Skip to main content

The Realization of Star Trek Technologies - Mark Lasbury ***

When a popular science writer takes on the science of Star Trek, the result is inevitably going to be held up against Lawrence Krauss's The Physics of Star Trek - an early popular science book and one of the first I ever read. I'm glad to say that Mark Lasbury manages to avoid the danger of rehashing Krauss's book. Where the earlier title took key Star Trek technologies and explored whether they could be made possible with actual physics, Lasbury gives us the Star Trek explanations and some thoughts on their feasibility, but concentrates primarily on situations where real life technology can provide some of the features of the Star Trek equivalent. In doing this, unlike Krauss, he omits aspects such as the warp drive, instant communication and time travel where the technology doesn't have a real-world parallel.

It quickly becomes clear that Lasbury really knows his stuff on what happens in different Star Trek episodes and the assorted 'technical manuals' that have sprung up around the series. If anything this aspect is over-done. There doesn't seem too much point labouring over why a technology is explained differently in a later episode than an earlier one - in the end it's because they had different writers and the later one couldn't be bothered to check. There's an element of 'this is fiction, get over it,' about this kind of detail.

The level of detail on the real world technologies is impressive - I think this book will strongly appeal to an audience that loves this kind of working through possibilities systematically - for example, looking at all the different ways we can do something roughly similar to phasers. Some parts such as lasers are likely to be familiar, but others, for example the idea of using a laser to ionise a path through air, then sending an electric charge along the path - so-called directed lightning - is fascinating. All too often, though, the result deteriorates into a list approach that makes more for completeness than reading pleasure.

The sections which proved most interesting to me were mostly those where we were closest to the real thing - I found the universal translator section particularly enjoyable - though the tricorder section spent too long on assorted medical add-ons for smartphones. The transporter section (something that was also covered by Krauss) also had plenty of absorbing content, though it's a shame Lasbury doesn't mention the no cloning theorem - or more entertainingly, the objection to the Star Trek transporter raised in that brilliant film Galaxy Quest of why such an incredibly sophisticated piece of technology requires its operator to smoothly push a pair of sliders.

Pretty well all popular science books have a few errors or points where a rather odd comment is made, and there were a number here. When talking about cloaking devices, the author says 'interesting, in both [Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings], the cloaking devices were actually cloaks; I wonder if this is the genesis of the term "cloaking device?"' The only problem is that Star Trek predates Harry Potter, and the main cloaking device in the Lord of the Rings is, erm, a ring. Not all the problems are about cultural context. We're told photon torpedoes involve matter/antimatter annihilation, so no light is involved. Remind me what is produced when, particles and antiparticles annihilate? Oh, yes - photons.  Strangest of all is the description of the orbit of comet 2015 TB145; Lasbury tells us its orbit is 'very oblong.' I've seen diagrams of its orbit and - not surprisingly - it isn't at all rectangular.

If you really like getting into the detail of this kind of tech, this is going to be an excellent read for you. I can't give it more than three stars for the general reader, because it is too much of a 'listing every possible technology and how it works' book, but there's no doubt there will be an enthusiastic audience for this material.


Paperback:  

Kindle 
Review by Brian Clegg

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

The Great Silence – Milan Cirkovic ****

The great 20th century physicist Enrico Fermi didn’t say a lot about extraterrestrial life, but his one utterance on the subject has gone down in legend. He said ‘Where is everybody?’ Given the enormous size and age of the universe, and the basic Copernican principle that there’s nothing special about planet Earth, space should be teeming with aliens. Yet we see no evidence of them. That, in a nutshell, is Fermi’s paradox.

Not everyone agrees that Fermi’s paradox is a paradox. To some people, it’s far from obvious that ‘space should be teeming with aliens’, while UFO believers would scoff at the suggestion that ‘we see no evidence of them’. Even people who accept that both statements are true – including  a lot of professional scientists – don’t always lose sleep over Fermi’s paradox. That’s something that makes Milan Cirkovic see red, because he takes it very seriously indeed. In his own words, ‘it is the most complex multidisciplinary problem in contemporary science’.

He points out th…

The Happy Brain - Dean Burnett ****

This book was sitting on my desk for some time, and every time I saw it, I read the title as 'The Happy Brian'. The pleasure this gave me was one aspect of the science of happiness that Dean Burnett does not cover in this engaging book.

Burnett's writing style is breezy and sometimes (particularly in footnotes) verging on the whimsical. His approach works best in the parts of the narrative where he is interviewing everyone from Charlotte Church to a stand-up comedian and various professors on aspects of happiness. We get to see the relevance of home and familiarity, other people, love (and sex), humour and more, always tying the observations back to the brain.

In a way, Burnett sets himself up to fail, pointing out fairly early on that everything is far too complex in the brain to really pin down the causes of something as diffuse as happiness. He starts off with the idea of cheekily trying to get time on an MRI scanner to study what his own brain does when he's happy, b…

The Order of Time - Carlo Rovelli ***

There's good news and bad news. The good news is that The Order of Time does what A Brief History of Timeseemed to promise but didn't cover: it attempts to explore what time itself is. The bad news is that Carlo Rovelli does this in such a flowery and hand-waving fashion that, though the reader may get a brief feeling that they understand what he's writing about, any understanding rapidly disappears like the scent of a passing flower (the style is catching).

It doesn't help either that the book is in translation so some scientific terms are mangled, or that Rovelli has a habit of self-contradiction. Time and again (pun intended) he tells us time doesn't exist, then makes use of it. For example, at one point within a page of telling us of time's absence Rovelli writes of events that have duration and a 'when' - both meaningless terms without time. At one point he speaks of a world without time, elsewhere he says 'Time and space are real phenomena.'…