Plot Devices

By Lawrence Krauss
Basic Books, 188 pp.

When I was growing up, my dad was pretty much a literalist when it came to television. As a physician, he was particularly scornful of how blows to the head were depicted. Mannix would get knocked unconscious with the butt of a gun and my father would explode. “Do you know what happens when you hit someone hard enough to make him black out? That guy should be a human vegetable. He’s still bleeding into his cranium from last week.”

Reading Lawrence Krauss on Star Trek – and I mean this in the nicest possible way – is a lot like watching Mannix with my dad.

You know that episode of Deep Space Nine in which Dax figures out there’s something odd about the neutrino flux bathing the station, because all the neutrinos are left-handed? Codswallop, says Krauss, professor of astronomy and chair of the physics department at Case Western Reserve University. Neutrinos are always left-handed.

And that episode of Next Generation in which the Enterprise meets two-dimensional beings who live on a “cosmic-strings fragment” that causes gravitational distortion? Fat chance. Cosmic strings, Krauss points out, do not come in fragments, nor would they exert gravitational pull on distant objects.

And then there are the rudimentary errors. When a space station orbiting Tanuga IV blows up, we somehow hear the explosion at the very instant we see it. At that distance we should see it before we hear it, if we could hear it at all, which we couldn’t since sound cannot travel through a vacuum.

True enough. But for those of us without physics degrees, this is narratological nitpicking, a reluctance to forgive conceits that just hurry the story along. When it comes to the most avowedly unrealistic series on television, Krauss is an unrepentant literalist.

Still, he has a point. Star Trek posits a futuristic universe in which today’s scientific theory is tomorrow’s plot device. Wormholes? Dark matter? Time dilation? If you’re going to write science fiction, you might as well get the science right.

Which is not to say that The Physics of Star Trek is one long hectoring catalogue of the series’ groaners and gaffes.  (Although Krauss does confess to the “superior feeling” it gives physicists “to joke about the English majors who write the show.”) Rather, the book is really a compact primer on contemporary scientific theory. Krauss squints an educated eye at the various Star Trek plot devices and asks: Given what we know today, is this technically possible? And if not, what would it take to make it possible?

Thus, the Enterprise’s “inertial dampers” provide an excuse to deliver a refresher course in basic Newtonian physics. Without the inertial dampers, which create an artificial gravitational field within the ship, Picard and crew would be mulched to pulp whenever the ship accelerated in seconds from a standing start to near light speed.

Warp drive, meanwhile, allows Krauss to essay the principles of general relativity and space-time curvature. The holodeck becomes the hook on which to hang an explanation of how holograms work. The abundance of alien life forms on Star Trek occasions a review of current best guesstimates of the likelihood of life evolving elsewhere in the galaxy.

It’s deftly done, and generally fun. The ideal stocking stuffer for the series’ legions of fans, it’ll probably sell like Tribbles. Which gives me an idea. Why stop at the physics of Star Trek? Why not use the show’s popularity to package a whole library of educational volumes? We could have The Physick of Star Trek (medical technology now and in the future), The Psyche of Star Trek (psychology and mental health), The Politics of Star Trek (alternative forms of social organization and conflict resolution), The Physique of Star Trek (fashion and body consciousness in an era of jumpsuits). Publishers take note. I think we’re on to something

  • Globe and Mail November 16, 1995