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The Physicist of "Star Trek"

Our Science of Hollywood columnist talks to Lawrence M. Krauss, the scientist who paid the ultimate compliment to a science-fiction series--he took its science seriously

4 min read

It’s good to be a geek these days in Hollywood. Not since the golden age of the 1950s has quality science fiction been so prevalent. Television shows like ”Lost” and ”Battlestar Galactica are winning critics and fans. Brainy flicks like Serenity , the film based on the cult TV show ”Firefly,” and the epic The Fountain are hitting theaters.

But the biggest news this fall is the mashup of old and new Hollywood science. J.J. Abrams—the star writer/producer behind ”Alias and”Lost”—is now working on the return of the ultimate sci-fi franchise, ”Star Trek.” And as production rolls for Star TrekXI , also set to return is the series’ most unlikely star: Lawrence M. Krauss.

”I use ’Star Trek’ as a hook for [exploring] something in the real universe,” Krauss says. ”I believe the real universe is more interesting than anything in ’Star Trek.’ ”

As the Ambrose Swasey Professor of Physics, professor of astronomy, and director of the Center for Education and Research in Cosmology and Astrophysics at Case Western Reserve University, in Cleveland, Krauss has a busy day job. He’s known, among other things, for his theories on how a phenomenon called dark energy could explain the expansion of the universe.

But, among Hollywood science aficionados, Krauss’s biggest claim to fame is his pioneering book ThePhysics of Star Trek , which took a scientific lens to the seemingly far-out technology on the show. The book has been translated into 15 languages, and this winter Krauss is hard at work on a revised edition, due in 2007, on the cusp of the next Star Trek flick. For Krauss, it’s a new opportunity ”to bridge the gap between science and culture,” he says. ”I use ’Star Trek’ as a hook for [exploring] something in the real universe. I believe the real universe is more interesting than anything in ’Star Trek.’ ”

As the universe would have it, Krauss collided with the project by accident. On the suggestion of his editor’s daughter, an avid Trekkie, Krauss put his mind to understanding the science of the show. ”On the train to Yale, where I was teaching,” Krauss says, ”I started thinking about it more and more. It was the idea of the transporter [the teleportation machine used on the show] that got me going. How would you make a transporter? By the time I got to New Haven, I was hooked on it.” And there was a real need. ”I discovered lots of ’Star Trek’physics,” he says, ”but no physics of ’Star Trek.’ ”

But Krauss had concerns about going where no theoretical physicist had gone before. Not only might he lose credibility with colleagues, he might anger an even more persnickety group: the ’Star Trek’ fans. ”The moment I agreed to do the book,” he says, ”I got nervous about offending 20 million people.”

So what about that transporter after all? Is it plausible? Krauss investigated, and came up with bad news for anyone who wanted to teleport from New York to Kuala Lumpur: no dice. ”It would require us to heat up matter to a temperature a million times the temperature at the center of the Sun, expend more energy in a single machine than all of humanity presently uses," he writes. Oh, well.

For the upcoming revised edition, Krauss will scour the latest tech from the franchise up through the ”Enterprise” TV series. While the show still recycles some old wares, there are new questions for him to explore. ”There’s a lot of time travel in the recent series,” he says. ”I was talking with one of the stars who plays the doctor on the new episode. He was telling me he’s a member of an alien species that does something impossible. I might have to add that to the bloopers. In one show, every wife has to have three husbands and every husband has to have three wives. The math is interesting.”

One of his biggest gripes is the series’ tendency to get around scientific difficulties by resorting to glib and meaningless explanations. ”They could invent wilder and wilder technobabble to get out of problems,” he says. ”For me and others it got to be a little much.” But that goes back to the roots of the show, he says. ”When ’Star Trek’ was created, it was a space western,” he says, ”I don’t think Gene Roddenberry [the creator of the series] cared about getting it right.”

But, intentionally or not, the series has proved prescient, Krauss says. In one early episode, for example, a ship drifts close to a black star and gets swept back in time. Krauss was delighted to find that the episode aired six months before the invention of the term ”black hole.” He’s been fascinated to see how else the ”Star Tech” manifests in real life. Video gamers like John Carmack, lead programmer on the games Doom and Quake , cites the Holodeck, the virtual reality interface on ”Star Trek: the Next Generation” as a paradigm of interactivity. And one influence of ”Star Trek” is in everyone’s hands. ”The first cellphone wouldn’t have flipped open if not for communicators,” Krause says. No wonder Motorola called it the StarTek.

The success of the book has ”changed everything” for Krauss, he admits. He credits the book with taking him in new directions uncommon for a scientist. He’s been a judge at the Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah, and has testified before the U.S. Congress on the future of space exploration. These days, he’s a trustee at the Science Fiction Museum and Hall of Fame in Seattle. As he anticipates the new edition of the Physics of Star Trek , he’s holding out hope for his two remaining dreams: consulting on a Star Trek movie and making a cameo appearance.

He has already had at least a brush with Trekkie greatness. During the filming of a British documentary, he met Captain Kirk himself, William Shatner. ”He spent much of his time reading [ The Physics of Star Trek ] between takes,” Krauss says, ”He is a science buff.”

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