Star Trek first hit the airwaves over a half century ago, and Dr. Ethan Siegel finds it amazing how many of the gizmos, gadgets, and technologies imagined by the various Trek television series have become reality. Siegel, theoretical astrophysicist and science writer, is author of the new book Treknology: The Science of Star Trek from Tricorders to Warp Drive (Voyageur Press, 2017). Treknology is scheduled for release on October 15 and is available for pre-order on Amazon now.
Siegel, a Trek fan since discovering The Next Generation (TNG) as a kid, figures he was just the guy to dig into Star Trek’s technology.
“That intersection of an interest in Star Trek and Sci-fi, of an interest in what it means for humanity, and a knowledge of physics, all of those have come together to make this book possible,” Siegel said.
Treknology devotes a separate chapter to 28 different technologies that were used in the various series.
“These technologies that were so futuristic that they were imagined centuries in the future, some of them don’t appear to be that far off,” Siegel noted. “Some of them are already here and in widespread use. Others that we thought just a few years ago were going to be far-future technologies look like they’re coming to fruition.”
We’ve got that Treknology already
Siegel noted that it was The Original Series (TOS) that came up with the automatic sliding door, now a staple in every airport and supermarket. Your tablet is also cooler than anything Trek came up with.
“What you’ve got in your smart phone is much more impressive that anything that were on those touch-screen pads that Star Trek envisioned,” Siegel said. “Here we are with something that’s smaller, that’s more compact.”
That goes for pretty much all of the computers, he noted.
“We’ve gone way beyond what Star Trek would have envisioned much more quickly than anything that came about in the original series,” Siegel said. At the time of TOS in real life we had room-sized computers that had less computing oomph than today’s pocket calculators. When TNG came around, they figured they had to jazz up the computing and came up with something new and fancy—digital storage.
“Your flash drive is more powerful than a Star Trek isolinear chip,” Sigel noted. “As far as computation goes—ships computer, pads, isolinear chips—we’ve blown away what Star Trek would have envisioned.”
As an astronomy and physics guy, Siegel said he was especially interested in learning about the medical technologies and biological situations that Star Trek dreamed up. He noted that we may soon be able to use synthehol, a substance with the positive effects of booze without the negative impacts.
“Synthehol is on track pharmacologically to become real,” Siegel said.
We may also be close to helping sightless people see, ala Geordi La Forge—the TNG character played by LeVar Burton—who wore a special visor that allowed him to see the entire electromagnetic spectrum.
“If we can make an implant somewhere in your brain’s visual cortex, and we can wirelessly feed an external signal to that implant,” Siegel said, “this is a potential way to restore sight to the blind,” even if they have no eyes or optic nerves at all. NASA actually tinkered with sight-improving technology in the late 1990s, and called its project JORDY: Joint Optical Reflective DisplaY.
Not there yet
There are other Treknologies that aren’t so close yet. Warp drive is at the top of that list. He says it’s mathematically possible, but it will be tough to make it work in our universe.
“It depends on if you can either have negative gravitational mass or negative energy,” Siegel explained. “If you can, then great, we can build warp drive. If that’s a physical impossibility—and we haven’t discovered anything like that yet—then I don’t know how warp drive can be possible.”
“This is probalbly one of the most difficult technologies to acheive, but I still don’t want to rule it out and say it’s impossible,” he added. “I want to look at what it would take to make it possible.”
A few other technologies such as subspace communication and transporters would require “extensions” to our current physics to become reality, Siegel said, and we’re a ways from life-like androids and holodecks, too.
Sigel has written widely. His first book was Beyond the Galaxy: How Humanity Looked Beyond Our Milky Way and Discovered the Entire Universe (World Scientific Publishing Co., 2015). He writes the Starts With a Bang blog on Forbes, and produces a podcast of the same name. Siegel can be found under that handle on Twitter and Facebook. He expects to be touring conventions and bookstores around the country in support of Treknology. We look forward to the book’s release next month.
Podcast of our interview with Ethan Siegel: