Get ready 'to go boldly where no man has gone before'
BY ELISE BYUN
APR 8, 2014
Physicist Dirk Morr at the University of Illinois at Chicago traced the progress of “The Real Science Behind Star Trek” at a recent Chicago Council on Science and Technology program.
“For me Star Trek really is a story of exploration,” Morr said. “We need tools to explore these phenomena, to explore new worlds, to explore nature all around us.”
The most coveted of these tools for space travel is, of course, warp drive, the ability to fly faster than the speed of light. As far as we know, Morr said warp drive is not possible because we can’t surpass that speed of 186,000 miles per second.
“Progress is unpredictable,” Morr said. “I like to say that the only thing that separates us from overcoming the speed of light is one brilliant idea.”
And what about the transporter of “Beam me up, Scotty!” fame? Morr said conversion of matter into energy and vice-versa is possible according to Albert’s Einstein’s famous equation, E=MC2.
But there is more to it than that. “I don’t want to convert this table into energy and when I convert it back again, have an elephant. I want the same table back. So there’s the problem that I also want to have an identical copy of what I want to beam,” Morr said.
Another difficulty lies in the enormous amount of energy and information we would need to store to beam an object, Morr said. “If you wanted to transport a small object, let’s say you forgot your sandwich at home,” he said. “The energy that you would get if you converted your sandwich into energy is still about the energy that the entire world consumes in about an hour.” And there is no battery on earth as yet big enough to store energy of that magnitude so you could convert it back to the sandwich.
In one of the Star Trek clips shown at the presentation, nanoprobes - microscopic robots originally used by an "evil alien race,” as Morr called them - are injected into a host’s bloodstream to take over the body’s functions. Dr. McCoy on Enterprise finds a way to instead use the nanoprobes to cure disease.
We might not have nanoprobes, but we do have nanoshells. Morr described them as “little gold nano particles” between one and three nanometers, or about a billionth of a meter across in diameter.
These nanoshells are covered in proteins specifically modified to enable attachment to cancer cells once injected into the body. When the body is exposed to radiation, the nanoshells heat up easily and become “smart bombs” that destroy the cancer cells they attach to.
The technology for static holograms already exists, but Morr spoke of the University of Arizona’s breakthrough called telepresence, three-dimensional holographic image technology, which brings us closer to the moving holographic images seen in Star Trek’s holodeck.
Telepresence was achieved by surrounding a researcher with 16 cameras, taking many pictures of the researcher, feeding the images into a computer and finally processing the information and sending it into the laser that creates the holographic image on a polymer screen.
In pursuing these technologies, scientists run into two types of problems, Morr said. One is an engineering problem. In other words, “There is no fundamental law that would forbid a certain technology to exist”. And the other is some technologies would require scientists to “bend physical laws”. But Professor Morr is optimistic.
Star Trek devices such as communicators are already here in the form of smart phones, tablets and Bluetooth earpieces have become essential to our daily lives. “Fifty years ago we clearly thought, ‘well maybe we’ll have this in a hundred to three hundred years’,” he said. “This just shows you that there are certainly technologies which we can actually surpass and which we can actually achieve.”
The diverse audience of young students, older science professionals, and those who fall in between filled an auditorium at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
This was an unusual event for Chicago Council on Science and Technology. “Usually we work on hard, serious science but we thought this would be a really fun thing to do,” said Andrea Poet, programs coordinator of the council. She expected a different audience than the usual science professionals.
Sophia Radlowski was representative of the new audience Poet expected. An assistant to head of the College of Nursing at UIC, she's “big Star Trek fan” and attends Star Trek conventions and Comic-Con, Radlowski, clearly excited about the talk, even brought a picture she took of herself with William Shatner, who played Captain James T. Kirk in the original Star Trek series.
Radlowski loves Star Trek for the story more than the science. “I think I need to hear more people combine the two,” she said.