Thursday, September 26, 2013

Star Trek and Physics

Whenever you watch a show like Star Trek, you have to suspend disbelief for the duration of the show, like when you watch a musical. You have to get yourself in a state out of your mind that some impossible or unlikely stuff is going to happen and you have accept them in the parameters of the story. In reality people don't spontaneously break out in song and warp drive will probably never be possible. But there are other things that Star Trek just gets wrong about science and if you know anything about physics watching the show will just bother you. You have to teach yourself to ignore it and enjoy yourself.  The most obvious example is the explosions that go boom, big loud booms. We all know that there is no sound in space. "In space, no one can hear you scream" because sound waves have nothing to bounce off of, there are no molecules to vibrate. Star Trek is good television but mostly bad science so we accept the big booms after the ship explodes because it looks cool and spaceships exploding quietly is just plain boring. Another obvious example is the fact that they never loose gravitational control. Their ships are running out of power and barely enough for life-support and yet, they are not losing gravity. They sometimes find dead ships floating through space that never seem to have lost gravity.  What? I could imagine that the portrayal of our beloved characters floating through the corridors of the Enterprise would be very expensive for a television show, but they should at least be consistent or mention gravitational control once in a while.  They seem to pull gravity out from hiding, like an unwanted step-child, only using it when it is convenient to their plot. When the ship gets hit with a torpedo, they all stumble (sometimes in different directions). But if they have artificial gravity, would this even happen? If so, then wouldn't they also all end up flying to the back of the ship when it goes into warp? I don't know, comment if you do.

These things usually don't bother me with Star Trek. I am not a scientist, I am only moderately knowledgeable about science and I realize Star Trek is, again, just good entertainment but not good science.  But the most recent installment of the franchise pushed me over of the limit. The creators of Star Trek: In the Darkness obviously didn't put believability high on their list of priorities. If a non-scientist like me can verify the wrongness of your physics with 5 minutes on Google then your writers are just damn lazy. The biggest problem is again, gravity. The Enterprise is orbiting the moon when it losing power. It gets pulled into the Earth's gravitational pull and starts plummeting. This actually makes sense because the Earth does pull objects, like the moon, into its gravity. The problem here is that in film it took about 10 minutes to reach the Earth. It took Apollo 11 over three days to cover the same distance, 238,900 miles. A ship with no power, plummeting this distance in minutes ... um ... no! This was distracting to say the least. I had to watch this scene again after the film was done just to see if I had missed something. The reentry into the Earth's atmosphere was also anti-climatic. We were set up for it by Sulu saying, "if we don't get power and shields back on-line we are going to get incinerated on re-entry." A minute or so later, we see the ship burning a little. No one on the ship seems hot or even phased by the re-entry at all.  No incineration, just a few burnt panels. Darn you young Mr. Sulu, I'll never believe any of your hyperbole ever again.

This film was more Star Wars than Star Trek. It was very little adventure but mostly explosions and action. This is not what Star Trek fans signed up for. We want interesting alien cultures, intrigue, a seemingly insurmountable problem, a last minute resolution, some social commentary and a little bit of action. In looking for a wider audience, they lost their base of fans. This is the Mitt Romney of Star Trek movies. The one thing they did right, the opening scene was really cool. It had an alien race, the social commentary and a volcano, but even this had its science problems.  Sulu (again Sulu!) says that the ship's shields can't sustain the heat of a volcano. Really? So a ship designed for deep space travel and entry into planets atmospheres (like it did to the Earth's without its shields later in this same film), can't sustain the heat from a volcano. I beg to differ. Lava is around 2200 degrees F while the temperature of the space shuttle recorded on re-entry in 1981 was 2500 degrees.  (Thank you Google). If you can handle re-entry into in the atmosphere, you can handle a freakin' volcano eruption.

This film is also plagued by something that plagues many prequels. This is supposed to be take place a few years before the original series and yet, they seem to have technology that even the later shows don't have. Apparently, you can transport to Kronus from Earth, you can call someone on Earth on your communicator while orbiting Kronus and they have some really cool automatic seat belts that come in really handy when that selective grativy starts to act up. I would imagine writing for a prequel has its challenges. It must be hard to resist showing new gadgets, but these are very challenging to swallow. I agree that the Star Trek franchise needed a reboot. The actors in this reboot are fantastic (except for Benedict Cumberbatch's portrayal of Khan) and the special effects couldn't be better. After the travesty of Star Trek:Voyager series and the failure of Star Trek: Enterprise, the show needed new ideas and a new approach, but they needed to become more visionary not digress into an average action film. If this continues, I half expect to see Bruce Willis or Sly Stallone in the next film. I am glad to see JJ Abrams move onto the Star Wars franchise and leave this one alone. Star Wars fans like things-that-go-boom and shitty dialogue. He should feel welcome there.

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