Category Archives: Technology

Happy 50th Anniversary!

Thursday, September 8th, 2016 marks the 50th anniversary of a cultural milestone – “Star Trek” as the original series premiered on September 8th, 1966.  While this blog discusses issues of a scientific and/or historical nature, this anniversary was one of those occasions that cannot be ignored.

As most people, especially those intelligent folk who read blogs like this one, know, “Star Trek” followed the exploits of the crew of the Starship Enterprise and its womanizing egotistical captain James T. Kirk.  Despite not being terribly popular during its original network run, struggles with budgets, and other pains, the series became legendary.  This was in part due to its success in syndication, but it also was due to the writing, the characters, and the stories.  While the late Joseph Campbell (professor of Comparative Religion at Sarah Lawrence college and renowned expert on the connections between mythologies and religions) never mentioned “Star Trek” as far as I can determine, Casey Biggs (Damar on “Star Trek: Deep Space 9” and a fan of Campbell’s works) believes that the “Star Trek” franchise fills the function of a mythology in modern society (a system of stories that metaphorically explore universal truths).  This is probably the key to its grip on the public mind.

Before this gets too mythological, it should be noted that the “Star Trek” franchise was extremely influential on our society.  It is generally thought that the concept of the flip phone was inspired by the communicators from the original series.  Today, scientists who are working on handheld analyzers say they are inspired by the tricorders (very portable scanning devices) from the franchise.  And the people involved in research on artificial vision systems that promise to help blind people all say they found inspiration in the visor worn by Geordi LaForge, a blind character from “Star Trek: The Next Generation”.  Those who work on non-lethal weapon technology cite the phaser (the standard issue Starfleet weapon) as their ideal, since it could be set to stun enemies rather than kill them.

However, “Star Trek” has also inspired a number of scientific cul-de-sacs or outright dead-ends.  One prominent example is research into teleportation.  It is thought to have been inspired by the transporter used in the franchise, a device used to transmit matter (people, cargo, or whatever) from point A to point B.  The reason it was used in the series was not because people believed it would be developed in the future, rather it was because Gene Roddenberry wanted a way to get people from the Enterprise to a planet surface and could not afford to do special effects shots of the shuttlecraft transporting people to their destination.  But when people saw it on the show, many believed that if it was on “Star Trek”, it was in our future.  What real teleportation does is it merely transfers the quantum state of a particle to a similar particle some distance away.  While it is impractical for Trek-style uses, it is expected to play a part in quantum computing technology.

Another Trek-inspired false lead is warp drive.  Warp drive was how starships were able to travel throughout the galaxy in reasonable time scales without messy things like Lorentz contraction, time-dilation, and those other nasty relativistic effects that happen when one travels near the speed of light.  While the idea of a warp drive does not seem to contradict relativity and there is (if you accept cosmic inflation) one example of something that was similar to warp physics – the cosmic inflation that explains why the universe appears flat and also why there is so little variation across the Cosmic Microwave Background.  In that case, space itself expanded – for a very brief time – at speeds that would make the Enterprise-E (the latest version of the ship) look extremely sluggish.  Cosmic inflation was thought to be the result of processes associated with the Big Bang.

But this didn’t stop Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre from coming up with an idea for a warp drive to move starships.  However, Alcubierre found a problem that has persuaded most physicists that the idea of warp drive was crazy to begin with.  In the original equations, the energy required is truly enormous.  It would take energy equivalent to the entire mass of Jupiter (remember E=MC2?) to generate a tiny warp field.  And if it could be generated, it would be virtually impossible to control.  However, NASA scientist Harold White has picked up where Alcubierre left off and is studying the idea.  White claims that, if the shape of the warp field is modified, the power requirements are reduced to the energy equivalent of a ton of matter.  That is still quite a bit of energy.  White has also claimed that his tiny-scale experiments have gotten some results, though most people think that White was merely observing some kind of quantum phenomenon unrelated to what he is looking for.

Of course, there are the people who like “Star Trek”.  And to the surprise of some people, not all fans of the franchise are like those negative stereotypes seen on “The Big Bang Theory” (discussed in my earlier post about that program).  Among the people who like the Trek franchise are many NASA employees, most astronauts, many professionals from all walks of life, the late Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and even one head of state (King Abdullah II of Jordan).

Then there are some surprising folk who really liked “Star Trek”.  Nichelle Nichols, the actress who portrayed Nyota Uhura on the original series, was at a book-signing in London when an enormous man with a shaved head, numerous tattoos, and all the regalia of a skinhead walked into the store.  Even the security guards were frightened.  The man then said that he stopped by because he had a message for Nichelle.  He explained that he used to be a skinhead.  One night, while he was bored, he turned on the TV and a station was running a marathon of “Star Trek” episodes.  As he was watching, he noticed how the crew got along with one another and how they dealt with various moral issues.  He then decided that the skinhead life was not the way to go.  The man then thanked Nichelle for her work on the series and offered his help if she ever needed any assistance during her stay in London.

Naturally, when there is something that popular, there are always those to try to denigrate its positive contributions.  On top of the vast multitude of negative stereotypes of fans, there are incidents that are even uglier.  A few years ago, the weekend edition of “Good Morning America” did a story on research into visual prosthetics.  Some of you might remember from an earlier paragraph that almost every scientist in that field was inspired by Geordi LaForge and his visor.  Did the GMA story bring that up?  No, it didn’t.  Rather than crediting the correct inspiration, they tried to imply it was inspired by Steve Austin’s bionic eye on “The Six Million Dollar Man”.  Those of us who knew the truth were not taken in, but some people might have been.  Why did the folks at GMA do this?  One could argue they disliked the Trek franchise.  I suspect something more vile.  Steve Austin was portrayed by Lee Majors, a white actor.  Geordi LaForge was portrayed by the talented LeVar Burton, an African-American actor.  Was racism involved?  Given our society, it can’t be ruled out.

On a happier note, I have been fortunate enough to have met most of the surviving actors and actresses from Trek franchise as a result of my convention travels.  They are all interesting people and all deserve credit for being part of the success of the Trek franchise.  With the J. J. Abrams movies and their alternate take on the Trek universe, the upcoming “Star Trek: Discovery” series, as well as tons of fan-created stories, songs, etc., who knows what’s going to happen at the next milestone anniversary?  And what do you think of this magnificent franchise?

In honor of this occasion, I leave you with a video featuring one of the franchise’s most beloved characters – Montgomery “Scotty” Scott.  The video was released by Paramount shortly after James Doohan, the actor who created the character, passed away.



Orion Oversold?

December 4th is the date set for the first test flight of NASA’s new Orion capsule.  It will be launched into Earth orbit using a Delta IV rocket at about 7:05 AM.  Then, Orion will circle the Earth twice, conduct some test maneuvers, then enter the atmosphere at about 80% of the velocity the capsule would have if it was returning from the Moon.  If the reentry systems work properly, Orion should splash down in the Pacific off the coast of San Diego, California before noon.  Unless it lands like the capsule in “Gravity”, Orion will be bobbing at the surface and picked up by a waiting ship.

NASA has been loudly promoting Orion, claiming that it is the vehicle that will take American astronauts beyond low Earth orbit and to destinations such as the Moon and Mars.  Much ink and many pixels have been used to promote Orion as a truly advanced spacecraft.  But let’s see it for what it is.

I dimly recall back in the early 1970’s there was a proposal to build a larger version of the Apollo-era command module.  The plans were all drawn up for it, then it was decided that there was no need for it.  Orion looks like the resurrection of this project.  Of course, Orion does have some updated technology, such as new heat shield material, far superior computers, nicely decorated interior, and touchscreen panels (like the controls you would find on “Star Trek: The Next Generation” or on an Asgard ship from the “Stargate” franchise, if you prefer).  But don’t be fooled, it is still based on your father’s (or grandfather’s depending on your age) Apollo command module.

Actually, there is something about Orion that is actually inferior to the original Apollo-era vehicle.  The Orion will use a service module that is based on the ESA’s (European Space Agency) Automated Transfer Vehicle (ATV) that has been used to send supplies up to the ISS.  This ATV-derived service module will use solar panels instead of fuel cells to generate electrical power and will certainly have far less powerful engines than the original Apollo-era service module did.

Then, there was a statement made about the Orion by a Russian commentator who pointed out that, for a vessel that is supposed to house a crew for up to three weeks or so, it lacked certain amenities.  While on a short trip to the Moon, that might not be a big deal since the original Apollo astronauts didn’t complain about the lack of a convenience, it could pose a problem for longer trips.

What bothers me is how NASA keeps pushing the idea that Orion will take astronauts to Mars.  It is simply way too small for the job (unless someone manages to develop the technology used to create the sub-light propulsion systems of mainstream science fiction programs).  Even Robert Zubrin (creator of the Mars Direct concept of a reasonably priced program of Mars exploration) and his colleagues and the folks at Mars Direct have put more thought into designing a spacecraft to take people to Mars.

Why has NASA gone so far overboard in promoting Orion?  Probably because that it is about the only idea they have left for manned spaceflight (besides the Space Launch System – SLS – heavy rocket).

Hopefully the test flight of Orion will go well and not wind up exploding, running out of power,  sinking on splashdown, or anything like that.  But do you think that Orion’s “Back to the Future” approach is the way to go or do you think it’s another one of NASA’s ideas that will fall well short of the mark?

Too Much Binge Viewing?

For the benefit of any readers who are not familiar with the term, “binge viewing” is when one gets an entire season or entire box set of a TV series on DVDs and watches them over a short span of time, usually to catch up with a series they just learned about, though some do it for other reasons.

Now on to the topic.  Recently, I came across a curious article on the Space Daily website.  According to the article, Elon Musk, the founder of Paypal and SpaceX (the folks with the Falcon rocket and Dragon space capsule) posted a comment online that claimed intelligent machines could wind up going after humanity in as little as the next five years.

While Mr. Musk knows quite a bit about the Internet and has done impressive things in the realm of private commercial spaceflight (barring any future catastrophes, it is likely that the first American vehicle to carry astronauts into space will be a Dragon capsule), he seems to have some eccentricities.  Personally, his robot comments sound like the result of having binge viewed the SyFy Channel remake of “Battlestar Galactica” or possibly watching a “Terminator” movie marathon.  While I am familiar with both productions and have met some people from the “Galactica” program (original and SyFy channel reboot) as well as Linda Hamilton and Kristanna Lokken from the “Terminator” franchise, these are meant as science fiction entertainment, not documentaries on the future.

Or maybe Mr. Musk was reading “R.U.R.” (Rossum’s Universal Robots) by Karel Kapek, the first story (a play, actually) about conflict between humans and artificial intelligence, very late at night.  Interestingly, there are some similar elements in both “R.U.R.” and the “Galactica” remake, though in “R.U.R.”, the conflict is caused by human greed and stupidity.  Again, a piece of entertainment, not a road map to the future.

So, do you think that Elon Musk was going on about nothing, or do you think his comments have some merit?