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Science News for Students: Star Trek technology becomes more science than fiction

Basil Harris


New devices are catching up to the tech found in the long-running sci-fi series

STEPHEN ORNES    ||   DEC 8, 2016

Fifty years ago, the first episode of Star Trek aired. It started as a quirky science-fiction television show that lasted for a mere three seasons. But the out-of-this world series launched a long-running story that went on to capture the imaginations of generations of viewers. It has left its fingerprints not only on pop culture but also on the world of science.

The original Star Trek followed a multicultural space crew in the 23rd century as it traveled to distant corners of the galaxy on its ship, the Enterprise. Each episode began with the captain’s voice telling viewers that the crew’s mission was “to boldly go where no man has gone before.” Its officers and crew faced terrific challenges, hostile aliens and strange new planets. Though the series wasn’t a rampant success, it led to 13 movies and five more series over the following decades. A sixth series, Discovery, will begin airing in 2017.            

Space may have been the “final frontier,” but it wasn’t the only one in this fictional world. Explorers on the Enterprise used a variety of futuristic tools, weapons and other technology that seemed wild and impossible. The ship traveled through space faster than light, at “warp speed.” It used something called a tractor beam to capture or tow other ships. In the face of danger, characters fired intense beams of light, or lasers, from weapons called phasers. To heal the sick, the ship doctor, “Bones” McCoy, scanned patients with a handheld device called a tricorder. (“Tri-“ comes from the Greek word for three. So, a tricorder could do three things: scan, record and compute.) Hostile alien ships could make themselves invisible by “cloaking.” And characters frequently used devices that acted very like today’s smartphones and tablet computers.

Star Trek’s vision was dazzling. “It showed you what a technological future could be like,” says David Grier. He’s a physicist at New York University in New York City. “I thought it was great.” Grier was a huge fan of the show. He admired how the doors swooshed open at just the right moment to let people pass. And he marveled at how all the devices worked together and from anywhere on the ship. 

Grier and other scientists didn’t just goggle at these devices, though. They drew inspiration from them. They grew up to run their own scientific labs. And now these die-hard fans are actually building modern versions of some of Star Trek’s most fantastic devices. With their inventions now poised to enter the real world, Grier says today’s scientists are about two hundred years ahead of schedule.

I’m a doctor — and an inventor

Basil Harris is an emergency room doctor in Philadelphia, Pa., who grew up watching Star Trek. The show was notable not just for its gadgets, he says. He also liked how it depicted people working together to solve problems. They didn't always get along. McCoy, for example, was a cranky physician who often quarreled with crew members. But he was part of the team. If one crew member was captured or endangered, the rest collaborated on a rescue.

“They had a nice harmony,” Harris says. “It was an optimistic view of the future. How could you not like it?”

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In early episodes of Star Trek, characters used a tricorder like the one shown here (top) to diagnose injuries and disease. Now, scientists are building tricorders that doctors could use to help people in the real world. The small white object is a modern-day tricorder built by Basil Harris and his team.

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