on the BART! Now, go drop in at Kit's new site and blog and say hi. Also, comments on the edited layout are always welcome, as well as suggestions.

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