How ‘Star Trek’ predicted the technological world we live in today

By Cheryl V. Jackson, Special to Blue Sky, Chicago Tribune

Communicator devices from “Star Trek”? We’ve already got ‘em in our cell phones.

But it probably won’t soon be possible to be beamed up by “Scotty” or anybody else, according to a physicist extolling the technological legacy of the science fiction franchise.

“Star Trek has fascinated us for the last 50 years,” University of Illinois at Chicago physics professor Dirk Morr said Wednesday during a Chicago Council on Science and Technology program at the university. It was part of a series of events surrounding Gov. Pat Quinn’s designation of Illinois Innovation Day Thursday.

“Star Trek really is a story of exploration,” Morr said. “Truly we are a people of exploration. Humanity has a trait of being curious about what we can find around the next corner.”

During his “The Real Science Behind Star Trek” presentation, Morr engaged about 125 people with clips from the television and movie series and Auto-Tuned snippets of “Through the Wormhole” host Morgan Freeman, plus physicist Stephen Hawking and others.

Morr, also an associate of the James Franck Institute at the University of Chicago, said we aren’t far from realizing holodecks, simulated reality facilities.

“We’ve all seen holographic images,” he said. “There has been a lot of progress made in the last three to four years. At the University of Arizona, they’re working on a three-dimensional movie without glasses. We are well on the way to achieving this. We’re about to create dynamic holographic images in the next 10 years.”

He pointed out that “some technologies we envisioned at the end of the ‘60s, we use every single day,” including the Bluetooth forerunner earpiece that Lt. Uhura wore in the original series.

Morr commented on other technology that the series foreshadowed, including:

Universal translators. “You can download apps to your phone that pull up maps or translate languages.”

The tablet. “That interesting-looking thing that Kirk was always signing things on. We have that.”

Smart glasses. “The glasses from ‘Deep Space Nine’ with displays; we have those in Google Glass.”

Nanoprobes. “They attack human cells and are sort of smart bombs. We are using nanoshells — little metallic spheres, covered in protein and attached to cancer cells — and heating them to destroy the cancer cells.”

Morr also commented on technology that appears a way off, including:

Warp Drive. “The speed of light is a wall. Can we really get through the wall? At the moment the special theory of relativity tells us no, but will we be able to get through in the future? We really don’t know at the moment.”

Wormholes. “It turns out a wormhole, a shortcut through space, is actually possible. You can bend space and time, and by doing so, can connect two parts of space and bring them closer together.”

Beaming technology. “The amount of energy and information needed is prohibitive to realizing this anytime soon. The item being transported would need to be converted into energy and the information for the location and movement of each atom catalogued. The energy needed to transport a 12,000-pound elephant, for example, would be equal to that of world consumption in a year, while the amount of information needed would be 100 trillion times the size of the World Wide Web.”

The replicator. “We know we can convert energy into matter. Some of my colleagues at Fermilab do it every day. The proof of the concept has been achieved. The only problem would be to actually create a sandwich from that. We cannot control what type of matter we actually generate. … We’re still far away from going to a replicator and saying ‘Tea. Earl grey. Hot.’”


Leave a Reply