The Science of Star Trek


Frederick Strauch (fws1 AT, Physics) and Steven Miller (sjm1 AT, Math/Stats)


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Description: Comprising eleven motion pictures and five major television series, totaling over 500 hours of film, Star Trek has had a profound impact on pop culture and the scientific imagination.  In this Winter Study course, we will board Star Trek as a vehicle towards a critical discussion of science, technology, and their consequences to society.  We will boldly question topics such as the nature of reality, the (uni/multi)verse according to quantum theory and general relativity, the origins of consciousness and the possibility and consequences of extraterrestrial and artificial intelligence. We will view select episodes and films from the franchise, discussing their basis in actual science and using them as a prism to understand issues facing us on Earth.


Evaluation: class participation, the completion of two short essays (3 to 4 pages) and a final project, and the Kobayashi Maru test.


Additional: No prerequisites, course costs at most $15, enrollment limit: 25


Meeting Time: Three two-to-three-hour meetings each week, MWF from 1 to 3:50 in Physics 205


TAs: Commander Cameron Miller, Lt Kayla Miller.



Possible Text: The Physics of Star Trek, by Lawrence Krauss, $9.98 on Amazon


Reference Book: Star Trek Encyclopedia, by Michael Okuda et al., $23.10 on Amazon


YouTube clips on Star Trek:


Popular Science Books (for further reading):


Other Readings / Viewings



Below are some suggested episodes for various themes. We will concentrate on Star Trek: The Next Generation, but want to provide a starting point for those interested in additional perspectives on these issues (as well as seeing how some of these concepts evolved throughout the series). There isn't enough space in the term to see al relevant episodes, so the calendar is a possible tour through some of the major themes, with notes on key concepts or themes in the episode. We will have some movie showings on Saturday; if you can't make it you can check out the movies and see them at your convenience.


The following class schedule is tentative and is subject to change. Note for those coming from the Mirror Universe: some of the episodes may have different endings than you remember....


Sun Mon Tues Wed Thurs Fri Sat
          4: Mirror Mirror: Parallel universes, ends and means, realistic responses; view of others

4: Space Seed: Genetics, view of 'others'

5: Movie: Wrath of Khan showing
  7: Force of Nature: Role of scientist, consequences of technology


  9: Yesterday's Enterprise: Parallels, what is our right path


  11: All Good Things: Part I, II: Paradox: Flash of insight, what Q sees in Picard


  14: Doctor Bashir, I Presume: DS9 Genetics: links to space seed, punish the child for sins of parents  

16: I Borg: Following genetics, Pandora's Box, ends and means


  18: In the Pale Moonlight: Nature of evidence (MA evidence tampering), ends and means.


21: Measure of a Man: What is man that thou art mindful of him. 23: Selections and discussions by second two groups 25: Selections and discussions by final two groups


Below is a list of some topics we will explore, with episodes related to these. The list is not meant to be inclusive.


  1. Consciousness unit: There are many ways to explore this subject. Two important ones are who (or perhaps now we should say what) is conscious, and are we accurately conscious of our surroundings. Relevant episodes include the following (summaries from Wikipedia).
    1. Frame of Mind (ST:TNG, Season 6, Episode 21): Riker finds himself prisoner in an alien mental institution, which resembles scenes from Beverly's play.
    2. Elementary, Dear Data (ST: TNG, Season 2, Episode 3): After Data easily solves an ordinary Sherlock Holmes holodeck mystery, Geordi asks the computer to make a Holmes villain capable of defeating  Data. The resultant Professor Moriarty soon becomes far more powerful than expected.
    3. Ship in a Bottle (ST: TNG, Season 6, Episode 12): Barclay accidentally awakens Prof. Moriarty on the holodeck, who uses the powers at his disposal to coerce the crew into finding a way to allow him to leave the holodeck. Guest star: Daniel Davis as Professor Moriarty.
    4. The Measure of the Man (ST:TNG, Season 2, Episode 9): When Data refuses orders to be dismantled for research purposes, a hearing is convened to determine if he is a legal citizen or property of the Federation. Guest stars Amanda McBroom as JAG Philippa Louvois.
    5. The Offspring (ST: TNG, Season 3, Episode 16): Data creates a young gynoid, which he considers his daughter, "Lal". But a Starfleet admiral arrives demanding she be removed from the Enterprise.
    6. The Quality of Life (ST: TNG, Season 6, Episode 9): Data observes self-guided "tools" used at a mining station display signs of sentience, and fights for their preservation, even risking Captain Picard's life on the ground that it is unacceptable to kill one sentient being to save another.
    7. Q Who (ST: TNG, Season 2, Episode 16): First encounter with the Borg.
    8. I Borg (ST:TNG, Season 5, Episode 23): The Enterprise rescues a Borg survivor, and Picard plans to use him as a weapon against his nemesis by exposing him to a computer virus.
    9. Evolution (ST: TNG, Season 3, Episode 1): Nanites escape Wesley's lab and form a collective intelligence, threatening an astrophysicist's only chance at performing a stellar experiment.
    10. Remember Me (ST: TNG, Season 4, Episode 5): After an apparent failure of a warp-field experiment, people begin to disappear from the Enterprise with only Dr. Crusher remembering that they ever existed.
    11. Revulsion (ST: Voyager, Season 4, Episode 5): A hologram contacts Voyager and the Doctor is excited to meet another hologram.
    12. Tinker, Tenor, Doctor, Spy (ST: Voyager, Season 6, Episode 4): The Doctor adds daydreaming to his program, imagining himself as the Emergency Command Hologram (ECH) aboard Voyager; but aliens, tapping into his perceptions to observe the crew, prepare an attack when they believe that what they are seeing in the daydreams is real.
    13. Flesh and Blood (ST: Voyager, Season 7, Episodes 9 and 10): (I) Voyager's hologram technology, which Janeway had previously donated to the Hirogen, has been modified to make the holographic "prey" more cunning, enabling the hologram characters to rebel against their new   masters. (II) The Doctor decides to join the holograms who have escaped from the Hirogen, but in the process he must betray Voyager.
    14. Author, Author (ST: Voyager, Season 7, Episode 20): The Doctor writes a holo-novel to be published in the Alpha Quadrant, featuring characters who closely resemble - but do not flatter - the crew.


  1. Travels in Space and Time.  The laws of physics impose severe constraints on space travel, while time travel is constrained by consistency and causality.  How shall we explore the frontiers of the universe?
    1. Tapestry (TNG, Season 6, Episode 15): An accident kills Picard, and he finds an afterlife with Q analyzing his past choices.
    2. Time Squared (TNG, Season 2, Episode 13): Two Picards enter, one leaves.
    3. Cause and Effect (ST: TNG, Season 5, Episode 18): The Enterprise becomes stuck in a causality loop, but the crew retain some memory of previous instances. Guest star Kelsey Grammer as Morgan Bateson.
    4. Time’s Arrow 1&2 (TNG, Season 5, Episode 26, Season 6, Episode 1).  Data goes back in time, losing his head.
    5. Timescape (TNG, Season 6, Episode 25).  Relative time dilation, creatures living in the warp core.



  1. Universe or Multiverse?   Cosmologists have uncovered amazing insights into the structure and evolution of our universe, using laws that apparently require a multiverse: many universes existing in parallel, side-by-side with our own.  These scientific speculations are a triumph of the Copernican revolution, but what remains?  What is right and wrong in a reality where everything that is not forbidden is mandatory?
    1. Yesterday’s Enterprise (TNG, Season 3, Episode 15).  Enterprise-C.
    2. All Good Things (TNG, Season 7, Episode 25 & 26).  Three timelines, altogether…
    3. Parallels (ST: TNG, Season 7, Episode 12): Worf finds himself randomly shifting between alternate realities.



  1. The impact of technology. What are the effects, intended or not, of technology? What are the dangers and advantages of new knowledge being used for military purposes?
    1. Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan: The most relevant part of this movie is the Genesis Project, which can be used to create or destroy a planet.
    2. Force of Nature (ST: TNG, Season 7, Episode 9): A pair of scientists show warp drive is harming the fabric of space.


  1. To thine own self be true. How far will one go? Do the ends justify the means?
    1. The Pegasus (ST: TNG, Season 7, Episode 12): Riker's former Captain boards the Enterprise to retrieve the USS Pegasus. Picard investigates the circumstances of its loss and finds that there has been a cover-up.
    2. Chain of Command (ST: TNG, Season 6, Episodes 10 and 11): (I) Captain Jellico is assigned command of the Enterprise, while Picard is sent on a covert mission into Cardassian territory. (II) Picard, having been captured, is tortured by a sadistic Cardassian interrogator.
    3. Pre-emptive Strike (ST: TNG, Season 7, Episode 24): Ensign Ro graduates from advanced tactical training, and is sent by Picard to lure Maquis terrorists into a trap.
    4. Hippocratic Oath (DS9, Season 4, Episode 5): Bashir helps a group of Jem’Hadar attempting to break their addiction to Ketracel White.
    5. In the Pale Moonlight (DS9, Season 6, Episode 19): Sisko asks Garak to help him get the Romulans to join the war against the Dominion.
    6. Damage (Enterprise, Season 3, Episode 71): Enterprise is heavily damaged by Xindi and seeks exchange of Trellium-D for a warp coil from an alien vessel but is forced to steal it. T'Pol confesses her addiction to liquefied Trellium-D, which has caused her to lose control of her emotions.


  1. Others (mostly TBD)
    1. The Chase (ST: TNG, Season 6, Episode 20): Picard tries to solve an ancient genetic mystery uncovered by his archaeological mentor, and faces stiff competition.
    2. The Most Toys (ST: TNG, Season 3, Episode 22): An obsessed collector is determined to add Data to his private collection of unique items.
    3. The wisdom of Garak: see for example


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