Why I...do not believe that Scotty will be beaming us up any time soon

September 14, 2001

If I could have one piece of Star Trek science come true, it would be the ability to reach warp speed - travelling faster than the speed of light - because that is what would allow humans to explore the galaxy.

There have been several scientific papers written about the possibilities of doing this. For example, we know that it is possible to stretch or shrink space at rates much faster than the speed of light, and that is the basic operating principle behind the warp drive.

We know space expanded much faster than light shortly after the big bang that created the universe. All it takes to warp space is matter or energy, but it would take a lot of energy to warp space to the degree required to propel a spaceship. I do not think we will be travelling at warp speeds any time soon - certainly not in my lifetime. But I think that one day humans might travel at speeds faster than the speed of light.

Much of the science in Star Trek is based on real science. We try to get the basics right when we are doing things such as calculating distances between stars and planets. If a ship is travelling at warp speed to Alpha Centuri, we will calculate how long it would take to get there at that speed.

Although there have been instances where Star Trek science has foreshadowed real science, such as the medical scanners in the original series that were much like contemporary Cat and Pet scanners, I do not see that Star Trek influences research - rather it cheerleads for science and gets kids interested in it.

Quite often we will use a development from real science as a springboard for a story. For example, in an episode called "Tuvox", we incorporated the principle of symbiogenesis.

The theory of symbiogenesis is that some of the structures in our cells were once independent cells themselves. These cells were ingested, but not digested, by our cells' ancestors. The little cells formed a symbiotic relationship with the bigger cells and now perform important functions in the cell.

As story writers, we expanded that principle to encompass whole organisms rather than individual cells and we had two crew members merge into a new being.

As a science-fiction writer, I am always on the lookout for scientific phenomena that will spark a storyline. Lately, I have been excited by the possibility of the existence of a repulsive force in the universe. I am also wildly excited by binary pulsars and proto-planetary discs - so watch out for those in upcoming episodes.

Although there is a lot of technobabble in Star Trek - structural integrity fields, plasma relays and the like - there is a structure and a logic to it. We try to have a systems engineering approach to how we describe warp drive or transporters beaming up crew.

Transporters are really neat story-telling devices - they help us get crew members from A to B without any boring travel time. But I think it is fairly unlikely that we will ever strip human beings down molecule by molecule to transport them to different places. It would require huge amounts of energy and there are probably going to be much more efficient ways of getting people around.

  • Andre Bormanis has a masters degree in science, technology and public policy and worked as an astronomer and space policy analyst for Nasa before becoming a technical adviser and full-time script writer on Star Trek. He is author of Star Trek Science Logs: Exploring the Boundaries between Science Fiction and Science Fact, £9.99. BBC2 is hosting a Star Trek night on September 16.

Interview by Liz Doig

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