Star Wars is all action. You know, X-wings and lightsabers and fully armed and operational battle stations.
That’s why I love it. The Star Trek franchise isn’t about being handy with a laser pistol. It’s about the power and promise of science, even if the actual science makes no sense. To that end, the writers perfected the art of technobabble — you know, dialogue that soundsscientific when uttered over a control panel but really doesn’t mean much.
What makes Star Trek technobabble so beautiful is that there’s occasionally a kernel of truth — a real scientific term or concept — under that thick coat of BS. So, divert auxiliary power to the deflectors and get ready for a deep dive into Star Trek’s best scientific mumbo jumbo.
Data: My positronic brain has several layers of shielding to protect me from power surges. It would be possible for you to remove my cranial unit and take it with you.
Riker: Let me get this straight. You want me to take off your head?
Ah yes, Data’s famous positronic brain, the blinking, miracle invention that powers our favorite android. (FYI, Star Trek actually took the term from Isaac Asimov.)
So what does “positronic” mean? As you might remember from high school, the electrons in an atom carry a negative charge. In 1928, physicist Paul Dirac predicted the existence of antiparticles with the same mass as their twins, but with an opposite charge. Physicist Carl D. Anderson confirmed the existence of positrons — or positively charged electrons — four years later.
How positrons are incorporated into Data’s artificial brain isn’t really explained. But they are actually useful particles for analyzing the human brain. With a machine, neurologists can detect positrons emitted by a small amount of a nuclear substance introduced to the brain, which can help them spot the onset of a disease. It’s called positron emission tomography — used in a test commonly known as a PET scan.
Data: It is possible that the convergence of three tachyon pulses could have ruptured the subspace barrier and created an anti-time reaction.
Tachyons were mentioned several times in the Star Trek universe and, no, the writers didn’t invent them. But you might need Data’s positronic brain to understand them.
Basically, they’re theoretical particles that can travel faster than light.
Want to know more? Here’s physicist Raymond Chiao talking to Scientific American: “Tachyons have never been found in experiments as real particles traveling through the vacuum, but we predict theoretically that tachyon-like objects exist as faster-than-light ‘quasiparticles’ moving through laser-like media.”
Got it? (Unless your name is Raymond Chiao, we’re assuming the answer is “no.”)
Uhhh, basically all you need to know is that we have no proof tachyons exist, and some physicists think their existence is impossible. But they’re a lot more likely than anti-time.
Spock: Bridge to Engineering. Negative effect on power reduction. Speed is still increasing.
Scotty: Aye, Mr. Spock, and I found out why. The emergency bypass control of the matter-antimatter integrator is fused.
Antimatter engines are science fiction, but they’re actually one of the least far-fetched ideas on Star Trek. Essentially, antimatter is the opposite of normal matter. Remember those positrons? They’re the antiparticles of electrons, in that they have the same mass, but the opposite electrical charge. Same thing with protons and antiprotons.
They’re created in high-energy collisions, like the ones that occur in particle accelerators. When you smash antimatter and matter, it creates a lot of energy — the kind of energy that could one day power a starship. The catch? It’s pricey. With current technology, NASA estimated it would cost $25 billion to create one gram of positrons.
Scotty: I’ve got bad news, Captain. The entire dilithium crystal converter assembly is fused. No chance of repair.
Kirk: No chance of restoring warp drive?
Scotty: Not without dilithium crystals. We can’t even generate enough power to fire our weapons.
In the original series, the Enterprise crew was always on the hunt for some primo dilithium crystals, rare stuff that powered the ship’s warp drive. It helped regulate the antimatter/matter reactions so the warp core wouldn’t explode.
In reality, dilithium isn’t so exciting. It’s a molecule composed of two lithium atoms that share a covalent bond, meaning they share an electron pair.
Jean-Luc Picard: Mr. La Forge, how long before the baryon sweep begins on the Enterprise?
Geordi La Forge: About 25 minutes, sir.
Picard: Then I have enough time to go back to the ship and get my saddle.
No, you’re not imagining things. There really was an episode of The Next Generation where Picard escapes a boring party to retrieve his horse saddle on the Enterprise, only to face off against thieves in the middle of a dangerous baryon sweep.
Think of baryons as “ordinary” matter, the stuff made of atoms. (It makes up less than 5 percent of our universe — the rest is dark matter and dark energy.) On Star Trek, the procedure was meant to get rid of baryons that had accumulated because of years of warp travel, which, um, is very confusing. If baryons are everything made of atoms, which baryons were they eliminating?
Anyway, I don’t remember if Picard ever got to ride that horse.
Kim: We’ve rerouted all available power to the thrusters but we can’t break free.
Janeway: Try reversing the shield polarity.
To be fair, Star Trek wasn’t the first sci-fi series to abuse the concept of reversing the polarity of stuff. That honor belongs to Doctor Who.
Like unplugging and plugging in a router, reversing the polarity seems to be the easy fix for all kinds of sci-fi problems.
IRL, electrical polarity involves the flow of electricity, with the electrons traveling from the negative pole to the positive pole. And yes, the polarity in a battery or outlet can be reversed. But don’t expect some kind of miracle — chances are you’ll just break your device or shock yourself.
Worf: We could disrupt their warp fields with an inverse graviton burst. It would force them to drop to impulse until the gravitons disappeared.
Who can forget when the Enterprise sent graviton pulses to neutralize tetryon emissions from a tertiary subspace manifold? Classic.
Or when a weird alien that looked like rock candy drained Deep Space Nine’s power and converted it into gravitons for its own sustenance. Or when Worf disabled a … OK, you get the idea. They’re everywhere in Star Trek.
Here, in the real world, gravitons are kind of like our ol’ buddies the tachyons: We’re not sure they exist. Theoretically, they carry the force of gravity.
But wait! Didn’t Albert Einstein’s general theory of relativity say gravity is a property of space-time, rather than a force? You bet he did.
General relativity, however, is a big picture thing. Quantum mechanics looks at the very, very small. And some scientists believe that like photons and electromagnetism, and gluons and nuclear force, gravitons could be the massless particles responsible for gravity.
Now, we just need to find a way to send a graviton beam into subspace at 1,200 bilateral kelilactirals, and we’ll ready to make a transwarp jump into the 24th century.