Is ‘Star Trek’ technology actually possible?

Allison Smith

Faculty unravels cinema myths

At the beginning of the latest “Star Trek” movie, released on DVD today, a large star ship emerges from the future.

It begs the question: How possible is time travel? The 43-year-old television series and movie offshoots contain even more technologies that seem to be impossible.

Daniel Wolfson, an instructor for the Academic Success Center on study strategies for physics, says when science fiction writers write something that can’t be done, they handle it in three ways.

“They either take current science and project it forward, which is the best way,” Wolfson said. “Or they explain it with some techno-garble that doesn’t really mean anything but sounds good. Or they just ignore it.”

Professor John Barrick, who teaches Seven Ideas that Shook the Universe, calls it scientific “double talk.”

“I love ‘Star Trek’ scientific double talk because they take it from fairly substantial science,” Barrick said. “Good science fiction is sometimes very technical because it involves good science, yet fiction.”

Barrick and Wolfson explained the science behind the fiction of some of the most notable “Star Trek” technology.

Warp speed

“The basic problem with space travel is the fact that there’s the speed of light that you can’t go faster (than),” Barrick said. “The physical universe doesn’t allow us to go faster.”

Wolfson said “Star Trek” gets around it by shortening the distance between two points.

“It bends space so that the distance between one point and another is shorter,” Wolfson said. “And therefore, if you can’t travel faster than light, you’re now traveling a shorter distance.”

Wolfson said they create a warp field, which actually warps the dimensions of space.

“That’s physically impossible; you’d have to go into another dimension,” Barrick said.


“In Seven Ideas, we had a thing called the duality of matter and energy and the possibility of changing matter to energy and energy to matter,” Barrick said. “Science has actually done it on a very primitive, basic proton. They can shift from one place to another in an energy form, but on a large scale there’s no way we can do anything like that.”

He said “Star Trek” breaks apart the matter into an energy form and reconstructs it on the surface of a planet. He said this is far beyond what we are capable of doing now.


Wolfson said phasers, the colored-beam-shooting weapons used in “Star Trek,” are feasible because they’re just a form of laser light that’s pulsed, as opposed to a steady laser.

“The biggest problem that they have with the phasers is the amount of power that is apparently generated, especially by a hand-held device,” Wolfson said. “You’ve got to have some super battery in there to be able to hold all that energy that’s used to create the phaser that they show.”

Photon torpedoes

Photon torpedoes in “Star Trek” are made out of matter and antimatter with a force field in the middle. When the torpedoes are fired, the force field is taken away and creates a very large explosion.

There are two mass components of the universe, matter and antimatter, Barrick said.

“Matter and antimatter don’t get along well. It’s a very explosive force,” he said. “If you’re walking down the street and meet your antimatter double, don’t go hug them because you’ll blow away half the eastern seaboard.”

But scientists have accomplished a small version of that.

“Actually, we have contained antimatter in a very, again, primitive, subatomic particle way,” Barrick said. “What ‘Star Trek’ does is take these ideas and expand them into a large-scale type of thing.”

Time travel

“Time travel is impossible backwards, and Hollywood and ‘Star Trek’ like to make it look like it’s feasible,” Barrick said. “The best proof of that is there’s no evidence that anybody or anything has ever come back from the future.”

Barrick said going back in time would unravel our physical condition if that were to happen.

“We can go ahead in time, but you can’t go back in time, and you can’t go home again.” Barrick said.

Barrick said with all of the technology dreamed up for “Star Trek” as a projection of our technological future, they never foresaw the Internet.

“You can’t always project the future that accurately,” Barrick said. “That’s kind of fun because you never know what’s going to come up.”

Contact technology reporter Allison Smith at [email protected].