I’ve never been much of a Star Trek fan. But given the subculture of nerdery in which I’ve been proud to spend much of my life, I’ve managed to pick up a fairly tremendous amount of the lore by osmosis. I’ve seen a pretty good percentage of the original series as well as the two good films (II and VI) and though I actively dislike The Next Generation I can appreciate the fact of its cultural significance.
And so it was with some interest that I saw a preview photo a number of months ago:
Blarg, thought I, Kirk looks like a obnoxious frat boy and Spock’s hair somehow manages to evoke Jim Carey in Dumb and Dumber. Then the trailer came out with a car-wrecking pre-teen Kirk and a swordfighting Sulu and it just generally seemed to have all the hallmarks of yet another classic property mercilessly fed into the meat grinder of Hollywood remakes.
And then it came out and I heard nothing but positive reviews and fantastic word of mouth. And then I went to the theater and saw it for myself and darned if it wasn’t a preposterously well made and absurdly fun piece of film. I really can’t say enough good about it and I highly recommend it. Now if you dislike spoilers, read no more.
We all know Star Trek has always had something of a love-hate relationship with physics. Whole books have been written. Sure inertial dampers and transporters strain credulity but are at least good starting-off points for physics discussion. No exception in this movie.
Old Leonard Nimoy Spock tells a story to the young Kirk about the future. There was a supernova threatening to destroy the galaxy, and so in an effort to save the galaxy Spock flew to the exploding star to pitch in a bottle of “red matter”, a substance which catalyzes the collapse of ordinary matter into a black hole. He fails to get there soon enough and our villain’s planet is destroyed.
I’m not really sure why the Federation would send an ancient Vulcan ambassador to carry out a mission like that in the first place, but much less probable is that a supernova could destroy the galaxy in the first place. While a supernova can be bad news for the immediate stellar vicinity, it’s not going to destroy the galaxy. Regardless anything the supernova does can only propagate at the speed of light at best and so a galaxy-spanning civilization with warp drive shouldn’t have any problem evacuating nearby stellar systems. If Vega blew up, Earth would have a quarter century to prepare assuming the Federation keeps tabs on nearby stars with a view toward sending warnings if they blow up.
And I’m not sure pitching a black hole into a supernova would do much to stop it anyway. Supernovae tend to generate black holes, and the explosions are spectacular nonetheless.
The bad guy gets his revenge by punching a hole down into the core of Vulcan and dropping in some red matter, creating a black hole in the center of the planet. Why the drill? Beats me. Black holes are not picky eaters, and will perfectly happily fall through solid matter like a rock through the thinnest of atmospheres. And interesting question is the timing. Vulcan has some earthquakes and then goes from solid to singularity in seconds. It should take longer. The collapse won’t happen all that much faster than a normal free fall. That would take more than a half hour. But in the film once the collapse really gets going, the surface of the planet falls down to the singularity in about two or three seconds.
Dramatic license is ok, so I’m not complaining too much since it’s not all that much of a change. But the point to keep in mind is that black holes aren’t magic vacuum cleaners of space, sucking with irresistible force. If you were to stand on a hollow spherical shell of earth radius with an earth-mass black hole in the center, you’d just feel normal earth gravity. Gravity is generated by mass, and a black hole is just mass. The only special thing about black holes is that their mass happens to be all in one tiny speck.
So when the red matter splatters all over the enemy spacecraft at the end of the film, the gravity of the resulting black hole should be the same as the gravity of the spacecraft itself – ie, pretty much nothing. I suppose it’s possible that the red matter itself may have tremendous mass. On the other hand people can stand right by the huge container full of it will no apparent attraction. But it’s Trek and so it might be that they’ve got an artificial gravity field canceling out the effects of the pile of red goo.
Those are the major physics issues I noticed. I’m never happy with time travel as a plot device, but in this case I’ll grant them special dispensation because it allows them to ignore continuity in the sequels. Major points for having the courage to erase an entire important planet without bringing it back at the end via time travel.
On the plus side, I’d like to credit the film for evoking a feeling of realism with respect to space. Space travel and presumably space warfare is analogous in many ways to submarine warfare, and in the combat scenes it really feels like you’re watching a plausible and honestly nerve-wracking combat. In a grim and hopeless battle early on the enemy spacecraft is tearing Kirk Sr.’s spacecraft apart and a crew member is blown out through a hull breach into the silent vacuum of space… and the soundtrack is actually silent. It’s effective, and affecting.
Though it’s not physics-related, major points to the actors as well. They expressed their characters with respect to the original portrayals while still keeping things fresh and believable. Dr. McCoy in particular steals every scene he’s in. I hope they all sign on for the inevitable sequels. I’ll be in the theater on opening night.