Sunday, October 3, 2010

Star Trek Technology: When Science Boldly Goes Where Fiction Has Gone Before

The post below is based on an article I recently wrote for the science/tech page of the school newspaper (I haven't posted for a while, so I figure something extremely geeky and of mediocre quality is better than nothing...). Enjoy!

Also, I have a new blog design! Isn't it neat?

For decades, the genre of science fiction has enthralled and even inspired generations of nerds, and perhaps one of the most-loved science fiction franchises is Star Trek. Yes, this show may call to mind geeky conventions and socially-awkward individuals, but after the 2009 film caused more widespread acceptance, it’s official: it is now okay to like Star Trek. Part of the franchise’s appeal lies in the awesome technology, and interestingly, the geeks who first liked the series have brought some of the gadgets out of science fiction and into the real world.

Set phasers on stun
Perhaps the most well-known Star Trek gadget is the phaser. The phaser is a device that shoots a beam of energy, which, depending on the setting will “stun,” “kill,” or “vaporize” the target. While there still aren’t weapons in use that will actually stun or vaporize, it is possible to make something similar to the fictional device, using only a blue-ray player and a few assorted materials you can find at any hardware store. The army is also toying with a few less sleek (read: bulky and expensive) weapons that could someday be useful for crowd control, since they are equipped to paralyze people with ultra-sonic waves and similar apparatuses.

The Ship
Without a doubt, the most powerful devices are found on the Star Trek ships themselves. Unfortunately, most of the technology is not yet developed, or is barely even conceptualized.

For instance, some experiments with transporters have been done, but nothing with human beings. Theoretically, a transporter would convert somebody into an energy pattern then convert that energy back into matter at a different location. The amount of information coded by only one person is nearly impossible to even imagine, and the ethical issues abound—is a person still the same person if they’ve been re-created in a different place?

However, the coolest trekkie ship technology being developed is the tractor beam. In the Star Trek world, the ships have devices that can literally pick something up and move it without touching it—for instance, if the Enterprise came across a ship that needed repair, it could “tow” it to a nearby station. Scientists have found ways to shift small objects around using lasers and hot gas. Of course, this means that the tractor beam could not be used in outer space, since space is a vacuum and thus does not contain air. But the potential applications are quite exciting.

I’m a doctor, not an engineer
Some of the coolest gadgets in the Star Trek universe are found in sickbay. Patients are regularly diagnosed or treated with small devices that do not break the skin, calling to mind our modern-day super-fast thermometers or jet injectors used to inject substances intramuscularly without needles.

Perhaps a more well-known device is the VISOR worn by Geordi La Forge in Star Trek: The Next Generation. The VISOR, a small device worn around the eyes that hooked above the ears, enabled the blind La Forge, to see the world through most of the electromagnetic spectrum (although he could not see visible light). While we still don’t have a device as powerful as the VISOR, researchers have begun to find ways to give people back some degree of vision. Like the VISOR, some of these devices use tiny machines that feed information directly to the brain or retina, allowing someone who cannot see with their eyes to pick up some degree of visual stimuli.

In Star Trek, procedures are almost always performed on people without even having to cut them open. While we still have to go into the body in some way, many modern surgeries are performed with minimal invasiveness—or, even better, by ROBOTS. And of course, there is now something that can act like the electronic pad the doctors so often used to read and analyze patient information: the iPad.

We may not have all the amazing technology from Star Trek yet—holodecks, androids, warp drives, true cloaking devices, photon torpedoes, deflector shields, and (fortunately) the Borg are still to come—but we do have a slew of other sci-fi-esque contraptions that will become, if they haven’t already, a staple of modern life.