Ever since the starship Enterprise first whisked across television screens in 1966, Star Trek has inspired audiences with its portrayal of a future, spacefaring humanity boldly going where no one has gone before.
Creator Gene Roddenberry's vision went on to spark five other TV series and now 11 movies, as a new film hits multiplexes this week. This prequel, simply titled Star Trek and directed by J. J. Abrams—the force behind TV's Lost and Fringe, among other projects—chronicles the early years of Captain Kirk and some of his Enterprise shipmates, including Spock, McCoy and Uhura.
To get a sense of how much actual science has made its way into the science fiction universe of Star Trek, ScientificAmerican.com spoke to Lawrence Krauss, author of The Physics of Star Trek, the first edition of which appeared on bookshelves in 1995. Krauss is a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University's School of Earth & Space Exploration and the director of the university's Origins Initiative, a project that explores big questions such as human consciousness and the beginning of the universe. Krauss is also the author of several other books and co-author of the Scientific American articles: "The End of Cosmology?," "A Cosmic Conundrum," and "Should Science Speak to Faith?".
We asked Krauss about the plausibility of crossovers from the Trek universe, including warp speed, humanoid aliens such as Klingons and, of course, whether anyone will be "beamed up" by Scotty or otherwise, anytime soon.
[An edited transcript of the conversation follows.]
You penned the original edition of The Physics of Star Trek about 15 years ago. What is an example of something in science that has changed dramatically since then?
When I first wrote the book, we thought most stars could have planets, but we had no idea of the frequency or of the diversity of ways that exoplanets could form. [Since the discovery in 1995 of the first planet orbiting a normal star other than the sun, more than 300 exoplanets have been found.—Editor's note]
So we know these planets are out there. What about actually getting to them? Let's talk warp drive.
I don't think we're any closer to warp drive—it was and is still a wild idea. Applying what we know about general relativity, the idea of faster-than-light travel is possible in principle. You can expand space behind you and contract it in front of you and therefore quickly go from one place to another across the galaxy. But the amount of energy required is just unfathomable. So while getting to exoplanets fast is still far-fetched, getting to them slow is no more far-fetched than it was before. I think that's the way we're going to do it eventually—we're not going to be building warp drives anytime in the near future.
As we "seek out new life and new civilizations," per the opening credits of the original series and The Next Generation, do you think we'll actually find anything living beyond Earth?
Not only have we learned that life is far more robust here on Earth and living in environments that we once thought impossible, but there are life-forms that can survive dormant for millions of years in rather extreme circumstances. The idea of panspermia, in which microbial life could travel across interplanetary distances and maybe even interstellar distances to seed other worlds, is not so crazy anymore. We have also learned there are environments even right here in our solar system that are promising for life. There's water on Mars, and it was probably once warm; Jupiter's moon Europa likely has a liquid ocean. For exoplanets not in the [Earth-like] Goldilocks zone around their stars, maybe they have an environment sustainable for [non–Earth-like] life. Perhaps there is life out there that is silicon-based rather than carbon-based like our own.