Trice: UIC professor sets phasers to fun in ‘Star Trek’ Q&A

By Dawn Turner Trice, Chicago Tribune

Dirk Morr came of age in Germany in the 1970s watching the television show “Star Trek,” which was dubbed in German. Imagine Capt. James Kirk’s often parodied, halting speech pattern delivered in a foreign language.

The show and its idea to boldly go “where no man has gone before” sparked in Morr a deep curiosity and love for science. Today, Morr, 47, is a professor of theoretical physics at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

Last week, he gave a lecture for the Chicago Council on Science and Technology comparing some of the technology from the 1960s TV show to today’s devices. I had an enjoyable talk with Morr afterward, and here’s an edited version of our conversation:

Dawn Turner Trice

Q. Did the German translation affect the essence of “Star Trek”?

A. It is kind of funny when you come to the States and hear the real voices. It’s not at all what you’d expect. But I really don’t think it was affected by the translation because “Star Trek” focused on science. Typically translation is super important when it comes to culturally specific things like jokes, for example.

Q. Speaking of culture, the show aired during a period of significant racial unrest in this country. It was groundbreaking on a social level in that the crew of the Starship Enterprise was multiracial. The show also had the first television kiss between a black woman, Lt. Uhura, played by Nichelle Nichols (who’s from Chicago, by the way), and Kirk, played by William Shatner. Was “Star Trek” in any way socially groundbreaking in Germany?

A. When I saw the show, I was 7 years old. At that point I didn’t realize the social implications. But I don’t recall in German society a real discussion about that. Here in the United States these were major landmarks. I don’t think it was perceived as such a big thing in most of Europe.

Q. What are some of the devices featured in “Star Trek” that have been realized in one form or another?

A. The “communicator” that Capt. Kirk had is something we’ve achieved in the form of smartphones. But our smartphones are much more versatile and they’re mini-computers. In fact, many of our devices are so much more powerful. Take the tablet, for example. On the show, the bridge officer would hand Kirk a clunky-tabletlike device that Kirk would sign. On our tablets, we can do many things, like watch movies, listen to music, write books and take notes.

Q. There was that earpiece that Lt. Uhura had.

A. Yes, it’s similar to our Bluetooth device. And, the “tricorder” on the show was a device that was used for scanning and recording information. We’ve seen tricorder-type technology over the years in the field of medicine. Noninvasive devices detect illnesses by scanning the body and measure, for example, blood-oxygen levels. The show used nanoprobes, and we’re using nanoshells to destroy cancer cells. “Star Trek” also highlighted videoconferencing, and we have Skype and Facetime. There were “universal translators” on the show. The crew would encounter a foreign species and the “universal translator” could learn the language and translate it. Although we haven’t encountered foreign species from outer space, there are apps that translate for us. Some allow for voice translations. And, you can even download an app that allows you to read an entire page in another language.

Q. Gene Roddenberry was the show’s creator. Where do you think he got his ideas about technology?

A. Some of the things Roddenberry envisioned — the communicator, tablets and earpiece — I don’t think there was a proof of concept in the 1960s that they could be built. Either he had an amazing imagination or someone on the staff had unbelievable vision and could take what was known at that point and project it into the future.

Q. Let’s talk about the science on the show that’s not possible. And, I like it that you say it’s not “yet” possible. That is, the ability to travel at “warp speed,” which is faster than the speed of light.

A. At the moment we cannot travel at the speed of light. In 1905, Albert Einstein said no matter how fast you travel, the speed of light is always the same, and it’s the maximum speed at which mass and energy and information can travel. This has been experimentally verified over and over again. How might we get around it? It would be to create a wormhole, which would allow us to travel a great distance by bending space. So imagine if you lived on a piece of paper and had to traverse it. If it’s flat, it might take you some time to do so. But if you bend it, you’d need only travel around the edge to get to the other side. If we could bend space-time, we could visit different galaxies without having to travel faster than the speed of light. We haven’t yet figured out how to do that.

Q. What about the “beaming” technology, or “transporter,” which allowed “Star Trek” characters to disappear from one place and reappear in another?

A. We have no clue how that would work. You’d have to convert mass into energy to transport someone and then convert energy back into mass to have the person rematerialize. We know we can transfer mass into energy and energy into mass. But the question is: How much energy would you get if you converted, let’s say, an elephant into energy? The amount would be equivalent to what the entire world uses in a year. There’s no battery or storage device that could hold that amount of energy. And, if we could ever get beyond that hurdle, we’d have to figure out how to get the elephant back intact. And that would require finding a way to store information for each atom in its body. As a conservative estimate, we’d need 100 trillion times the current storage capacity of the Internet.

Q. Why do you think “Star Trek” has endured as a cult phenomenon for nearly 50 years?

A. For me, it’s fascinating because it’s a story of exploration. Human beings are extremely curious. We want to know what’s beyond the next hill; what’s around the next corner. Nature is really a big mystery, a puzzle. It provides clues, but we’re always asking: How does it all fit together?

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