There was another issue about black holes in the movie -- the characters create one using "red matter." Is there any theoretical basis for "seeding" a black hole, to start one from scratch?
Well, anything can become a black hole if you squeeze it enough. If you squeeze our sun down to two miles, it becomes a black hole. The sun cannot be squeezed down to two miles, so it's not gonna happen. The Earth would have to be squeezed down to two centimeters to collapse down to a black hole. So any object can become a black hole; you just have to squeeze it down to a small enough size. But the only mechanism we are aware of is gravity.
In the movie, Romulans put red matter in Vulcan's core and it creates a singularity that leads to the creation of a black hole; all the mass of the planet becomes the black hole. That made me think of the Large Hadron Collider and some of the concern last summer about mini black holes gobbling up the Earth.
Oh, cosmic rays give you more energy than the Large Hadron Collider. It is a pea-shooter compared to the humongous energy that cosmic rays have. The Earth, for billions of years, has been bathed in cosmic rays, much more powerful than anything created by the LHC. I don't think the LHC will create anything at all, any mini black holes. By nature standards, it's puny.
When Vulcan consumes itself in a black hole, Spock is watching from a distance that seems like it would be about as far as the Earth is from the moon. Is that a safe viewing distance?
If you were outside the event horizon and you orbit the black hole, you are perfectly safe. A lot of people ask me all the time, if there's a black hole in the middle of the Milky Way, how come we're not sucked in? The answer is very simple -- we orbit around it. We are outside the event horizon, so it's very stable as long as you are a safe distance away from the event horizon.
If you enter a black hole and you fall through a wormhole that is somehow stabilized, wouldn't you still be spaghettified by the tidal forces?
A large black hole has very little tidal forces. The tidal forces decrease the larger it is. If it is a big black hole, the less the tidal forces, which defies common sense, but that's what the equations show; the larger the black hole, the less the tidal forces. The small black holes are the dangerous ones, because the gravitational fields are very intense, and as you fly through one you would be ripped apart.We all know the Enterprise travels at warp speed. Will it ever be possible to travel at "warp factor 4"?
We physicists used to laugh at Star Trek's warp factor. We don't laugh anymore. About 10 years ago, a Mexican relativist named Miguel Alcubierre was watching Star Trek, and he came up with a new solution to Einstein's [general relativity] equation. The loophole is negative matter -- Einstein never considered it. And Alcubierre got a solution that looked very similar to warp drive. The key is, you don't go to the stars, the stars come to you. Everybody assumes you have to go to the stars, which means you have to break the light barrier and violate the laws of physics. But you can compress the space like an accordion -- compress the space between you and the stars. It's like a wrinkle in space. There are some objections to this, of course. We don't have negative matter, for instance. But in principle, if you have, let's say, a meteorite made of negative matter, then it may be possible. Einstein never said that nothing can go faster than light. Empty space can contract or expand faster than the speed of light. That's the Big Bang. It's emptiness that expanded. It looks very similar to the rendition of warp drive in the movies -- you would see distortion of star light, stars would come at you very fast, but inside you feel nothing.
What about weapons? Could we ever create a ray gun or phaser small enough to put in a space holster?
We already have ray guns that are powered by nuclear power plants, which are very powerful lasers. But in a firefight, you don't want to put a nuclear power plant on your shoulder. The problem with jet packs and ray guns is always a portable power pack. Well, people say, we could use batteries. No -- these batteries don't exist. That's why jet packs only last a few minutes. That's why a lot of the stuff you see in the movies is not possible today. With nanotechnology, I do believe we will be able to create powerful batteries. It's like with gasoline. Pound for pound, gasoline has more energy than a battery. Why? Gasoline is concentrated sunlight. It's sunlight concentrated from the dinosaur era, and it's concentrated on a molecular level. In a battery, it's a fluid. You are not storing energy on a molecular scale. But there's no reason we cannot create a nano-battery. Take a capacitor, which is nothing but two parallel plates that store charge. You can store vast amounts of charge in a capacitor. In the future we might be able to make nanoplates and store vast amounts of energy on them. Maybe then, laser guns will be possible.
Do you think Star Trek will inspire people to figure these things out, a la Jules Verne and H.G. Wells?
These are technical problems. I suspect by the 23rd century they will solve many of these problems. There are no laws of physics that prevent most of what you see in the movies. It's just an engineering problem.
We physicists don't like to admit it, but some of us are closet science fiction fans. We hate to admit it because it sounds undignified. But when we were children, that's when we got interested in science, for a lot of us. When I was a kid, I watched Flash Gordon. Eventually I realized, I didn't have big muscles, I didn't have long hair, but it was the scientists who made the whole series work. I was fascinated by that. Here was a man who, just by thinking, could create starships and cities in the sky.
So, these are impossible technologies, but impossible today and maybe possible in the future.single page
Five amazing, clean technologies that will set us free, in this month's energy-focused issue. Also: how to build a better bomb detector, the robotic toys that are raising your children, a human catapult, the world's smallest arcade, and much more.