Science fiction: Boldly going for 50 years

Posted by K R on

Half a century ago, in September 1966, the first episode of Star Trek aired on the US television network NBC. NASA was still three years short of landing people on the Moon, yet the innovative series was soon zipping viewers light years beyond the Solar System every week. After a few hiccups it gained cult status, along with the inimitable crew of the starship USS Enterprise, led by Captain James T. Kirk (William Shatner). It went into syndication and spawned 6 television series up to 2005; there are now also 13 feature films, with Star Trek Beyond debuting in July this year. Part of Star Trek's enduring magic is its winning mix of twenty-third-century technology and the recognizable diversity and complexity enshrined in the beings — human and otherwise — created by the show's originator Gene Roddenberry and his writers. As Roddenberry put it, “We stress humanity.” The series wore its ethics on its sleeve at a time when the Vietnam War was raging and anti-war protests were proliferating, along with racial tensions that culminated in major US urban riots in 1967–68. Roddenberry's United Federation of Planets, a kind of galactic United Nations, is an advanced society wielding advanced technology, and the non-militaristic aims of the Enterprise are intoned at the beginning of every episode in the original series (TOS): “To explore strange new worlds; to seek out new life and new civilizations; to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Over the decades, Star Trek technologies have fired the imaginations of physicists, engineers and roboticists. Perhaps the most intriguing innovation is the warp drive, the propulsion system that surrounds the Enterprise with a bubble of distorted space-time and moves the craft faster than light to traverse light years in days or weeks. In 1994, theoretical physicist Miguel Alcubierre showed that such a bubble is possible within Albert Einstein's general theory of relativity, but would demand massive amounts of negative energy, also known as exotic matter (M. Alcubierre Class. Quantum Grav. 11, L73; 1994). This is not known to exist except (possibly) in minuscule quantities; and some physicists speculate that the Alcubierre drive might annihilate the destined star system. The warp drive remains imaginary — for now. Read More: Nature

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