Back in August, I wrote a detailed scientific critique of one of Star Trek’s more elusive technological concepts: the tractor beam; the ability to tug objects using an electromagnetic field. Though I deemed the piece of technology as Science Fiction, a team of physicists and engineers at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center are planning and developing a laser that would act as a “tractor beam.” Not actually a tractor beam, this device uses electromagnetic wave fronts and directed photons to guide and pull tiny particles from a distance.
The mechanics behind the tractor beam are essentially the same as what was previously demonstrated with lasers. Scientists at the Australian National University were able to use a directed laser beam to carry microscopic glass particles midair across a distance of 5 feet. It works by shining a “hollow laser” at a target (i.e. tiny glass particles) such that the laser heats up a narrow band of air molecules surrounding the target but the interior of the laser (in direct path of the target) remains cooler. The particles would remain in the interior of the laser because the heated molecules surrounding it would exert a pressure against the target, so the particles could float effortlessly to or from the laser source.
The only drawback with this technology is that it requires a gaseous medium (i.e. atmosphere); this means that it wouldn’t work in the vacuum of space. However, NASA scientists, Barry Coyle, Paul Stysley, and Demetrios Poulios may prove that a working tractor beam in space is not only possible, but may be more practical than conventional sample collection.
Goddard laser experts (from left to right) Barry Coyle, Paul Stysley, and Demetrios Poulios Photo Credit: NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center, Debora McCallum
The technique uses optical solenoid beams. When the laser is directed against tiny particles (i.e. dust), it propagates a force on the particles against the direction of the laser beam. It is not actually a tractor beam as one may see on Star Trek; it is more akin to pushing a floating ball in pool water: it generates enough momentum to move on its own. Like the floating ball analogy, this laser beam simply exerts a force on something to allow it to move on its own; it doesn’t pull or tug anything.
The good news is that the force exerted by this laser is independent of atmosphere, meaning that it can work in space. This holds great potential for space exploration! The best application for such a device would be to capture dust samples from a passing comet. Normally, we would fly a probe into a comet’s “tail” to pick up debris, but this is a very risky (and expensive) maneuver, especially since we have to do it “blindfolded.” But in the near future, we may use a laser beam to trap comet samples from a safe distance, and it would be of great benefit to science because analyzing its chemical composition alone would provide us with invaluable information regarding the formation of our solar system.
Unfortunately, this “tractor beam” can only be used for small-scale purposes, which limits the scope with which it can capture objects. The electromagnetic beam couldn’t possibly generate enough momentum to move particles larger than bits of rock, and even that would be hard enough. Well, guess that means we won’t be towing our shipment of grain to Sherman’s planet after all.
NASA has already demonstrated the potential of such laser beams in a laboratory setting, but they don’t plan on stopping there. They are currently working on new revolutionary techniques to optimize the tractor beam and make it more efficient, cost-effective, and practical to use.
On October 19th 2011, the Roddenberry Foundation donated $5 million to the Gladstone Institute of the University of California, San Francisco. The generous gift will allow the biomedical research group to establish a new center for stem cell studies and regenerative medicine, which will be named in honor of the legendary founder of Star Trek: Gene Roddenberry.
Gene Roddenberry was an influential writer and producer of science fiction. His concept of Star Trek, an epic vision of a future graced by reason and peaceful exploration, forever changed the genre. Like many original film writers at the time, Roddenberry felt science fiction needed a serious rewrite, something that portrays Mankind in His finest moments, to make struggles more realistic and practical; he wanted a science fiction that not only encouraged its fans to make the world a better home but also represented science as an attainable goal rather than a mystical construct. “No more magical gadgets that launch spaceships to nearby planets,” was probably Roddenberry’s thinking when he conceived of Star Trek. “We are going to warp space in accordance with Einstein’s Theory of Relativity!”
Established by philanthropist Eugene “Rod” Roddenberry, Gene’s son, the Roddenberry Foundation honors and continues the progress toward that glorious future so imagined by the man himself, even after his passing. Their mission is to support the efforts of individuals, companies, and organizations to advance society on four different fronts: (1) Education, (2) the Environment, (3) Humanitarianism, (4) Science and Technology. On the fourth pillar, the Roddenberry Foundation fulfills a small, but very important aspect of Gene Roddenberry’s goals for a better future by donating the sum of five million dollars to the Gladstone Institutes in order to advance stem cell research toward clinical applications.
Rod Roddenberry announces the donation at the Gladstone Institute
Funding stem cell research is perhaps as crucial as space exploration is in supporting a dynamic, diverse world. In their promotion of stem cell research, the Roddenberry Foundation is in fact bringing Mankind a step closer to that future where “diseases are a thing of the past.”
Watch the video below, as Gladstone’s Dr. Shinya Yamanaka explains induced pluripotent stem cells.
Read the release below.
SAN FRANCISCO, CA—October 19, 2011—The Gladstone Institutes and the Roddenberry Foundation today inaugurated the Roddenberry Center for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at Gladstone, a new unit founded on an unprecedented $5 million gift from the foundation that was established to honor the legacy of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry.
“This gift is our largest to date, and with it, we hope to help accelerate advances in biomedical research,” said Gene Roddenberry’s son Rod Roddenberry, who is co-founder and chair of the board of directors of the Roddenberry Foundation. “In addition, if our support can inspire one child to become a scientist, one organization to become more charitable, one person to simply invest himself or herself in improving the future of our world, then our foundation can be a catalyst in making the future envisioned through Star Trek a reality.”
The center will build on Gladstone’s existing expertise in stem cell science, helping to speed the process by which discoveries are turned into therapies for a host of devastating illnesses.
“Today’s biggest challenge for solving disease is getting the investments required to transform our basic-science discoveries into health solutions that can alleviate human suffering,” said Deepak Srivastava, MD, who directs both stem cell and cardiovascular research at Gladstone. “We are a basic science institute—but with the purpose of solving three major disease groups.”
Indeed, Gladstone focuses on disease areas that afflict millions of people and their families: cardiovascular disease, viruses such as HIV/AIDS and neurological conditions such Alzheimer’s disease. Alzheimer’s alone afflicts 5.4 million people in the United States at an annual cost $183 billion, estimated the Alzheimer’s Association. Without a therapeutic breakthrough, the number of Americans with Alzheimer’s disease is expected to double by 2050.
On top of this, no single disease-modifying therapy exists for Alzheimer’s or other devastating neurodegenerative diseases, said Steven Finkbeiner, MD, PhD, a senior investigator at Gladstone, adding that it takes an average of 12 years and as much as $1 billion to develop a drug for a neurodegenerative disease. “The tsunami is coming and we have nothing in the drug pipeline to treat Alzheimer’s,” he added.
Research at the new center can help to change that, in part by building on pioneering work done by Gladstone senior investigator Shinya Yamanaka, MD, PhD. In 2006, Dr. Yamanaka and his Kyoto University team discovered how to reprogram skin cells into cells that, like embryonic stem cells, can develop into other cells in the body. This discovery of induced pluripotent stem cells, or iPS cells, has since altered the fields of cell biology and stem cell research, opening promising new prospects for both personalized and regenerative medicine. Dr. Yamanaka currently divides his time between Kyoto and San Francisco, as the director of Kyoto University’s Center for iPS Cell Research and Application (CiRA)—which focuses on drug discovery and regenerative medicine—and as a senior investigator at Gladstone.
To further develop Dr. Yamanaka’s iPS technology in order to create patient solutions, the Roddenberry Center for Stem Cell Biology and Medicine at Gladstone today is also announcing a collaboration agreement with CiRA. This accord will clear a path for these two leading stem cell centers to freely exchange materials and knowledge—all in order to accelerate the advancement of their stem cell research results into therapeutics to improve human health.
Ideally suited to do that, iPS cell technology and subsequent cell-reprogramming discoveries opened the door for scientists to create human stem cells from the skin cells of patients with a specific disease for research and drug discovery, rather than using conventional models made in yeast, flies or mice. As a result, the cells contain a complete set of the genes that resulted in that disease—representing the potential of a far-superior human model for studying disease development, new drugs and treatments—while also avoiding the controversial use of embryonic stem cells.
“The Roddenberry gift will help us create the human, iPS-based disease models that we need to accelerate the development of drug therapies for a host of devastating diseases, honoring Gene Roddenberry’s call to ‘live long and prosper,’” said Dr. Srivastava.
About the Gladstone Institutes
Gladstone is an independent and nonprofit biomedical-research organization dedicated to accelerating the pace of scientific discovery and innovation to prevent illness and cure patients suffering from cardiovascular disease, neurological disease or viral infections. Gladstone is affiliated with the University of California, San Francisco.
About the Roddenberry Foundation
The Roddenberry Foundation supports and inspires efforts that create and expand new frontiers for the benefit of humanity. It funds innovative solutions to critical global issues in the areas of science and technology, the environment, education and humanitarian advances.
Following the generation of human iPS cells by Dr. Shinya Yamanaka and his team in November 2007, Kyoto University established the Center for iPS Cell Research and Application within the Institute for Integrated Cell-Material Sciences (ICeMS) in January 2008 to further promote scientific advances in the fields of induced pluripotency and reprogramming. CiRA is the world’s first institute to focus specifically on these areas, and its researchers strive to realize the potential medical benefits of these cells as rapidly as can safely and responsibly be done. CiRA became an independent institute in April 2010, under the leadership of Dr. Yamanaka.
Previously, science determined the implausibility of silicon- and ammonia-based life. Silicon is an element similar to carbon, which is why some astrobiologists consider it a candidate for the emergence of organisms; however, silicon compounds are limited to only a few stable molecular arrangements and crystals, so abiogenesis isn’t very probable.
Ammonia, on the other hand, has chemical and physical properties similar to water, though ammonia doesn’t promote the hydrophobic effect quite as strongly as water does, and, more importantly, stabilizing ammonia in the liquid state requires either (a) a below-zero global temperature or (b) an atmosphere nearly 12 thousand times as dense as Earth’s: the latter being difficult to find in the universe and the former hardly favoring the process of abiogenesis altogether.
But what of these strange new worlds, new life, and new civilizations so explored on Star Trek? Everything ranging from crystalline entities to Changelings, they appear to have such unique and exotic body plans that science couldn’t even begin to describe them or to determine how molecules could possibly compose sufficiently to generate these life forms. Indeed, they seem more fantasy than fact, and, unfortunately, there is a lot to biology that we still don’t understand, even of life on Earth.
We can hardly predict how life could emerge and evolve on exosolar planets; let alone how any alien could emerge from the abiogenesis of substances so unlike our own. That is why this article will discuss and speculate the different forms of life and their biology as presented on the shows. I present to you: the Strangers of the Cosmos.
Romulans and Vulcans
Romulans and Vulcans may be more plausible as water-based, carbon-based life forms on exosolar planets with Earthlike characteristics. Both breathe the same atmosphere, drink the same water, and even have nearly the same physical appearance as humans (minus the ears). There are also subtle differences: Vulcans are telepathic and Romulans are not, Romulans have head ridges and Vulcans do not, and one is a very warlike species while the other promotes peace.
As most Trekkers know, Romulans are descended from Vulcans over the course of millennia and both evolved into separate races. This is a classic example of reproductive isolation in the theory of evolution that gives rise to speciation. When a population in one area experiences an emigration (i.e. half the population leaves to a different locale) and the original population is now located in two different areas, the two populations are said to be reproductively isolated, meaning that they don’t interbreed simply because they hardly come into contact.
Over time, both populations will accrue enough random mutations that natural selection affects both groups differently, and so the two groups would adapt preferentially to their respective environments and be so genetically different from one another that they would be unable to interbreed; this is known as a speciation event, in which one group evolves from an original group into a new species. However, Romulans and Vulcans are perhaps easier to interbreed than say humans and Vulcans; in fact, it has been stated on the shows that Romulans and Vulcans are so physiologically similar that they can mate without any medical intervention. This leads me to believe that Romulans and Vulcans haven’t speciated and are perhaps members of the same species, though different cultures.
Romulans and Vulcans both have green blood. The color of blood is determined, at least on Earth, by the assimilation of transition metals in their oxygen-carrying proteins. For all mammals and avian species, blood is red because the oxygen carrier, hemoglobin, uses iron, a transition metal that appears reddish brown in solution. For the horseshoe crab, hemocyanin utilizes copper, which is blue. Vulcans and Romulans have green blood, which, if their oxygen-carriers are anything like hemoglobin or hemocyanin, may be an indication that their proteins utilize nickel to bind oxygen (or copper if their blood contained a high salt content). Nickel is another transition metal similar to iron and copper, except that it emits a green color in solution.
The fiercest warriors in the galaxy, next to the Jem’Hadar and the Hirogen, Klingons are known for their codes of honor, battle hunger, brooding mentality, and their head ridges (at least up from the end of the TOS era). On Star Trek: The Next Generation episode “Ethics,” in which Worf becomes paralyzed and must deliberate between an honorable suicide or a risky, medical procedure to restore his spinal column, it is mentioned that Klingons have redundant body systems to allow them to “switch” to a back-up organ whenever one is damaged. Evolving on a world in which survival is threatened by predators and natural hazards calls for intense natural selection: any trait that increases a species’ fitness would be favored by its selective advantage over traits that would otherwise hinder a species’ survival. Natural selection may have favored the emergence of redundant organs in Klingon ancestors to maintain biological functionality in case the body was ever harmed. In fact, humans also have “redundant” organs (two kidneys, two lungs), though they evolved to work together and are no where near as sophisticated as the redundancy found in Klingons. This trait would, undoubtedly, remain an essential aspect of Klingon physiology if the selection for it was maintained by millions of years of violent lifestyles; considering they are a warlike race, the Klingons may have maintained the trait in the course of their evolution and, clearly, it still benefits them in battle.
Klingon head ridges are also a notable feature on the show. Not including The Original Series or the “Afflictions/Divergence” ark on Star Trek: Enterprise, almost all Klingons have head ridges, and many of them have different cranial patterns. The head ridges appear to be an exoskeletal extension of the Klingon’s spine over the cranium and ending just above the base of the nose. The head ridges were more pronounced and a lot broader in the Klingon’s evolutionary predecessor as shown in the TNG episode, “Genesis”; the purpose and function of the head ridges were likely to protect the Klingon from predators and enemies, a phenotype that may have had a greater advantage in some past when the Klingons were constantly hunting and competing for food and women.
Another observation I made about the head ridges is that they only seem to be similar in family units. For example, Worf, his borther Kurn, and his son Alexander all have similar cranial patterns obviously because the traits are heritable. But Worf’s head ridges by no means share the same resemblance with other Klingons’ ridges; in fact no two patterns are alike.
Just as humans have different appearances among different ethnicities (i.e. African, Asian, White, Latino), the Klingon head ridges may be an ethnic trend native to specific locales on Qo’nos, in which the frequency of a set of alleles that give rise to a particular cranial pattern is maintained by breeding within a population. Klingons with different head ridges may be a sign of a diverse culture.
In Star Trek VI: The Undiscovered Country, Klingon blood was shown to be pink in color, though it appears red in every other movie and episode where Klingon blood was “spilled.” The writers may not have thought this through enough to remain consistent with canon, but if there is ever a consensus among the Star Trek community that would canonize the pink blood phenotype, then their blood-borne proteins may assimilate cobalt, a transition metal that appears pink or violet in solution, instead of the reddish brown iron that we are used to on Earth or the greenish nickel (or high chloride copper) one finds in Vulcans and Romulans.
While on the topic of blood, let’s talk about blue blood. Andorians are a race on Star Trek with a similar code of honor as the Klingons, two antennae, white yellowish hair, blue skin, and blue blood. The color of their blood may indicate that their proteins carry copper, which appears blue in its highest oxidation state.
The antennae are also a unique attribute of Andorian anatomy. No one really knows why they need them or what they detect. Insects use antennae to detect food sources, sense environmental hazards, navigate terrain, and communicate with other insects. But Andorians clearly aren’t insects; they are warm blooded mammals (we know they’re warm blooded because their metabolism is higher than humans, generating much needed heat to survive the cold climates of Andoria, as inferred from the Enterprise episode “United”).
What could the antennae possibly be used for? On the episode “United,” Archer was able to defeat Commander Shran without killing him by cutting off one of his antennae (don’t worry, they grow back). The crippled Andorian said that he would make a “poor guardsman” without both antennae; in addition to the statement, he had poor balance for a few hours after the incident. The antennae may have had some previous function in detecting food sources in their evolutionary past, but since then Andorian physiology probably co-opted the antennae to help coordinate their movements the same way post-anal tails help cats maintain their balance and pelvic bones help humans stand upright.
Another point of interest regarding Andorians is their closely related cousins: the Aenar. The Aenar are a blind, telepathic race of Andorians that have a white pigment instead of blue; they reside in icy caves as shown on Star Trek: Enterprise. Like Romulans and Vulcans, the Aenar and Andorians have a common ancestor and both remain reproductively compatible, so they are technically the same species. By inferring from the blindness and telepathic abilities of the Aenar, the Aenar may have migrated to the polar ice caps from warmer climates (perhaps following game animals) and became an offshoot of the main Andorian evolutionary branch. In their new home, they may have lost the selection for eye sight as a new ability of telepathy emerged, allowing them to communicate, sense, and survive better in the environment of the planet’s less hospitable regions. As for the telepathy itself, no one could possibly explain scientifically how that emerged.
Tom Caldwell holds a Bachelor’s of Science in biochemistry from UCLA. He is currently working towards a Ph.D. in molecular biology.
Previously, I posted a two-part article detailing the long, arduous process of abiogenesis as we understand it today, from the reduction of carbon, to the accumulation of bioorganic molecules, and finally to the generation of very simple organisms over the course of a billion years of torturous molecular evolution. Though that discussion was limited to the origin of life here on Earth, it considered the calculable probability of the origin of life similar to ours on other worlds with like characteristics (i.e. atmosphere, molecules, oceans). Even in the absence of absolute certainty, the emergence of carbon-, water-based life elsewhere in the Universe is most likely occurring on hundreds, if not thousands, of worlds. But what about the organisms showcased on Star Trek that appeared so different from us humans? Aliens that breathe toxic air? Aliens with a completely different genetic makeup than ours? Perhaps Q entities? Surely we cannot be so self-centered as to think that all life would look human, can we?
In this post, and in several weekly posts to follow, we will consider the scientific plausibility of the origin and evolution of life on worlds of which one can only imagine. The first topic of the week shall revolve around a very familiar, yet completely alien (excuse the pun), term of science fiction: silicon-based life.
They were on several episodes of Star Trek: The Original Series, most notably “The Devil in the Dark.” The silicon-based lifeform from “The Devil in the Dark” was an intelligent creature that attacked and killed human trespassers in its territory.
Let’s first consider the scientific rationale for a living organism with silicon as its major elemental substituent.
Silicon is in the same group as carbon on the Periodic Table of Elements, which means essentially that both have the same number of outer shell valence electrons (four). In Layman’s terms, silicon and carbon share a similar electronic structure, one conducive to theoretically form similar molecular structures.
In the atomic orbital diagrams for carbon and silicon (listed below), carbon and silicon each have a total of 6 and 14 electrons, respectively. These electrons fill up atomic orbitals (1s, 2s, 2p, 3s, 3p, etc.) starting from the smallest electron shell (lowest energy) to the highest electron shell (highest energy, circled in red for each atom). Electrons tend to be located in orbitals as far apart as possible (because they are negatively charged and negative charges repel one another), so they fill up orbitals in singles first, then in pairs. That is why the highest electron shells for carbon and silicon (2s, 2p and 3s, 3p, respectively) have two paired electrons in the s-orbital but 2 unpaired electrons in the p-orbitals.
The science may get confusing here, but the point I wish to strike home is that the valence shell structure for both atoms are similar. If we know carbon-based life can emerge from a series of organic reactions over the course of millions of years in a precise order, then why can’t silicon, an element with an atomic makeup similar to carbon, yield the same results in a sufficient environment? Like carbon, silicon compounds tend to be self-replicating in nature, and can potentially carry some form of coded “information” the same way DNA does. Indeed, science fiction enthusiasts marvel at the remarkable ability of silicon-based compounds to carry similar properties, though not perfectly, as carbon. After all, we do have examples of silicon-based materials that share the same molecular motifs as common carbon compounds.
Methane is the simplest organic compound in the universe. It consists of a central carbon atom covalently bonded to four hydrogens. Silane is the silicon analogue of methane: a central silicon atom bonded to four hydrogen atoms (listed above as white spheres). Both compounds are flammable and they exist as gasses at room temperature. However, unlike methane, silane is highly unstable.
Methane spontaneously reacts with oxygen to form water and carbon dioxide, but the reaction is often very slow (air oxidation of methane can take several years); this is due to the fact that methane is a very stable molecule, so its activation energy is high. An ignition is required to combust methane and convert it completely into carbon dioxide.
Silane, on the other hand, is extremely unstable. It explodes when it comes into contact with air; no ignition is necessary. The big question remains: why is methane so stable, yet its silicon analogue is so unstable? The answer has to do with molecular bonding. The stability of molecular bonds is very important in terms of life.
Here is a video of a reaction mixture that releases silane gas. Almost as soon as the gas is produced, silane explodes in contact with air.
From the Periodic Table above, carbon is found in the 2nd period, while silicon is just underneath it in the 3rd period. This means, that silicon has a higher electron shell, making it a much larger atom than carbon (as you can tell by the side-by-side comparisons between methane and silane above). The atomic size of carbon is just small enough to strengthen electron orbital interactions (hence, the reason why methane is so stable), but silicon is too large of an atom to stabilize bonding with hydrogen. Si-H bonds are very weak, and so they break spontaneously in the presence of any mild oxidizer, even weak ones like oxygen.
Furthermore, carbon’s atomic size is small enough to allow p-orbitals and s-orbitals to overlap, forming a very diverse combination of covalent bonds (i.e. single, double, triple bonds with hydrogen, nitrogen, oxygen, halogens, and other carbons, though carbon only forms single bonds with hydrogen). This is why a whole branch of chemistry, namely organic chemistry, is dedicated to the study and theory of carbon-based molecules. There are literally millions of different molecular arrangements for carbon-based compounds, which is why a billion years of trial and error by nature opted for self-sufficient, self-replicating carbon compounds as the building blocks of life: many different combinations means higher adaptability and variability at the molecular level.
Silicon is no where near as robust as carbon in terms of forming diverse arrays of molecules; it is mainly limited to single bonds because double and triple bonds are too weak. This presents a serious problem in terms of the emergence of silicon-based life: if silicon bonding is too unstable and limited to just a few molecular patterns, how could they possibly permit the emergence of adaptable silicon-based life? It gets worse…
Silicon’s covalent bonds are more ordered than carbon’s. That does not bode well for abiogenesis. Silicon is an atom that tends to form network covalent structures. Chemical bond energies with oxygen, for example, are simply too high to maintain silicon dioxide in the free form, so they tend to crystallize and form highly ordered structures (i.e. crystals, not membranes or polymers) in order to stabilize the molecular interactions between silicon and oxygen. In fact, crystallization of silicates strengthens these molecules so well that they become very resistant to breakdown, and living organisms require degradable compounds to support their energy demands (i.e. digesting proteins and carbohydrates from food to supply cells with energy). If silicon compounds are very hard to breakdown for energy utilization, then how could life possibly thrive off of it?
Take for example the silicon analogue of carbon dioxide. Silicon dioxide is nothing like carbon dioxide in terms of molecular structure and reactivity. It is essentially sand. When heated under intense pressures, silicon dioxide becomes glass, but other than that, little else can be formed under spontaneous conditions. Silicon-oxygen bonds are typically the most stable chemical bonds with silicon. They tend to form granules of sand that are insoluble in water (and water solubility is absolutely essential for organic compounds to promote the emergence of living organisms). Silicates could come in a variety of crystalline arrangements (i.e. hexagonal, cubic, rhombohedral, etc.), but they are only minutely different from one another in terms of molecular structure, and on the whole they tend only to form crystals and rocks, nothing complex, varied, or diverse as bioorganic compounds.
The Final Verdict
Biologically important organic compounds are typically amino acids, lipids, DNA, RNA, cholesterol, urea, sugars, benzene rings, hydrocarbons, and even more than I could possibly list in this post, and each classification of bioorganic compound has many more different arrangements and molecular combinations, so the possibilities for life are endless with carbon. But silicon couldn’t possibly be an elemental conduit through which life is able to blossom from lifelessness. Unfortunately, I have to remain skeptical and say that silicon-based life is very much Science Fiction. We have yet to discover silicon-based life, and until we do, it remains an improbability. Though I do stress that, as part of my scientific conservativism, just because silicon-based life is improbable, it isn’t impossible.
A microscopic view of diatoms. They are highly adaptable and versatile; diatoms can thrive in any body of water or wet soil.
There is an example of living organisms having evolved on Earth which have assimilated silica (silicon-based crystals) as part of their own biochemistry. Namely, these organisms, known as diatoms, utilize silica as part of their protective cell wall. They are microscopic and they tend to utilize food and energy in a similar fashion as cyanobacteria do, though they are not classified as bacterial; they are algae. Diatoms evolved from an adaptation to incorporate sand silicates as part of their cytoskeleton to protect themselves from environmental hazards. Over the course of millions of years, diatoms developed a biological function to synthesize silica from cellular reactions. In other words, they aren’t just harvesting silicon from the environment, they are actually processing it! Though bear in mind: diatoms are not silicon-based; they just happen to use silicon. This isn’t absolute proof that silicon-based organisms can thrive, let alone evolve, but it at least shows silicon can, more or less, have a biological basis.
On worlds with an abundance of silicates and organic compounds, I wouldn’t be surprised if organisms evolved to utilize silicon-based compounds for some chemical or survival purpose, but in the end, their actual cellular and body chemistry would very likely be carbon-based in origin.
Tom Caldwell holds a Bachelor’s of Science in biochemistry from UCLA. He is currently working towards a Ph.D. in molecular biology.
Last week brought news of an exciting new development in astronomy. Astrophysicists serendipitously discovered a planet one might find only in a science fiction show like Star Trek, but we now have evidence of an extraterrestrial planet made of diamonds. Yes, that’s right — a Ferengi’s dream come true.
From November 2008 to today, Bailes and colleagues have been conducting a pulsar survey using a radio telescope at the Swinburne University of Technology in Australia to identify, characterize, and document millisecond pulsars along the galactic disk. When their instruments measured a millisecond pulsar (PSR J1719-1438) about 4000 light-years away, they detected a companion “star” that appeared to be as massive as Jupiter yet had a density of around 23 g/mL (gas giants like Saturn and Jupiter have densities of 0.7 g/mL and 1.2 g/mL, respectively). The only known objects in the universe with a density close to 23 g/mL are ultra-low mass white dwarfs, but this object is even stranger than that.
This companion object doesn’t have as much mass to be considered a typical white dwarf, and spectroscopic analyses indicate that it mostly consists of carbon and helium, and perhaps trace amounts of heavier elements. Though carbon-helium white dwarfs are known to exist, this special object is more or less a planet than an average, everyday white dwarf, and its location orbiting around a pulsar makes it one of the most bizarre, yet fascinating, finds in astronomy since the initial discovery of pulsars themselves. Essentially, we have a highly dense astronomical object with a relatively cool core of crystalline carbon, and it is about the same size of Earth with the same mass as Jupiter; in other words: a planet that is very likely made of diamond. Here is a video that explains how the team made the discovery.
One of the most fascinating facets of pulsars is how they originate. Pulsars are formed from an accretion disk of hot, swirling gasses and stellar fragments left over from supernovae. The center of this accretion disk collapses under gravity, and if it is formed sufficiently close to a companion star, the accretion disk will actually leech stellar material from the companion star.
Once the object reaches critical mass, the intense gravity collapses the atoms inside the object down to their individual neutrons; the pressure of which is equivalent to taking the mass of the Earth hundreds of thousands of times over and crushing it down to the size of Manhattan Island. This object is considered a neutron star, one of the densest objects known to exist in the universe. If spinning sufficiently fast enough (about 100 – 200 rotations per second), neutron stars may emit radio waves (sometimes they emit x-rays) at either pole, at which point the neutron star becomes a pulsar. This is why astronomers, like Bailes and colleagues, use radio telescopes to detect radio wave emissions far out in space. If they aren’t looking for extraterrestrial civilizations, then they are looking for pulsars. Here is recording of the Vela pulsar radio signal, formed by the conglomeration of supernova stellar fragments; very eerie, yet absolutely sublime (well, mostly eerie).
But what is so important about discovering a diamond-like planet in space? What is its relevance to pulsars and neutron stars? Other than the fact that it is a very awesome find, the data collected by Bailes and colleagues offer us a very keen insight into the origin and evolution of binary star systems. In fact, this is direct evidence that shows us how physics works in terms of white dwarf and pulsar formations. We first discovered these objects forty years ago and they were a complete mystery to us then; now, science has provided us with a very good idea as to how they formed and what their significance is in the universe. We can account for the formation of pulsars in binary systems (like the one described in this diamond planet discovery), but solitary pulsars are still difficult to explain. They seem to form spontaneously without a companion star from which to leech extra matter. Several more years of research and exploring will answer today’s most ponderous questions. Nonetheless, the discovery of a pulsar-companion mostly made of diamond is certainly deserving of significant recognition.
Whether employed to tow a shipment of grain to Sherman’s planet or to stop a fleeing enemy ship in the middle of space combat, tractor beams are a common technological theme of Star Trek.
Zero-point technology is one of the geekiest facets of science fiction to interest physicists ever since their initial conception; indeed, the ability to lasso an object from half a kilometer away using an invisible force field or energy stream interests even the least of science fiction enthusiasts. It is a featured characteristic of any advanced society we imagine would exist in the future, yet it is one of the most elusive pieces of technology one could ever conceive. In this post, science will determine just how plausible a tractor beam is.
The tractor beam is a force field emitter that directs hypothetical particles known as gravitons to tether objects and, given the right signals, could manipulate the motion of the objects. I don’t know how plausible this explanation is in science (mainly because we haven’t yet discovered gravitons), but it seems to work on Scrubs.
When I think of tractor beams, I imagine a projection of magnetic fields that attract nearby objects toward the source of the field. It’s simple enough that we could potentially apply it in the future to perform many tasks (tractor beams being one of them). What’s more is that magnetic fields are a much more realistic approach than trying to invent some new phenomenon of science fiction that mystically molds energy into an invisible lasso using a yet undiscovered particle of physics. I’m not saying that’s impossible, I’m just saying it isn’t realistic. Before we can get into the engineering concept of a tractor beam, let’s first go over the science of magnetism and why it’s applicable for all intents and purposes.
Magnetic fields are lines of force propagated by moving charged particles (i.e. electrons in atomic orbiatls). Largely, a material’s magnetic strength is determined almost exclusively by the magnetic spin states of their orbital electrons. Atoms and molecules with unpaired electrons are paramagnetic because an external magnetic field propagated against these atoms causes them to align electron orbitals with the field and be attracted to the magnet. Atoms and molecules with paired electrons are diamagnetic because fields propagated against these atoms cause them to orient themselves in such a way as to oppose the magnetic field and be repelled by it. This is because the magnetic force applied to one paired electron is cancelled out by an equal, yet opposite, magnetic force applied by the other electron. This will be important later on when we get into the actual tractor beam itself.
Materials with unpaired electrons in which the atoms are oriented in the same direction (that is their magnetic moments are all aligned without the intervention of any external magnetic fields) tend to form strong magnets; these magnets are termed ferromagnetic. Iron is one metal that conducts magnetic charge very well due to its atomic structure, and molding iron in a manner that aligns the magnetic moments of all the atoms in it is one way to make a strong, ferromagnet (like the common U-shaped magnet below).
Another important feature of magnetism is how they are created by charged particles. Using the Right Hand Rule (explained in greater detail in my post on shields), one can predict the direction of magnetic field lines propagated by an electric current. If an electron is moving toward you from your computer screen (the direction of your right hand thumb) and a magnetic field is propagated upward from your keyboard (direction of your right hand fingers), then the electron will react by moving toward the right (direction of your right hand knuckles). If it were a proton, it would move left (direction of your right hand palm). If an electric current were to run in a copper wire (from your eyes into the computer screen), then the magnetic field would be propagated clockwise around the current-carrying wire. The field would go counterclockwise if the current ran in the opposite direction.
Believe it or not, I was stuck on this last step for the past several weeks. I couldn’t think of a way to realistically use magnetic fields in such a way as to tug ships, asteroids, and other massive objects because all magnets could possibly do were attract or repel, not tug. After thinking and sulking in the meantime, I gained inspiration from my old physics text book: a solenoid!
A solenoid is a metallic cylinder (usually with an empty, hollow interior, but an iron bar can be inserted to help conduct its magnetic charge) with a copper wire coiled around it a few hundred times. Applying an electric current through the copper wire establishes a magnetic field through the cylinder, and the field can be propagated in any direction for the purpose of attracting objects or repelling them. It all depends on the direction of the current through the wires and on the magnetic fields of the object in question.
Metallic and paramagnetic objects (like iron-nickel asteroids and other ships) can be pulled in toward the solenoid by mere virtue of the fact that they are attracted by magnetic fields. Diamagnetic objects (like comets) would be unaffected by any magnetic field. In any case, a very long solenoid with superconducting wires would be necessary to create a tractor beam-like device. A space ship with this kind of implementation could guide or attract (or even repel) metallic/paramagnetic/ferromagnetic objects through space. Though weak, solenoids could potentially set the framework for a working tractor beam in the future. Unfortunately, its limitations (see below) would make the design and implementation of solenoids as tractor beams hardly worthwhile.
USS Defiant uses its modified tractor beam
The Final Verdict
Tractor beams may not be entirely plausible (or even fulfill our greatest expectations if they are). Such a beam using electromagnetic designs (i.e. a solenoid) could be possible, but unfortunately I cannot say with any certainty that it will become that. As of yet, the tractor beam is still a facet of Science Fiction. Our magnetic solenoid is the closest we can get (probably ever get) to tractor beams, but with severe limitations and problems that may render it an impractical solution to zero-point technology (nothing is ever perfect).
For one, they are not actual tractor beams. The solenoid cannot simply tug on to an object and suspend it midair. In space, where gravity and air resistance are negligible, a solenoid would continue to pull objects in toward the tractoring ship even after the solenoid has been deactivated. A good workaround that I came up with would be to tug an object by initially using the solenoid, put it in motion, and then finally allow it move with you the entire way to your destination. The lack of air resistance in space can work in your favor because the vacuum of space does not impede the velocity of space ships, but sometimes, it can work against you.
Another limitation to using solenoids as a tractor beam is that when pushing objects away, the transmittance of momentum in a vacuum becomes an issue. Suppose a torpedo is on a collision course with the Enterprise and that Captain Kirk decided to use solenoids instead of tractor beams. Let’s next assume that torpedoes have magnetic fields. A magnetic solenoid can be applied against an incoming object such that the orientation of the magnetic field lines run anti-parallel to the magnetic field lines of the other object (in other words, the solenoid’s North Pole is facing the torpedoes North Pole). The opposition of the magnetic fields would repel the incoming object away from the Enterprise (given a sufficiently powerful solenoid and the right momentum), but there’s a catch. Due to Newton’s Third Law of Motion and the lack of air resistance, the force propagated against the torpedo would also be propagated against the Enterprise (every action has an equal, opposite reaction).
The momentum transferred against the other ship would be absorbed by the Enterprise as well, so the incoming torpedo would be repelled to an even lesser degree and may still be racing toward the Enterprise (it might not even slow it down if the object was more massive than the Enterprise). Luckily, since the Enterprise is pushed further away from the incoming object, it could work to Kirk’s advantage. A higher gain on the magnetic field would be required to effectively push objects away, but even that itself presents another severe limitation.
The strength of the magnetic field charged in the solenoid must have a Goldilocks medium, and here’s why. Imagine the Enterprise is trying to push an incoming torpedo away using a high-powered solenoid. The magnetic field can’t be too weak or else it would barely affect the momentum of the torpedo. It can’t be too strong either because the magnetic field would violently twist the torpedo around and reorient the torpedo’s field with the solenoid. The Enterprise’s repulsive beam becomes tractor beam of death; the torpedo is now racing toward the Enterprise at an even faster velocity than before because the solenoid is tugging it in toward the ship.
While torpedoes are much lighter than space vessels like the Enterprise, an anti-parallel, moderately-strong solenoid can still be a working solution to repel torpedoes, but what about much larger objects like asteroids or planetoids? Assuming they are diamagnetic and given a scenario in which an asteroid threatens a nearby planet, using a solenoid against these massive objects may very well push the Enterprise away from the asteroid at full force with little to no influence on the asteroid’s trajectory. Even worse, diamagnetic materials tend not to be influenced by magnetic fields because their electron orbitals reorient themselves to counteract any change in magnetic moments. No matter the strength of the magnetic field, a large, diamagnetic asteroid or comet inevitably spells doom for the Enterprise and whatever planet it threatens. It may actually work for iron-nickel asteroids (largely ferromagnetic), but a much, much, much higher gain on the solenoid is required to influence these massive objects
And finally, there is the issue of whether or not solenoids can even be practical. The magnetic field inside the solenoid center is at is strongest because the electrons encircling the cylinder propagate the magnetic field from either end inside the cylinder, but the motion of electrons around the cylinder have little (if any) affect on the space outside the cylinder. Thus, the magnetic field weakens and diverges outside the solenoid; in other words, solenoid-based tractor beams may only be effective if applied on objects at an extremely close range, perhaps inside the cylinder itself. Not a bad way to tug a shipment of grain to the famished Sherman’s planet, but repelling asteroids and torpedoes with this encumbering limitation is too close for comfort!
In 2010, a group of scientists at the Australian National University managed to create a tractor beam that was able to carry a few bits of glass midair across the length of an office desk. It works by using high-intensity lasers (termed “hollow lasers”) to heat up the air molecules around a narrow, cold center. Objects suspended in the colder region are repelled by the pressure surrounding the center and so they remain within this narrow band of cool air. A force applied on the object at this point allows it to move effortlessly through air without falling out of the tractor beam. Even if it falls or rises too close to the laser, the heated molecules bounce the object back into the colder region (like a ball bouncing against a wall). Prior to this paramount discovery, scientists had only been able to make oil droplets travel midair, riding a stream of light no longer than a few centimeters; this time, we were able to move glass particles 5 feet!
But like all things awesome in science, there is always a catch: it requires air. In order to create a pressure difference between the center and the space surrounding it to prevent the object from falling out if its tractor beam, air molecules must be able to get excited by the lasers and push against the air molecules inside the cold region. A tractor beam would work great in atmosphere, but in space it is no more elaborate than a simple laser shooting into the infinite expanse that is our Cosmos. Should a working tractor beam ever be developed for employment in space, it may not be this (or even solenoids). Until the next great physicist discovers gravitons or some similar particle of physics with the ability to suspend objects in space, we will have to make do without it.
Tom Caldwell holds a Bachelor’s of Science in biochemistry from UCLA. He is currently working towards a Ph.D. in molecular biology.
In the last installment of Science Fiction or Science Fact, it was reasoned that the photon torpedo is a technological possibility. It may be impractical to utilize, but it would become a terrifying weapon of mass destruction. Just how can anyone defend themselves from that sort of firepower? Such a defensive capability is mentioned on the shows of Star Trek: the deflector shields. Star Trek describes the deflector shield as a force field that deflects massive objects (like torpedoes) and absorbs power from phaser impacts so that they do not damage the targeted ship. Are invisible energy shields possible? Can we raise our shields to defend ourselves from other technological possibilities like phasers and photon torpedoes? In this discussion, the fate of shield technology will be decided.
The concept of a shield is a lot less conceivable than it sounds. Creating an invisible force field with the protective capability of disintegrating oncoming photon torpedoes and phaser fire is a very difficult engineering feat. Energy isn’t some mystical substance that can be molded and shaped into exotic space-filling structures; it is simply the capacity of a system to perform thermodynamic work. Energy is required to lower the entropy of a system already at equilibrium, and energy is liberated when a chemical reaction occurs spontaneously in a closed, isolated system. The terms “energy bubble” and “energy shield” are highly unrealistic in conventional physics. When constructing our hypothetical shield, we must refrain from science fantasy and the concept of a shield as a form of energy. In so far as physics is concerned, shield technology may require an application of electromagnetism.
I gained inspiration of a hypothetical shield from Michio Kaku’s “Physics of the Impossible,” a text that details the scientific plausibility of common themes in science fiction (yes, we scientists are total nerds). In it, Kaku describes a plasma window in which scientists have been able to partition a vacuum from an atmosphere using plasma conformed to magnetic and electric fields. That might not seem all too interesting, but think of it this way: the plasma shield is literally an invisible wall of superheated, ionized gas that is so dense and so compacted together by magnetic fields that even air molecules on one side cannot penetrate it. A window of thin plasma could be sufficient to replace the plexiglass windows on space shuttles used by NASA in the future, but I digress. From this information and my knowledge of basic electromagnetism, I have attempted to develop a plasma shield that isn’t dissimilar to the shield showcased on Star Trek.
Magnetic fields and electric fields are lines of force propagated by charged particles. One can visualize magnetic fields by sprinkling iron filings around a magnet; the iron filings will orient themselves along the magnetic field in the form of curved lines from north pole to south.
Electric fields are a little harder to visualize and requires a more comprehensive experiment, but it is the same principle as magnetism: lines of force that travel from positive charge to negative.
One thing to note regarding electromagnetism is that both electric fields and magnetic fields are propagated perpendicular to one another from the same source. Magnetic fields and electric fields also influence the motion of charged particles. For example, an electron (negatively charged) establishes its own electric field by “absorbing” electric field lines in space; they tend to move against the flow of electric fields while protons (positively charged) tend to move with the flow of electric fields. When the electron is put in motion (i.e. an electric current through a copper wire), the electron propagates a magnetic field around the direction of motion in accordance with the Right Hand Rule.
The Right Hand Rule states that a uniform magnetic field (in the direction of your right hand fingers) will propagate a force on a moving charged particle (in the direction of your right hand thumb) such that the particle will have a tendency to move perpendicular to both the thumb and the fingers (in the direction of the palm if the particle is positively charged; in the direction of the knuckles if negatively charged). The net result of a moving electron (initially traveling up your computer screen) in a uniform magnetic field propagated into this computer screen will travel in a clockwise circle. Physicist J. J. Thomson applied this phenomenon to discover and precisely measure the mass of an electron; a very simple, yet elegant, application of mathematics and physics that eventually paved the way for future inventions, from mass spectrometers to plasma TVs nearly a century later.
An electric field can induce a magnetic field perpendicular to itself, and a magnetic field can induce an electric field in the same fashion. It is the same principle on which wind turbines and nuclear reactors are based; one can use a spinning magnet in a wind turbine to generate an electric current in a set of wires. Or, one can use an electric current from a power source to charge a solenoid that propagates a magnetic field in order to operate a car engine. All these machines of science were developed on the understanding of electromagnetism, and one more machine might be added to this long list of creative inventions.
In reference to the images below of the Enterprise D, a theoretical shield generator would utilize a parallel plate capacitor charged by power source. The capacitor would establish an electric field (cyan dotted arrows) between the plates, which in turn establishes a magnetic field (orange arrows) around the capacitor. If one were to incorporate large enough capacitor with a sufficiently strong power source, a magnetic field can be propagated around the entire ship.
For the same reason an electron travels in a spherical shape when influenced by magnetic fields, plasma could be ejected at either the dorsal or ventral sides of the Enterprise to establish a spherical shell around the ship. Plasma is superheated, ionized gas and it can either be negatively charged or positively charged.
Plasma is an ideal source for the shield because it can be molded into any geometric arrangement (limited to the propagation of magnetic fields, of course); in this particular setup, the plasma shield would encompass the ship in doughnut form (shown in the image as cross sections). A very worthy rationale for plasma shields is that plasma, when condensed tightly enough around the ship, is hot enough to vaporize metallic objects like photon torpedoes (though several layers of plasma may be necessary to do that); furthermore, plasma has an electronic state that can absorb photons from focused laser beams, so it would be effective at protecting the ship from incoming phaser fire. Another advantage of using plasma as a shield barrier in space is that there are no air molecules to absorb heat from the plasma, so the energy contained in the shield will not dissipate to the vacuum of space. In other words, the shield will remain hot and stable.
While shields may be inconceivable as a bubble of energy, they may exist in the form of plasma. In light of this argument, deflector shields may be a Science Fact, although that does not mean it is 100% possible. Like any other form of technology, there are limitations to its use.
Firstly, the magnetic fields propagated by the parallel plate capacitor would wane eventually as the charge on the capacitor approaches 100% because the current running through the circuit diminishes with time. One workaround for this would be to charge one capacitor to saturation then redirect current flow from the charged capacitor to an uncharged capacitor. This way, the magnetic fields won’t weaken while the shield is maintained.
Secondly, there is a Goldilocks medium for the magnetic field and the mass and speed of charged particles. The magnetic field cannot be too weak, or else the plasma will fly out into space and the shield won’t be intact. It cannot be too strong, otherwise the plasma would be bent in toward the ship and disintegrate portions of the hull. Optimization of the magnetic field depends almost entirely on the initial momentum of the particles in the plasma stream. One must adjust the force fields so that the plasma can be directed into a comfortable spherical shell around the ship: not too wide, not too narrow, but just right.
The last, and perhaps most severe limitation of plasma shields, especially with regards to space combat, is that the plasma shield is not only effective at blocking phasers and torpedoes from enemy ships, but it is also effective at blocking weapons’ fire from inside the shield. The ship’s weapons would be useless while the shield generator is active because the ship’s phasers and projectiles would not penetrate the plasma.
NASA is already developing a plasma shield for future space flights to Mars. When traveling beyond the confines of Earth’s magnetic fields, astronauts would become vulnerable to solar radiation and charged particles ejected from the sun. We have experienced cases in which circuits on deep space satellites were fried and rendered inoperable because solar flares destroyed them.
In the eventuality that Man takes another “small step” to the next planet in our solar system, we will have to protect our astronauts from solar flares. NASA’s plasma bubble is established by a wire frame network of charged plasma to induce a magnetic field around the ship. This design is similar to the one proposed here, except that my concept uses magnetic fields to conform a bubble of plasma in order to block phasers and torpedoes. While plasma shields are theoretically possible, we may not see brilliant space battles anytime soon. Nevertheless, NASA’s own inventions and efforts in the development of shield technology is very electrifying (excuse the pun), and this brings us one step closer to landing humans on another world for the very first time.
Tom Caldwell has a Bachelor’s of Science in biochemistry from UCLA. He is currently working towards a Ph.D. in molecular biology.
Photon torpedoes are mentioned (and used) in almost every Star Trek episode, and quantum torpedoes were referenced heavily in Deep Space Nine and the TNG movies. It would seem that if phasers are possible (based on a previous post), then certainly torpedoes are just as likely. We already have submarine torpedoes and missiles today, so what can be so difficult about packing a bunch of TNT into a metal casing and firing it into space? There is a lot to consider here and the technology isn’t as clear cut as simple lasers. After all, Memory Alpha and the Star Trek Technical Manual describe photon torpedoes as “antimatter warheads” (source: Memory Alpha), and that claim alone makes the technology a lot more difficult to attain. Going on this assertion, let’s see if photon torpedoes are technically plausible or if realistic science ultimately blows them out of the stars.
The destructive power of photon torpedoes comes from an unstable reaction mixture between matter and antimatter; the two annihilate one another to release tremendous amounts of energy. For more information on antimatter, the reader may wish to refer to my previous article on antimatter reactors or simply watch this video:
In other words, photon torpedoes are metal casings that suspend positrons (a form of antimatter that reacts violently with electrons) in an internal magnetic field, which collapses on impact and brings the antimatter into contact with normal matter. The collision of both types of particles generates an incredibly violent explosion. Assuming a typical warhead contains just 1 milligram of antimatter, a photon torpedo would release 180 million kilojoules (equivalent to 43 metric tons of TNT). A photon torpedo carrying this yield would look something like this (and bear in mind, this is the result of only 1 milligram of antimatter):
One advantage to using a photon torpedo as an explosive device in space is the lack of combustible oxygen. The combustion of an explosive fuel source, like TNT, requires oxygen as a reactant, and no such reaction could occur in the absence of oxygen (which is why fire cannot exist in a vacuum, let alone in space). Immediately, a problem arises in space-borne warfare: how can one use explosives in space without any oxygen to ignite the agent? Matter-antimatter reactions do not require oxygen; in fact, the annihilation of antimatter occurs spontaneously at the quantum level, so antimatter weapons are effective in any environment. Essentially, the absence of oxygen in space bears no sway on the explosive output of antimatter annihilation. Photon torpedoes would work just as well in space as they would in an atmosphere.
Once again, Star Trek demonstrates its unwavering fealty to science. We do indeed have the ability to produce antimatter today and it is a real scientific concept. Scientists are able to produce antimatter in huge particle colliders like the ones at CERN and FermiLab (even though only a few nanograms have ever been produced and maintained for only a few milliseconds). Given that antimatter can be created, the prospect for photon torpedoes is looking a little brighter.
The Final Verdict
The technology of photon torpedoes is quite possibly a Science Fact, though there are severe limitations, which make photon torpedoes less likely a possibility than phasers. The production costs of antimatter are incredibly steep: up to $25 billion per gram. Antimatter is one of the scarcest resources in the Universe, so harvesting antimatter is also impractical. If Mankind plans on using photon torpedoes in the future, mass production is out of the question as there may only be enough antimatter to make a few torpedoes, each carrying only a few micrograms (or even nanograms) of antimatter. We may have to contend with much lower yields of antimatter than we would wish.
Another impracticality of using torpedoes in space is Newton’s First Law of Motion, which states that an object in uniform motion (traveling in a straight line) or at rest will remain in its current state until acted upon by an external force. Photon torpedoes on Star Trek are famed for their accuracy and maneuverability; they track down and destroy their targets with deadly precision. However, the aerodynamic ability of missiles and jet airplanes comes from air resistance. In order for an object to make sharp turns, loops, and apply enough force to change its direction of motion, a force must be propagated against the direction of the object’s path and another force must be applied in a new direction. That is why planes are designed with wing flaps to take advantage of air resistance and adjust air flow on either side. Manipulating and applying forces due to air resistance on the airplane allows it to maneuver and change direction.
As mentioned previously, space is a vacuum, so air resistance doesn’t exist. Firing a torpedo in space will simply make the torpedo travel in a straight line, with or without thrusters, forever and ever until it hits something. If the torpedo were to thrust left while in forward motion, the torpedo will not change its direction completely to the left: it will travel diagonally. Applying a force in a new direction does not cancel out the previous vector (unless a force is applied against the torpedo’s forward motion). This is simply because vectors are additive; force vectors applied in the forward direction and the left direction creates a resultant net vector in the diagonal (left-forward) direction.
Assuming the Enterprise and the Romulan Bird of Prey do not move, a torpedo shot head on will destroy the enemy ship.
Now assume the Romulan Bird of Prey moved out of the way and is now to the left (from the reader’s vantage point). Firing a torpedo this time in the forward direction while still trying to apply a force (i.e. thrusters) in the direction of the Bird of Prey will not cause the torpedo to change direction immediately. In fact, while the forward vector remains unchanged, it will only proceed diagonally until stopped or slowed down by some external force (or if it hits something else). The lack of air resistance makes torpedo movement sluggish and difficult, hardly ideal when attempting to destroy moving targets. However, it doesn’t mean we can’t use photon torpedoes in the future; it simply means space combat would no longer be as exciting as this:
Tom Caldwell has a Bachelor’s of Science in biochemistry from UCLA. He is currently working towards a Ph.D. in molecular biology.
The unforgettable theme of Star Trek was given its vigor and life in NASA’s space programs, from the Apollo missions to the Mars robotic rovers and finally to the end of the Space Transportation System (STS) program. Enduring 50 years of science beyond the safety and isolation of our “pale blue dot” (those words belong to Carl Sagan, not me), it has been a long journey of triumph, prominence, and even tragedy as we dared to defy gravity and take to the stars.
On July 8, 2011 at 11:29 AM EDT, Space Shuttle Atlantis STS-135 launched from NASA’s Kennedy Space Center in Florida to undertake its last mission into the “Final Frontier” where four astronauts (pictured below) would strike their names in history as the heroic men and woman who carried the spirit of space exploration with them deep into the unknown. It is with great appreciation and pride to announce that their takeoff was a success.
Photo: The crew of NASA STS-135 Atlantis: Rex Walheim, Doug Hurley, Commander Chris Ferguson, and Sandy Magnus
It is also with great sadness to say that this will be NASA’s last mission into space with the Atlantis Space Shuttle. With Former President Bush’s Vision for Space Exploration finally enacted, NASA’s STS program comes to its retirement in lieu of a more advanced shuttle type that may be in service in the near future (though obstacles stand in the way). Let’s take a moment to remember all the great things NASA has achieved with their space shuttle program.
The program started as a design concept in 1969 that would replace the Apollo missions with a more cost-effective craft equipped with an advanced jet propulsion system, thrusters, and an external fuel tank. In the program’s initiation in 1976, NASA and the White House deemed it appropriate and relevant to its purpose that the first-built orbiter shuttle was to be named Enterprise, in direct reference to the USS Enterprise on Star Trek (yep, even then Star Trek was a central influence to NASA’s space program). Even though the Enterprise was never intended for launch, NASA was determined to send a manned shuttle flight into space, even if they had to build a new one from scratch.
The Columbia STS-1 was the first shuttle launched into space for test orbit around the Earth on April 12th 1981. The program’s initial success prompted NASA to continue the program, developing more advanced shuttles like the Discovery, the Endeavour, and the Atlantis. The STS program was responsible for deploying the Chandra X-Ray Observatory, the Hubble Space Telescope, the International Space Station, and interplanetary probes, like the Galileo and the Magellan, which all offered us vital information regarding the origin and evolution of our solar system and of the galaxy throughout.
Despite all of its achievements, the STS program was not without failure; Mankind lost some of its bravest and finest in its attempts to push the boundaries of the impossible:
On January 28th 1986, the space shuttle Challenger STS-51-L disintegrated 73 seconds after launch due to a mechanical failure in the shuttle’s right solid rocket booster, tragically killing the seven astronauts on board.
Photo: The crew of Challenger STS-51-L (back row, left to right): Ellison Onizuka, Christa McAuliffe, Gregory Jarvis, Judith Resnik. (front row, left to right): Michael Smith, Dick Scobbee, Ronal McNair.
On February 1st 2003, Columbia STS-107 was destroyed upon re-entry into Earth’s atmosphere due to damaged thermal protection tiles on the craft. All seven astronauts sadly lost their lives that day.
The crew of Columbia STS-107 (blue shirts, left to right): David Brown, William McCool, Michael Anderson (red shirts, left to right): Kalpana Chawla, Commander Rick Husband, Laurel Clark, Ilan Ramon
Even in the face of tragedy and despair, we continue in pursuit of knowledge and peaceful exploration among the stars. Today, Mankind leaves a lasting footprint in space, as we make our last farewell to NASA’s 30-year old space shuttle program…but not forever.
NASA has been developing new types of spacecraft (multi-purpose Crew Exploration Vehicles) dubbed the Orion and the Ares as part of their Constellation Program. The new space program seeks to develop technology that would enhance flight to carry humans to the moon once again and even farther. Plans for the first manned space flight to Mars are already in the works; the Mars mission is proposed to take place sometime in 2031. NASA is currently performing test flights of this new rocket in the lower atmosphere to make preparations for the eventual return to space.
The Ares I spacecraft, developed by NASA in this new program, is scheduled for a test launch to the moon on November of 2014, already 3 years ahead of its original date in 2017. However, in the wake of a crippled economy and a multi-trillion dollar national debt, President Obama has proposed that Congress cut funding to the program entirely, citing “rising costs” and “delays.” (source: New York Times)
Despite the impending doom of the new space flight program, NASA’s enthusiasm and promotion of the Constellation Program serves as a constant reminder that explorers are not bound by politics but rather tasked by the Universe Herself to discover and strive to become better than they are at present. Captain Picard and Commander Riker would be the first to testify for Mankind’s greatness, even to defy Gods like Q:
Indeed, space is “wondrous, with treasures to satiate desires both subtle and gross. But it’s not for the timid.” (Q, “Q Who?” Star Trek: The Next Generation) And as such, we, Mankind, are compelled by the mysteries of the unknown to achieve the impossible and force open the door to discovery and exploration.
To boldly go where no man has gone before
That was our motto… and it still is. Tom Caldwell has a Bachelor’s of Science in biochemistry from UCLA. He is currently working towards a Ph.D. in molecular biology.
Nuclear fusion; It is the process that gives the sun its life, yet it also inevitably destroys entire solar systems. We owe our thanks to this phenomenon of physics for most of the elements on the Periodic Table (at least up to uranium), and it has the potential to unlock a more eco-friendly source of energy that may very well outperform and surpass solar panels. But unfortunately, a quantum-sized wall (literally) stands in our way to this Pandora’s Box of power.
While nuclear fusion is hardly mentioned in Star Trek, it is often referenced in science fiction in general. Star Trek has, unfortunately, overlooked one of the greatest undertakings of modern technology in lieu of more exotic sources of energy (anything that sounds fancy and high-tech); nuclear fusion may very well be the next environmentally-safe alternative to windmills. One of the greatest gifts of nuclear fusion is the promise of an “everlasting” supply of energy.
In this installment of “Science Fiction or Science Fact,” we’ll examine the physics of nuclear fusion in order to understand and appreciate why it matters so much and finally asses its scientific applicability.
In the grand scheme of energy production, the process of generating energy is only as useful as the amount of net energy you produce at the “end of the day.” Or rather that the amount of energy one harnesses from a reactor is greater than the amount required to maintain it. To put this into some perspective, energy production is analogous to day trading in the stock market: stocks are bought when they are cheap and sold later in the day when they increase in value; the result is a net gain in profits. Energy production works the same way—except harnessing power from thermodynamic processes is less risky than owning stocks and it is much more predictable and calculable.
You may recall one of my earlier posts about antimatter reactors and how society cannot become reliant on power plants that consume more energy than it produces (though it may be sufficient to power warp engines, but that’s beside the point). What makes nuclear fusion so special is its greater return in energy.
Atoms are one of the smallest particles known to exist (with the exception of elementary particles). Atoms are made up of a nucleus containing protons and neutrons: protons are positively-charged while neutrons have no charge. In culmination, the nucleus is the positively-charged core of the atom, while the electrons that “orbit” around the nucleus (as presented in the atomic model) are negatively-charged. The model presented here isn’t entirely inaccurate, though the atom is drawn hopelessly out of scale: if an atom was as large as a football stadium, then the nucleus would be no larger than a grain of rice at the very center of the field.
The reader may question the stability of the atomic nucleus. If it is composed of positively-charged protons, how can the nucleus remain intact without the positive charges repelling each other? The answer: the Strong Nuclear Force (the strongest of the four fundamental forces known to exist in the Universe). While the like-charges of protons repel one another, it is the Strong Nuclear Force that abrogates any repulsive interaction between protons and tightly binds them together.
The Strong Nuclear Force is what finally drives the fusion of two nuclei into one. However, it only works at the subatomic scale and cannot reach out and pull nuclei in toward each other to fuse them together. This is why extreme momentum is required to initiate the fusion reaction; two nuclei must be traveling so quickly that they overcome any electrostatic repulsion, collide into one another, and fuse. Inside stars, heat and pressure collide tritium and deuterium (isotopes of hydrogen) into one another to cause the two nuclei to fuse into helium, expelling an extra neutron.
Another interesting note is that the mass of helium plus the mass of the expelled neutron is found to be lighter than the original atoms that were mashed together to form the product. So where did the extra mass go? The force of the impact and the Strong Nuclear Force that resolves the stability of the helium nucleus literally converted some of the matter into its mass-equivalent of pure energy. That is A LOT of energy…imagine the power output of trillions upon trillions of nuclei fusing together at once!
In summary, nuclear fusion occurs when intense pressure causes two nuclei to collide and smash into one another and fuses them into a larger nucleus, a process that liberates a remarkable amount of energy. Here is a video that breaks it down step-by-step:
Nuclear fusion is the reason why the sun shines so brightly and so hotly; it is also the reason why scientists regard nuclear fusion as the “Holy Grail” of energy because the net gain in power would solve just about any economic and environmental problem on Earth for millennia. Imagine the benefits it would have: electricity bills might disappear, cars could run on and on without ever refueling, salt water could be easily desalinated for communities with limited access to clean, drinking water, global climate change becomes a nonissue, societies become self-sufficient, and so much more. This is the promise of nuclear fusion (sun panels and even nuclear fission would be thrown out the window for this extraordinary power source). The best part is: it’s just around the corner!
The Final Verdict
Nuclear fusion isn’t just possible, but it occurs in the sun, it has been generated in hydrogen bombs, and it may very well happen in controlled laboratory experiments because nuclear fusion is a Science Fact. The only obstacle in our way is reproducing a sustainable, nuclear reaction in the lab for the sole purpose of harnessing energy from it.
I cannot stress enough the “gravity” (excuse the pun, if you know what I mean) and difficulty of nuclear fusion. It requires heat and pressure on the scales found in stars; as such scientists cannot hope to recreate whole suns just to run a nuclear fusion reactor. Our next best hope is to find a circumvention of physics that allows us to bypass the electrostatic repulsions of nuclei and force them to fuse spontaneously.
Well…here it is:
Two hundred high-intensity lasers focused on a single casing of deuterium and tritium may be the key to unlocking the power of the sun for our benefit. It may not become marketable in the near future, but scientists and engineers wouldn’t be working diligently on it if it wasn’t possible.
Tom Caldwell has a Bachelor’s of Science in biochemistry from UCLA. He is currently working towards a Ph.D. in molecular biology.
We’ve seen them on every Star Trek episode; phasers and futuristic weapons in science fiction are as fascinating and, in a lot of ways, as terrifying as gunpowder was to the Aztecs. The idea of futuristic laser weapons have been around since the time of H.G. Wells and they continue to influence the way we envision the future. But does reality fall short of our imagination, and is there really a limit to what we can achieve from technology? Science fiction brought us the site-to-site transporter, yet any hope of instantaneous teleportation was crushed by a simple rule in physics: the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle (don’t get me started with the Heisenberg Compensator, it’s still impossible). So the big question of the day is: can we ever develop phasers and plasma-based weapons that could “melt” entire cities, vaporize Romulans (hehe), and mine dense asteroids for the resources stored inside their cores? Or are we stuck with this crude black sulfur- and nitrate-mixture for all eternity?
If you recall one of my earlier posts about transporter technology and how it may be impossible to transport someone with all the quantum particles in the correct places at the correct energy levels, site-to-site transport offers one very interesting (though impractical) facet of matter-to-energy conversion. Converting a 200-pound object completely into energy generates a beam of light with the destructive power of 130,000 atomic bombs. I jokingly said that if all else fails in transporter technology, then we at least know how to make a deadly laser beam with the ability to not only destroy ships, but planets too (the Death Star from Star Wars comes to mind).
This may very well be our phaser, although I think it would be overkill to create a handheld phaser that transmutes bits of matter into electromagnetic radiation capable of vaporizing whole planets. Instead, there may be a better idea: same concept, different mechanism.
We already have high-intensity light beams that are powerful enough to vaporize small materials and leave burn marks on sheets of metal. Scientifically speaking, they are photons, or rays of electromagnetic particles, that are optically amplified (i.e. using a simple magnifier) to render them hotter and more intense. The process of creating these high-energy light beams is called “Light Amplification by Stimulated Emission of Radiation,” or in short: L.A.S.E.R.
Lasers are becoming more and more commonplace now that we are entering a Golden Age of science and technology. Their applications range from entertainment to medicine; military applications also exist, although no handheld phasers yet. The coolest part is that nothing intricate or complex is required to generate a laser beam. All you need is a power source that emits electromagnetic radiation (i.e. light)…and a simple magnifier. One can create a laser using a magnifying glass to amplify sunlight into a focused beam of death that incinerates Romulans, Klingons, and ants.
We’re not at that stage yet to make deadly laser beams, but we’re getting pretty close. In this clip, the latest innovations in optical physics bring us the most powerful laser in the world, with applications in both futuristic weapon technology and energy production (i.e. cold fusion):
The Final Verdict
Based on this speculation, I would have to say that the concept of phaser weapons is a Science Fact. I do not know if they really would be lasers or if they are weapons that emit energetic particles (and certainly much more R&D would be required before one can invent directed-energy weapons). In any case, I am at least hopeful that such futuristic beam weapons could be developed in the future (especially considering the rapid advancement of modern technology).
It is important to note that while phasers aren’t theoretically impossible, they may not become what we imagine them to be today. Phasers, if they are anything like lasers, are nothing more than propagated beams of light, which travels from point A to point B in one direction (a straight line). Lawrence Krauss, author of “The Physics of Star Trek,” discusses an “obvious [though overlooked] error” regarding phaser technology and he brings up a crucial point in his book: if phasers really are directed beams of light, how can they be visible? The fact of the matter is they should be invisible.
We can see objects because light shines on them and bounces back to our retinas so that the brain can interpret the stimuli to form an image. Well, lasers (and phasers for that matter) only shoot in one direction; unless we are in the path of the phaser beam (don’t try this at home, kids), we wouldn’t be able to see the phaser beam from any vantage point. Directing a laser pointer at a nearby wall reveals the laser dot but no laser beam. In order to see the beam, dust particles or some dilute, opaque medium must be present to cause the light beams to scatter midair, allowing you to see the path of the beam. In summation, phaser weapons are possible, but if one expects epic space battles with brilliantly colored streams of light flying across space, disintegrating enemy ships on impact…guess again.
Tom Caldwell has a Bachelor’s of Science in biochemistry from UCLA. He is currently working towards a Ph.D. in molecular biology
No one, not even Trekkers, can ever forget Captain Kirk’s famous catchphrase, “Beam me up, Scotty,” which, despite its popularity in science fiction culture, was never actually spoken in The Original Series.
Nevertheless, virtually every Star Trek episode featured the site-to-site transporter: teleporting an away team to a nearby planet, landing Jem’Hadar shock troops on the Defiant after their shields were brought down, or even in a desperate evacuation attempt to rescue a whole population from an advancing armada of Borg cubes. It is one of the few technological themes of Star Trek that distinguishes it from similar science fiction series, like Babylon 5 or even the Star Wars movies; while transporter technology is certainly an interesting quirk of Star Trek and it holds promise for a future society graced by the fortitude of scientific knowledge, is it truly possible to teleport someone through space and making him/her reappear in a different location almost instantaneously?
The transporters of Star Trek have consistently been described by characters on the shows as being a device that converts matter into energy and back into matter; more specifically, the precise arrangement of atoms and molecules at the quantum level in an object (say a human body) are stored into a computer program or a transporter buffer, then the transporter disassembles the molecules and converts them into pure energy. The energy is sent to a different location where it is assembled back into matter using the information stored in the transporter buffer to put “humpty-dumpty back together again,” with all the right atoms in all the right places. Unfortunately, analyzing the credibility of transporters is much more difficult than it was for faster-than-light travel and cloaking devices because no one has really devoted as much time and effort to the theory and experimentation of teleportation (mainly because our technology simply isn’t good enough…yet). Therefore, my analysis will be limited to mass-to-energy conversion and information sciences as we understand them today.
When transporting a human person, for example, one must be able to take apart the person atom by atom, transform those atoms into energy, and put the atoms back together in a different place. The replacement of these atoms and molecules in their appropriate orientations is crucial to a successful transport; otherwise, this would happen:
The information required to build a human body (not the genetic information as derived from DNA, but rather the information required to locate every quantum particle in the body) is equal to around 10^45 bits of computer information, a 1 followed by 45 zeros. In order to store this amount of information in a digital format with which to recreate the human body from scratch, one would need at least 190 million, trillion, trillion computers (assuming a hard disk space of 640 GB).
That is a lot of computers, but perhaps in the future, technology will allow us to compact information much more easily. The problem here is not our given level of technology, but rather the physical laws that govern the quantum mechanical world, which is why the physics of transporters are a little harder to reconcile.
The Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle states that it is impossible to determine both the position and momentum of a quantum particle, such as the electron, regardless of any technological ability to attempt such determination. One can precisely locate all the atoms and subatomic particles in the human body, although their energy levels, momentum, and electron spin states are much more difficult to determine. Conversely, one cannot precisely determine their locations after having determined the momentum of each electron. It is necessary to know BOTH in order to correctly reassemble the quantum particles in their original momentum and locations in order to appropriately rematerialize a human being. It follows from this conjecture that transporting a human is impossible without changing the laws of physics…unless you have a Heisenberg compensator, the sci-fi gimmick employed on Star Trek to circumvent quantum mechanics and ignore the Uncertainty Principle in order to use transporters. Is the concept of a Heisenberg compensator even plausible? The only answer is: NO, NO, NO, and NO!…but it’s a good effort.
The next technological feature of transporters is disassembling a human being at the quantum level and converting all the matter in one’s body into pure energy. Technically, scrambling the molecules in one’s body is no different than killing the person; putting the quantum particles back together to reform the body is, for lack of a better word, resurrecting a dead corpse. This begs the questions: does the transporter actually kill the person being transported, and if so what comes out at the other end, a perfect clone of the transported person or a dead body?
In this excerpt from an episode of The Universe, scientists evaluate the transporter technology and whether or not transporting a human actually teleports him/her from one place to another or if the person is killed and replaced by a “perfect quantum replica.” There is no need to watch the entire episode, though it’s very informative and entertaining; from 4:06 to 5:00, scientists discuss how the transporter may theoretically kill the person being transported, then “resurrected” after rematerialization.
Notice that the episode is titled “Science Fiction and Science Fact”; to those wondering, this was the first time I had seen this episode and the resemblance between this episode and my web series (Science Fiction OR Science Fact) is purely coincidental.
For all intents and purposes, let’s assume that successfully scrambling the molecules in one’s body and converting that person into pure energy doesn’t kill him/her and that one can feasibly determine the precise location and momentum of quantum particles in the human body (which is impossible, by the way). In order to transform someone into pure energy, one must make use of Albert Einstein’s famous relativistic equation:
which states that mass (m) and energy (E) are equivalent via the square of the speed of light (c^2). When one converts a human body weighing 200 lbs (or 90.7 kg) into pure energy, the energy is equal to the body’s mass multiplied by the square of the speed of light. For a 200-pound body, mass-to-energy conversion would generate approximately 8.17 x 10^18 J, which is an amount of energy equivalent to 130,000 times the destructive power of the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan during World War II. Even if scientists and engineers could ever develop technology with the ability to convert mass into energy, transporting multiple groups of humans and heavier objects may overload computer circuits.
Assuming future technology can handle the amount of energy, the energy would have to be transferred to photons (wave-like particles of light composed of “mostly” energy). This requires the use of an additional equation, this time from quantum mechanics instead of relativity:
where E is the energy of a photon, h is Planck’s constant, c is the speed of light, and λ (lambda) is the wavelength of the photon.
Assuming mass can be converted into photonic energy at 100% efficiency, one can determine the wavelength of the photon that carries this energy from one location to another at the speed of light by algebraically rearranging the equation to solve for lambda. The wavelength of the transporter beam is about 2.4 x 10^-44 meters. To put this into some perspective, the most powerful form of electromagnetic radiation currently known to exist are gamma rays (the type of radiation produced by nuclear reactors) with a wavelength on the magnitude of 10^-12 meters, which is 32 magnitudes of 10 weaker than the transporter beam; anything with a shorter wavelength, higher energy, is not yet known to exist.
Photons produced by our transporter would be so powerful that they may actually disintegrate “anything” in its path, which shouldn’t be surprising considering we converted 130,000 atomic bombs into a stream of light. A ship-to-ship transport might actually destroy the receiving space vessel, including the person or persons being transported. In hindsight, even if transporter technology is not applicable, at least we know how to make a very powerful ray gun.
Until scientists can ever develop the means to safely handle this kind of energy (which is unlikely, though not impossible), the future of transporter technology is looking very grim right about now.
The Final Verdict
Did someone forget to boost the carrier wave on that transporter signal? Because the only thing I got on my end was Science Fiction. Unfortunately, this rating was determined on a lack of scientific information regarding the mechanisms and theory behind transporter technology; any conception of a plausible transporter device requires much more work and theorizing before it can become a reality. By our current understanding of physics and information sciences, the concept of the Star Trek transporter does not seem realistic. Nevertheless, this doesn’t negate any possibility that transporter technology will be made available at least in the far future.
Quantum physicists are working on a physical phenomenon known as quantum entanglement. Experiments show that when photons are released from an energy source, then split off into two more photons, each new photon has the same, but opposite, physical properties as its respective, co-dependent photon.
Quantum entanglement is a phenomenon of quantum mechanics to which Albert Einstein referred to as “spooky action at a distance.” One of the far reaching implications of this observation is that two different particles created from the same source can interact with one another, even when separated by light years. Here is a fun video describing quantum entanglement:
This diagram demonstrates the effect of quantum entanglement and what it means in terms of teleportation. Imagine an experimental setup in which two photons (B and C) are entangled. A third photon (A) is also entangled to one of the previous two photons (B). Influencing A influences B, which in turn influences C. Even though A and C were never entangled, A transfers a “teleported state” to C through their common entanglements with B. In a sense, one is instantaneously creating a new particle virtually identical to the first particle; this is the essence of teleportation on the quantum scale and it is known to occur. Can this be done on the macroscopic scale (involving a human)? Probably not, and there isn’t enough information to make that determination yet.
As a biochemist myself, I am not the final authority on transporter technology. In my opinion, the ability to teleport one through space is not impossible, but I must be conservative in science and maintain the contention that it probably won’t happen. I leave the final say in the matter to Professor Lawrence Krauss.
Tom Caldwell is upperclassman at UCLA, currently investigating functional kinases that down-regulate muscle growth and studying biochemistry with a career goal of earning a Ph.D. in molecular biology