The Physics of Star Trek

Krauss, Lawrence. The Physics of Star Trek. New York: HarperPerennial, 1996. When I was younger, I watched Star Trek for the action and adventure. As I grew older, I was interested in the social commentary. I always liked the characters. But I never watched Star Trek for its grasp of science; and the more I learned, the more I tried to ignore Star Trek’s version of physical reality so that I could keep enjoying the show.

I enjoy well-written science-for-laypeople books, but I’ve largely avoided “hook” books like this one as I figured they were likely poorly researched. But when I learned that The Physics of Star Trek was written by physicist Lawrence Krauss, I decided to take the plunge. Krauss is great at taking grand concepts and making them clear. (And if you have an hour, here’s a video in which he explains the entire universe---yes, it’s an hour long, but it’s also the entire universe!)

Unfortunately, Krauss is also a huge Star Trek geek. I mentioned that I really like the series, but not to the extent that I can quote chapter and verse of each episode; nor do I remember the 5th lieutenant’s name on that ship that the Enterprise encountered in that one episode---you know the one that I mean. Krauss can, and it’s a bit much for my tastes.

I enjoyed The Physics, but I can’t really bring myself to recommend it. It’s a bit too heavy on the geek, and while the science is good, I’m not convinced that it is the best place to start for someone who knows nothing about physics. The book is organized around Star Trek concepts (like faster than light travel and transporters) rather than scientific building blocks; and while that may make it accessible to Trekies, I can't help wondering if it winds up leaving them a bit lost in space.

So to summarize some of Krauss’s main points: (most of) the stuff you see in Star Trek is largely impossible (yes, even in the future), and the stuff that isn’t impossible would take so much energy and effort that it might as well be impossible.

Which is basically why I watch Star Trek for the characters and the social commentary.