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There is a maxim about the universe which I always tell my students: That which is not explicitly forbidden is guaranteed to occur. Or, as Data said in the episode “Parallel’s,” referring to the laws of quantum mechanics, “All things which can occur, do occur.” This is the spirit with which I think one should approach the physics of Star Trek. We must consider the distinction not between what is practical and what is not, but between what is possible and what is not.

I used to think my inability to understand secondary school physics was due to my having to learn it in Gaelic for four years. Then I switched to an English language school and was quickly disabused of that notion. I just have no head for science.

Science fiction, now that I can understand, as the various technobabble and scientific theories introduced into the plot is only so much garnish on a narrative unbound by realism. An ad hoc explanation or two allows the readers to understand the story being told. Star Trek is that rare thing, a work of science fiction that can be enjoyed by both those more academically inclined (ie, not me) and those who simply enjoy a good story.

This is something Lawrence M. Krauss takes full advantage of with his book, a discussion of physics as applied to the fictional universe of Star Trek. As a professor of physics, Krauss is obviously excited to be able to pass on his insights into scientific theories without having to resort to ‘Idiot’s Guide To...’

Interestingly Krauss admits that it was the notion of a transport, that cornerstone of Trek, that initially piqued his interest in writing the book. In order to facilitate a stylistic choice – creator Gene Roddenberry apparently was forced to figure out a way of allowing his characters to visit alien worlds without landing the ship, as it resembled a fountain feature – the writers of the original show hit upon the notion of matter transportation. A special effect of swirly lights, having a continuity person on hand to make sure the actor hit the same mark when on a different set and the conundrum was solved. However, because Star Trek was such popular show with science geeks – and one which, lest we forget, pitched itself as an attainable future utopia for all of mankind – the show’s creators eventually felt that an explanation for transportation machines, replicators, warp drives etc. would have to be provided and would need to be, at least theoretically, explicable in real scientific terms. This is where Krauss comes in.

His assessments of the different levels of plausibility can make for amusing reading. One example of how, in his opinion, Star Trek managed to anticipate actual physics through its own creative efforts (no doubt dreamt up in a rush to meet a script deadline) is the concept of the black hole. Krauss points out that mere months before Archibald Wheeler first coined the term, Star Trek portrayed a very similar phenomenon, though in the series it was termed a ‘black star’.  Then there are examples of scientists “just for fun”, attempting to look into concepts pioneered by the show, such as when Miguel Alcubierre attempted to formulate a theory for warp travel.

Personally one aspect of Star Trek that always fascinated me was the concept of a holodeck. Krauss points out that the crew of the Starship Enterprise are unusually coy about how they use the facility to create any virtual environment they can imagine (oo look at this!). Like John Zerzan, whose Why I Hate Star Trek I recommend as an alternative discussion of the series, Krauss wonders if the crew were sexless drones, incapable of using the holodeck to fuel baser interests. Happily British show Red Dwarf had no such scruples.

Where I find myself becoming the traditional Star Trek geek, and thusly enraged to a nonsensical hysteria so much that I ignore the very worthy and informative project of The Physics of Star Trek, is Krauss’ repeated references to the character of William Riker as a ‘Lieutenant’. He was the Commander dammit! When Krauss himself becomes tellingly pedantic – such as sneering that Deanna Troy had no understanding of anti-matter containment – that only made my geek-rage worse. The ship runs on anti-matter, sure, but I wouldn’t know how to fix a car engine. Why should she know the in’s and out’s of how the ship runs?

Caveats aside this is ultimately a very entertaining discussion of physics.


Today’s review is somewhat shorter, but then it is my wife’s birthday, so you’ll allow me this one won’t you?

As it happens I have chosen the latest book from the master of disturbing imagery – Mr Charles Burns, creator of the seminal Black Hole.  If you have not heard of him and are interested, I envy you not just the chance of discovering this great artist for the first time, but also being able to walk into a bookstore and pick up the collected edition of Black Hole. Fans of the book had to wait a year between issues as Burns balanced his time working on this story of teenagers in the seventies enduring a disfiguring disease known as ‘the bug’, with commercial advertising.

There is also a movie based on Black Hole on the way. Now that is something I am very eager to see.

X’ed Out retains some of that previous work’s themes – disaffected teens, drug use – but Burns also mashes up two very diverse sources, namely Tintin creator Hergé and William BurroughsThe Naked Lunch. As you can see below, the cover of X’ed Out is a riff on the Tintin adventure titled The Shooting Star (apparently a favourite of Burns’), here with giant eggs standing in for the alien mushrooms of Hergé’s tale.

Doug is a young man suffering from a series of disturbing dreams. He finds himself in a bedroom with no memory of how he got there. There is a large hole in the wall of this room. His dead cat appears and leads him out through the hole into a barren wasteland covered in refuse and sewage. Attempting to follow his former pet he finds himself in another building that appears to be storing a collection of giant eggs. There he is confronted by a green reptilian man, who ejects him from the building into a street that resembles downtown Cairo, or Tunis, populated by weird and monstrous looking denizens.

He drifts in and out of the dream, occasionally flashing back to a period in his life when he met a fellow artist named Sarah, who expresses herself through unusual photographs hinting at feelings of self-loathing, or disgust. Doug himself attempts to perform beat-style poetry using the stage name Nitnit, homaging William Burroughs’ cut-up technique and wearing a plastic mask that resembles a punk-Tintin.

These events appear to be happening in the early nineties during the grunge-era with its revival of interest in punk icons like Patti Smith, as well as beat poetry and a return to experimentation in the arts. Doug is also medicating himself with antipsychotics of some kind and is seen eating pop-tarts. The events of his past begin to bleed over into his dream, his own personal Interzone. In this world Doug resembles a black dye-job Tintin, his Nitnit character come to life. He sees Sarah there also, transformed courtesy of the Hergé aesthetic from a troubled young woman with white scar lines along her arms into a beautiful princess.

This is the first in a new series by Burns, with each chapter published in the hardback European style. It is a dark fantasy, with an abiding sense of creeping horror waiting within its pages. I could be trite and say it is perfect Halloween fare, but I am not prepared to wait until October 2011 for the next book. I want it now!

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