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Real Life Star Trek

Posted by | September 16, 2009

I’m old enough to remember early reruns of the very first Star Trek programs. But it was the second Star Trek series, “The Next Generation,” that many of us remember most clearly.

TNG (as fans call it) was masterful at blending real physics and fiction. Once, Stephen Hawking, the great British physicist, made a cameo appearance. He has been crippled by Lou Gehrig’s Disease, and sits in a special wheelchair. Essentially, he cannot move nor speak, but he communicates via computer and a synthesized voice.  He is an active scientist – and a Trek fan.

Besides the real-life Stephen Hawking, TNG introduced millions of people to some fundamental physics, including the concepts of black holes, quantum fluctuations, event horizons and more.

TNG was hardly the end of Trekking. Other television series and movies were made based on the core idea of Star Trek, until the whole great mission finally petered out in deep space (to the great relief of some innocent parties married to Trekkies, I’m sure).

Naturally, the real parts of Star Trek – the fundamental truths of physics – are both alive and well. Here’s how I think of them: our universe is made of everyday matter and forces we can directly see, but it’s also made of invisible or larger scale things that only modern physics and mathematics can describe and help us understand.

When I drop my coffee cup off the edge of my desk (which happens all too often, I’m afraid), it falls to the floor.  Clearly, gravity is at work. Beyond that, the cup exists in three-dimensional space, and the whole falling process occurred in time.

But, as Einstein knew, gravity is much more than a simple force tugging at coffee cups. Here’s an analogy that may help a little with the core idea – but be patient and “work with me” on this one, because it will be strange at first.

Imagine that the space and time around me and the coffee cup are a bit like fabric – fabric, you could say, with threads in one direction representing space, and threads the other direction representing time. The gravity made by the Earth can be pictured as a depression in this fabric. So, when the coffee cup falls, it moves downhill into the depression that’s in the “fabric of space-time.”

The really cool thing – as TNG fans know well – is that there can be ripples in space-time fabric.  These are called gravitational waves, and they cross the vast empty space of the whole universe.  On Star Trek, the gravitational waves were represented by shuddering space ships. In the realm of science, they are described by the elegant mathematics of Einstein’s general theory of relativity.

Some gravitational waves are the left-over echoes of the Big Bang, the event that started it all. Those are the waves of most interest to scientists. There’s a facility near where I live in Washington state that’s built on a large scale to detect the waves. Imagine two arms of a very special pipe, laid out on the ground at right angles to each other, each more than two miles long. Inside the pipe are lasers and mirrors to detect the slightest distortion of length – distortions based on gravitational waves passing through them.

Prof. Sukanta Bose of the physics department at Washington State University is one of many hundreds of physicists around the world who collaborate on all the complex work needed to make sense of the signals they get from detectors such as that one here in Washington and a sister detector in Louisiana.

Because although Einstein’s general theory of relativity predicts them, and tiny movements in large objects confirm them, scientists have still never actually seen gravitational waves.

“I want to see them in the flesh,” Bose said to me recently. “Until we detect them, they are a belief, not yet turned into truth.”

Bose and others who work in the realm of fundamental physics reflect the core of the scientific spirit. It’s abstract work, but I’m hoping to report someday soon that gravitational waves crossing space-time have been detected by Bose and his colleagues around the world.

It’ll be a great day for science, and for Trekkies too.

“Make it so!”