Dec 052013


Photon torpedoes come after utopia, at least in Star Trek.

Imagining a universe centuries ahead of our own time and technology, the long-running sci-fi shows explored philosophy, morality, and the secluded intricacies of physics. But what was left unstated said the most. By the time Jean-Luc Picard took the captain’s chair, poverty in the 24th century had been eliminated, as was crime. Star Trek made these humanistic zeniths plausible by sheer abundance of energy resources. Without scarcity, standards of living increased. People had no reason to steal or beg. All of this was possible because 24th century humans perfectly realized the fact that inside even a small amount of mass was boundless energy. Star Trek then realized the dreams of Einstein, dreams that indeed were the tides that lifted all starships. Photon torpedoes can show you how.

Other than Newton’s F=ma, Einstein’s E=mc2 is perhaps the most famous equation of all time, and it calculates the end to an energy crisis. According to the equation, mass is equivalent to energy—a gargantuan amount of energy. That’s because even small masses in this equation are multiplied by the speed of light squared (c2), a number with around 20 zeroes (depending on your units of choice). You can think of the energy contained in mass like a calorie. To measure calories, researchers light a constituent of food on fire, and then measure how much that flame can heat a known quantity of water. The greater the final temperature of the water, the more calories the tested food has. Likewise, the “E” in E=mc2 shows how much energy you get if you could “unlock” all of it bound up in the atoms and molecules of some mass. In theStar Trek universe, they figured out how to do just that with antimatter.

Antimatter is simply ordinary matter with an opposite charge. An apple with all the atoms’ and molecules’ charges reversed is an anti-apple. And this small change has enormous consequences. When ordinary matter interacts with antimatter, they both annihilate—or destroy each other completely—and release (in theory) all the energy predicted by Einstein’s equation. Antimatter is therefore the key to a Star Trek-style energy utopia.

Like most science fiction stories that deal with antimatter, Star Trek has the hardest problems are already solved. One is generation. Useable anti-particles such as positrons (positively charged electrons) and anti-protons have been detected in naturally occurring gamma rays. However, they are fleeting, and make up less than 1% of the particles in those rays. Capturing natural antimatter is, for now, impossible. Artificial generation is the other option. We have created antimatter in the lab, but at tremendous costs—in fact, the highest costs. In 1999, NASA gave a figure of $62.5 trillion per one gram of anti-hydrogen.

The other problem with antimatter is containment. Recent movies like The Da Vinci Code make it look easy, but it isn’t. (The movie also shows probably 100 trillion dollars worth of antimatter in that small container.) Antimatter cannot touch anymatter or else it will annihilate. Literally a wisp of air in the containment chamber and that’s all it takes. In reality, you need something like a “Penning trap” that uses electric and magnetic fields to suspend antimatter. That solution is not science fiction—they do it all the time at CERN.

Star Trek, for the sake of narrative, does away with the problems of antimatter production and containment. The warp engines of the Federation can both contain and utilize the massive energy released from matter/antimatter interactions, and fuel availability doesn’t seem to be an issue. Antimatter is abundant enough in Star Trekthat kilograms of it can be used in standard weaponry. You wouldn’t destroy material that could power an entire planet unless you had a lot of it.

This brings us, of course, to the photon torpedo.

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