Set Phasers to Stun: The Science Behind Star Trek

Seeker's Bad Science podcast explores the science behind the 2009 reboot of the venerable sci-fi series.

It's hard to believe that nearly a decade has passed since director J.J. Abrams delivered his hugely anticipated reboot of the Star Trek movie series. The 2009 film, titled simply Star Trek, was a massive commercial success and it introduced a new generation to the crew of the Starship Enterprise.

But how does the real science behind the movie hold up?

Pretty good, actually.

In the latest episode of Bad Science, Seeker's podcast on science versus fiction at the movies, host Ethan Edenburg goes where no one has gone before with an hour-long special on the 2009 reboot and the Star Trek universe in general.

Also pitching in for this week's show: Seeker's own science savant Trace Dominguez and Tammy Ma, experimental physicist with the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.

The Star Trek franchise is particularly well-respected in the scientific community for getting its facts straight relative to the demands of Hollywood entertainment and speculative fiction. Apart from the hard physics of space travel and energy weapons, creator Gene Roddenberry's enduring vision regularly explores the topics of ethics in science, sociology, and anthropology.

Ma works with the most powerful lasers on the planet at her lab, located at Livermore's National Ignition Facility. The lasers operate at temperatures hotter than the sun’s core. Happily for everyone involved, these temperature flashes are extremely tiny and extremely brief. But still.

“On a daily basis we create the hottest place in the solar system,” Ma says. “We make miniature stars in the lab.”
In fact, several scenes from the film’s sequel Into Darkness were filmed at the National Ignition Facility.

“Our target chamber, where we do all our experiments, that was actually the warp core for the Starship Enterprise,” Ma says.

Dominquez and Ma also dig into some of the real-life challenges behind the core concept of the Star Trek franchise — traveling through space, exploring strange new worlds and seeking out new life and new civilizations. Discussion ranges from the possibility of fusion energy engines to the practical challenges of putting the International Space Station into orbit.

For hardcore fans of the 2009 film, the team also digs deep into script’s plot points — and plot holes. For instance, why does the villain Captain Nero need to drill down into the center of a planet to drop his artificial black hole bombs? And why does the future Earth of the Star Trek series lack any perimeter planetary defenses?

Tune into this week's episode for speculation on these enduring mysteries, plus more details on inertial fusion energy, particle physics, and Vulcan mind melds.