Welcome! This is the first article in a continuing series where I’ll be taking a look at popular science fiction shows, the technology they used and what we’re using now that’s comparable to it. Since it’s the first time this is launching, I thought it would be fitting to begin our voyage with the show that started it all: Star Trek.
When Star Trek first debuted in the 1960s it completely baffled people. Countless viewers witnessed Kirk and his team use technology that was never even heard of before and they were amazed. Star Trek, being way ahead of its time, influenced many other science fiction thinkers to create technology in their shows that was both new and different and audiences continued to be wowed. But now in the year 2011, we can easily look back at Star Trek and see that the technology that was so alien to us has actually been created or is close to being in use by us today. Let’s take a look and see how Star Trek influenced technology and made our lives easier.
Communicator: Of course we have these today. Take a look in your pocket. See your mobile phone? There ya go. But now smart phones have taken our ‘communicators’ to a whole new level. With push-to-talk technology, people can communicate just as easily as those on the U.S.S. Enterprise did. These devices were essential to the ship’s crew, as we ourselves find it to be today. With these devices not only can we be in touch with most anyone, but we can also plot our next course (location apps), schedule reservations, check our bank accounts, get an update on the weather and more, just to name a few.
Tractor Beam: The Federation has built tractor beams into most cargo bays of their starships and space stations, just in case a shuttle or small craft is damaged and has to be towed. Well, guess what? We could have the same technology soon ourselves. Scientists in China and Hong Kong have recently written about conditions that would make a tractor beam possible. We already know that, because of radiation pressure, light can be used as a source of propulsion: In 2010 the Japanese successfully launched a spacecraft, the ship IKAROS, based on solar sail technology. According to Wikipedia, IKAROS passed Venus in six and a half months. But pulling is a much different level of complexity. ‘New Scientist’ had this to say about it: “The researchers showed that by measuring the shape of an object and its electromagnetic properties, you can predict these currents – and, in turn, the properties of the resulting secondary photons. It should then be possible to create a beam with just the right properties that when it is shone at a particular particle, photons emitted from the particle’s far side push on the particle with more force than those photons that are reflected back. In principle, this could be used to pull a particle all the way back to the beam’s source, the researchers say.”
Transporter: Imagine this scenario. You’re late for work. The alarm never went off and if you leave the house at this time you’re bound to sit in traffic for hours. That is, until you realize you’ve got a transporter like the chaps in Star Trek had. You set your destination for your office building, step in, push a button and, dematerializing for just a moment, your molecules reassemble in your office. Briefcase in hand, you rush to your desk making it to work just in the nick of time. It seems unreal, but scientists are currently working with quantum physics and have been successful in transporting one molecule at a time a few feet away. This being the case, it may be that the technology isn’t too far away.
Universal Translator: This device helped the crew of the U.S.S. Enterprise on countless occasions. In the show this contraption translated any spoken language into English, even if the speaker wasn’t a human life form. In the original Star Trek it wasn’t error proof by any means but by the time TNG rolled around, the technology was perfected enough to be made as small as a pin.
This technology is certainly feasible today. With the myriad of conflicts occurring in the world at any given time, being able to communicate quickly and effectively with other people has never been more important. Right now there’s the Voxtec Phraselator P2. Currently in use by U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Southeast Asia, this device translates over 50 different languages into English and then back again. It knows more than 15,000 common phrases. There’s definitely room for improvement, but hey, it’s a start, right?
Stay tuned for the next article in this series where I explore the technology used by ‘Babylon 5’ and compare it to what we’re using today.