The Science of Star Trek
Frederick Strauch (fws1 AT
williams.edu, Physics) and Steven Miller (sjm1 AT williams.edu, 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
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):
- Physics of the Impossible, by Michio Kaku,
- Parallel Worlds: A Journey Through Creation, Higher
Dimensions, and the Future of the Cosmos, by Michio Kaku,
- The Hidden Reality: Parallel Universes and the Deep
Laws of the Cosmos, by Brian Greene.
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
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....
||4: Mirror Mirror: Parallel universes, ends and
means, realistic responses; view of others
4: Space Seed: Genetics, view
|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
||25: Selections and discussions by final two
Below is a list of some topics we will
explore, with episodes related to these. The list is not meant to be inclusive.
- 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).
- 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.
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Q Who (ST: TNG, Season 2, Episode 16): First encounter
with the Borg.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- Revulsion (ST: Voyager, Season 4, Episode 5): A
hologram contacts Voyager and the Doctor is excited to meet another
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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
- Tapestry (TNG, Season 6, Episode 15): An accident
kills Picard, and he finds an afterlife with Q analyzing his past choices.
- Time Squared (TNG, Season 2, Episode 13): Two Picards
enter, one leaves.
- 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.
- Time’s Arrow 1&2 (TNG, Season 5, Episode 26, Season 6,
Episode 1). Data goes back in time, losing his head.
- Timescape (TNG, Season 6, Episode 25). Relative time
dilation, creatures living in the warp core.
- 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?
- Yesterday’s Enterprise (TNG, Season 3, Episode 15).
- All Good Things (TNG, Season 7, Episode 25 & 26).
Three timelines, altogether…
- Parallels (ST: TNG, Season 7, Episode 12): Worf finds
himself randomly shifting between alternate realities.
- 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?
- 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.
- Force of Nature (ST: TNG, Season 7, Episode 9): A pair
of scientists show warp drive is harming the fabric of space.
- To thine own self be true. How far will one go?
Do the ends justify the means?
- 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
- 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.
- 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.
- Hippocratic Oath (DS9, Season 4, Episode 5): Bashir
helps a group of Jem’Hadar attempting to break their addiction to Ketracel
- In the Pale Moonlight (DS9, Season 6, Episode 19):
Sisko asks Garak to help him get the Romulans to join the war against the
- 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
- Others (mostly TBD)
- 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.
- The Most Toys (ST: TNG, Season 3, Episode 22): An
obsessed collector is determined to add Data to his private collection of
- The wisdom of Garak: see for example
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