Making The Science Fiction Of 'Star Trek' A Reality

The futuristic ideas from the original "Star Trek" series have inspired today's technology.
Emilie Lorditch, Staff Writer

(Inside Science) -- The kids who grew up watching the original "Star Trek" series in the 1960s are now the adults attempting to build for today technology fit for the year 2260. In commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the original series' premiere on NBC in 1966, the Smithsonian Channel will broadcast a 2-hour special program, "Building Star Trek," that will look at the influence the show has had on pop culture, scientific research and technology.

The program explores how close today's scientists are to developing transporters, tractor beams and more "Star Trek"-inspired technology. The new program also follows the journey of restoring and preserving a model of the Starship Enterprise, the main spaceship of the show, for display in the Smithsonian's Air and Space Museum.

"'Star Trek' really primed our thinking," said David Grier, an experimental physicist at New York University in New York City who was featured in the anniversary program. "It got you ready for the future so when it happens, you recognize it."

Grier and his team study the behavior and strength of light as a wave. The idea that a wave can push was no surprise.

"A wave on the beach can push you," Grier said. "The bombshell was that this wave doesn’t just push but if you give it the right structure it can pull. I recognized it right away -- that's a tractor beam!" Just like the tractor beam from "Star Trek," the team is able to lock onto an object and pull it towards the beam of light like a laser tug boat.

The objects that Grier and his colleagues are pushing and pulling are very small -- about one thousandth of a millimeter in size -- but they are doing it.

"It is the wildest thing that a beam of light can exert any force at all," Grier said.

The "Star Trek" series used light as a tool for its tractor beams and also as a weapon in its phasers. Today, Rob Afzal, a physicist for Lockheed Martin in Bothell, Washington, is developing a directed energy system that uses electricity to power a weapons-class laser.

"The idea is to effectively convert electrical power into a laser beam and to reduce the amount of waste heat that is generated in the process," said Afzal. They use what is called a reverse prism method to create these phaser-like lasers.

"You have seen the Pink Floyd 'Dark Side of the Moon' album cover where a white light goes through a prism and breaks off into different colors and each of them are at a different angle," Afzal explained. "We take that similar idea but in reverse; we take different laser beams at different angles and put them through a grading device that combines the beams into one high-powered laser beam."

The directed energy system has the advantage in situations where the enemy tries to overwhelm the target by using a swarm of low-cost drones, for example.

"You could shoot them all down and run out of bullets or missiles and be left vulnerable," Afzal said. "With this system, as long as we have a power supply -- even a backup electric generator -- we don't run out of bullets."

Growing up, Afzal was impressed by the prominent role that science and technology played in "Star Trek." "I loved the fact that Spock as the science officer was right there with Captain Kirk and that science and engineering were given a high profile in the future," Afzal said. "That was inspiring to me."

The "Building Star Trek" program also highlights other researchers who are bringing the science and technology that they first saw on "Star Trek" to life. John Howell, a physicist at Rochester University in New York, has created the Rochester Cloak which is a cloaking device that can bend light around an object to make it disappear -- a form of stealth technology.

And soon, physicians might have access to an upgraded model of Dr. McCoy's tricorder to diagnose diseases and run medical tests in real-time with the help of Sonny Kohli, an intensive care unit physician. Kohli and his team have created the Vitaliti platform made up of four wireless devices that are connected to a specially-designed mobile app that runs on a smartphone. This platform can measure your core body temperature, blood pressure and lung capacity, and even perform rapid tests for blood sugar, hormone levels and pathogen detection.

There is one "Star Trek" technology that has eluded even the most enterprising of scientists. Currently, Franchesco Masili at NASA's Jet Propulsion Lab is able to perform quantum teleportation, but this is still a long way away from beaming a person aboard the Starship Enterprise or to the surface of a new planet in the same way the television show depicts.

Science and technology have advanced more quickly in the last 50 years than the writers of "Star Trek" could have predicted.

"'Star Trek' has a phenomenal vision where technology works for civilization in ways that are obvious and incredibly subtle," Grier said. "We are on the edge of having all of that technology; I just think it is amazing!"

Author Bio & Story Archive

Emilie Lorditch is the former Assistant News Director at AIP.