As a followup to last week's discussion of the new Star Trek movie trailer, let's spend a few more minutes on this most appealing of themes. Now remember we have nothing but affection for the phenomenon of Star Trek, and the creators of the various series, movies etc. sometimes really give it a shot with trying to connect the technology to ideas in the forefront of modern physics. Where would we be without anti-matter reactors, the warp drive, and inertial dampers, to name a few?
However, I've always found amusing some of the simple oversights -- well maybe not exactly oversights, but somewhat puzzling technological limitations -- inherent in the show. For example: Why does the artificial gravity (however that may work) seem to be always oriented in a sort of absolute "downward" direction? Because of this, whenever the Enterprise is knocked off its plane by weapons fire, everyone falls down the "slope". Maybe the system just can't adjust fast enough to changes in attitude, but wouldn't an orientation continuously directly through the floor be more convenient (and easier)?
Anyway, the video demonstrates one of the major idiosyncrasies of Star Trek. It has to do with those phasers. Formidable weapons, yes? Depending on the settings, they can stun, kill, or even vaporize large objects in a matter of tenths of seconds. They come in convenient hand-held, and incredibly powerful starship-sized varieties. According to the manual, they are a directed energy weapon (no messy projectiles like bullets required) emitting "nadion" particle beams.
Now with all of that going for them why are those phaser beams so gosh darned slow? One of the theoretical advantages of a directed energy weapon is that the pulse travels so fast you can't react to it. If the beam is electromagnetic radiation it moves at the speed of light (c). Because "nadions" are particles, and assuming they have mass, they can't achieve the theoretical speed limit of c but couldn't they move just a little bit faster than the pokey speed we see in the show?
Notice in the video you can see the beam quite clearly moving from point A to point B*. And while I realize that only scenes from the original series are included here, phaser beams on The Next Generation are at least as slow. If we spend some time watching the video we can roughly estimate that a beam covers maybe 5.0 meters in 0.1 seconds at best, giving it a speed of about 50 m/s (112 mph). Since guns commonly eject bullets at speeds of 5 to 10 times that fast, it sort of takes away from the super-high-tech mystique of the 23rd century. You just might be able to dodge that thing -- as the characters on Star Trek often do!
*Whether you should be able to see the beam at all is another interesting issue. Maybe as it travels through the atmosphere, a phaser beam is ionizing air molecules, which then emit scattered light, but when the phasers are fired in space we shouldn't be able to see them at all, except at the moment of impact if the beam is aimed directly at us. (Of course we understand invisible phasers wouldn't be quite as dramatic.)
I just dug around on Wikipedia and various other sites. This is what the latest explanation seems to be.
Phasers are beams of fictional particles created called nadions. They are short-lived and the nadions decay into photonic energy, but the wavelengths and location are determined by a phased array emitter (much like todays Phased Array Radars and hypothetical Phased Optical Arrays. The speed of the beam itself is tunable as well, but nadion particles are sub-light, so there are limitations (can't be used at warp, et al). The color of the beam are photons produced by particle decay before reaching the target (perhaps this is intentional, for visibility purposes). The fictional particles are created by stimulated emission (using high-voltage plasma, or whatever) of special crystals.
I don't know about stun effects. Perhaps the phaser beam merely ionizes the air and an electrical discharge travels along the circuit at specific frequencies and voltages (similar to an actual laser/taser weapon in existence today).
We may know the answers to this soon enough. The Chairman of the board and founder of Taser (TASR) just joined the Board of Directors of Light Wave Logic (LWLG) they are Nanotech company that is developing electro optic polymers.
What do you think they will call a wireless Taser gun? Lol
My comment would be that it will likely always be impossible to store enough energy in a hand held device to vaporize an object,thus phaser sidearms will probably never be seen in real life.The only thing I can think of that comes close is a nuclear blast.Remember those pictures of people's shadows on concrete/stone after being vaporized in the Hiroshima blast?
Of course,a real life hand phaser is much more likely than that other Star Trek staple,the Transporter.Imagine the computing power required to instantly determine the position of every molecule in a person's body,and then instantly reconstruct that body at destination,after vaporizing the original in the transmitter.Not for me,I'll take the Shuttle Craft!
The reason the "stun" feature of the phaser works is that the emissions from the phaser are modulated. As the phaser energy is absorbed in the body, each nervous system synapse demodulates the modulated phaser energy, resulting in the loss of coordinated body control, including consciousness. Modulated microwaves have been experimentally used to drop flying birds out of the flight paths of airplanes. A version of this technology is on the drawing boards at DARPA for troop or crowd control. In the un-modulated version, directing the beams at people results in a feeling of intense pain.
I have always found the investigative reporting on the science, (or lack of science) behind Star Trek to be fascinating, so I certainly would not want to discourage it. If anything, it shows what a visionary and genius Gene Roddenberry was, that he was able to provoke such detailed discussions about the ficticious technology used on the show.
I especially found the anti-gravity quirk to be amusing. I had never thought about that before.
But let's not get too picky here. This IS Sci-Fi we are talking about after all. For the effects of gravity and weapons to be realistically shown on TV, we would all get dizzy from disorientation, or the effects would look even less realistic than they do now, and the show would have had far less appeal. It's called artistic license.
Did anybody see the last episode of Sanctuary, that was shot from the viewpoint of a news reporter's camera lens? It was an interesting attempt at realism, but the confusion it created for the eyes and brain made the episode basically a disaster, and certainly something you would not want to watch every week.
quote from article:
"Why does the artificial gravity (however that may work) seem to be always oriented in a sort of absolute “downward” direction? Because of this, whenever the Enterprise is knocked off its plane by weapons fire, everyone falls down the “slope”. Maybe the system just can’t adjust fast enough to changes in attitude, but wouldn’t an orientation continuously directly through the floor be more convenient (and easier)?"
You are confusing gravity with inertia. The anti-gravity in those situations is still functioning. It is just the force of the impact that throws the crew around the cabin.
The angling camera is merely compensating for the viewer's inability to physically experience the action on the screen.
Great topic, but I feel like I’ve stumbled across Sheldon and Leonard’s blog from ‘Big Bang’.
I loved Star Trek’s thought provoking world as a teen in the 60’s, but was floored when, in the late 60’s, the army announced they were experimenting with energy beams that were shot ‘out of phase’. Oh… that’s a Phaser, I thought, and thought more of the show after that.
And remember – this was way back in the low-tech 60’s. Anyone remember a moment of genius from early SNL, where Kirk + Crew were under attack… by what turned out to be the most heartless invaders of all - network suits coming to cancel the show. Amidst all the futuristic gear on ST, the attacker’s ship of choice, seen racing up from behind on the bridge’s monitor, no matter what warp speed Kirk requested or what he blasted it with, was a late model Chrysler Imperial (more of a boat. This was Chrysler’s huge luxury model – with more fins and protuberances than the Enterprise - the vehicle of choice for over-inflated ego-types, carbon based or not).
A lot of the show is a bit embarrassing to remember now, like a lot of things from our teen years, but Roddenberry knew how to keep us discussing this show, 40 years later.
Mr. Newbeak5 you are inertly wrong. All you need to do is point a laser, like the ones used for Inertial confinement fusion at a ring of bose einstein condensate, when you activate you slightly heat the condensate and release the laser. This is an awesome power source and could even be recharged. That high of laser power would require unstylish eye protection so of course the laser is just a power source for the nadion generator.
Replying to the reply from Mr animemaster,I would like to clarify the basis of my original comments.I like sci-fi as much as any other Trekkie,but we are supposed to be looking for connections to real world physics here.Nadions are fictional particles,don't forget.And I fail to see how aiming a laser at a bose einstein condensate results in the "release of the laser"? At most,the energy of the laser would destroy the bose einstein condensate state,which occurs near absolute zero.Oh course,I may be misinterpreting Mr ainmemaster's comments,which could be of the tongue in cheek variety!
Phasers! Who would have though the day was already nearing when it would start becoming a reality. Don't have a clue what I'm refering to? Check out the emerging tech from Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman; both of which are develping high capacity lasers for military use. Google THEL for tactical high energy laser for some cool videos.
Definitely artistic license. Shooting a true beam of light-speed particles wouldn't be near as attractive on tv. A click of the trigger, a flash of light, and the person opposite the business end of the phaser would be gone. Looks better to have it move from A to B.