Physics in Star Trek

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.

More like this

You and I have lived on planet Earth long enough to know that if you want to launch something into space, it needs to travel fast enough to escape the pull of Earth's gravity. Launch it with too slow of a speed, and it crashes back into Earth. Launch it with a little more speed, and you can send it…
Let's say we want to know how big the earth would be if it were compressed down so far that it became a black hole. We don't really know much about black holes, but we do know something about escape velocity. Stand on the surface of the earth (which had radius r) and fire a projectile upward, and…
"Black holes are where God divided by zero." -Stephen Wright Yesterday, I told you about all the evidence for the Black Hole at the center of our galaxy. In particular, we see multiple stars orbiting a single point that emits no light of any type at all. And, perhaps unsurprisingly, the comments…
I'm out of town, visiting family and friends in the period between the end of the summer and the time things get cranking back up later this summer. One thing I did do on Friday was catch the new Star Trek. I'll save the review and "physics of" posts for later this week. I'll be honest and admit…

One serious question remains unanswered in the nascent Star Trek parallel reality: Given Spock and Uhura's tonsils, will it be Kirk or Chekov with Sulu as an item?

Arghhh, I didn't notice Spock-Jim Carey hair similarity till now and now I can't unsee it.

Thanks a lot!

What about time dilation? Shouldn't the matter closer to the black hole fall more slowly as it approaches the event horizon. In fact, is it even possible for matter to pass this point in finite time?

I know little about general relativity.

By ObsessiveMathsFreak (not verified) on 18 May 2009 #permalink

I have always thought Star Trek was like a B-movie. The sets looked generic, the make-up looked like make-up, and the story lines...
I, too, was excited when I saw the trailer for this movie. Not exactly my kind of movie, at least now I'm not left out of the Star Trek circle of fun. Only a matter of time before die-hard Trekkies denounce the film and file a class action suit...

"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."

The speculation I've been hearing is that Red Matter requires intense heat and pressure in order to "activate." So it's harmless on a planet surface (on in a storage container) but once it is subjected to intense heat and pressure (like in a planet core, a supernova, or a spaceship explosion) only THEN will it cause nearby matter to form a black hole.

Ah physics, though art so easy to abuse.

By Max Fagin (not verified) on 18 May 2009 #permalink

Something I forgot to mention in the post:

I know a lot of Russians. None of them pronounce "v" as "w", like Chekov does. If anything they tend to do the opposite and turn "w" into "v".

About the supernova destroying the galaxy, I'm fairly certain the supernova was only going to destroy Romulus (Wikipedia disagrees with me but I believe they are mistaken), and I believe the mission was being overseen by the Vulcan Science Academy, not the Federation.

By Raj Sahae (not verified) on 18 May 2009 #permalink

There's a comic book prequel that was put out by IDW that is an official tie-in to the movie. It tries to explain many of the problems you had with the physics, to varying degrees of success. For one thing the supernova isn't really a supernova, but a poorly described energy phenomenon that is causing suns to go nova in a cascade.

Red Matter gets a similarly weird explanation.

By Stefan Krzywicki (not verified) on 18 May 2009 #permalink

I too was puzzled by the drill.

However, by far and away the scariest part of the future is the lack of security and health and safety regulations.

I think that one of starfleet's operations was enclosed by a 3 ft high barbed wire fence, that could easily be approached by a lunatic on a motorbike.

And apparently, in the future, starship are constructed with mulitple walkways over great heights, with no handrails! Who approved THAT design? He wouldn't be allowed to construct scaffolding to paint a sacond strory window in this centuury.

Thank you for pointing out some of the many cognitive dissonances for physicists watching Star Trek. While we are used to having aphysical movie universes being built for us slowly (Lorentz-violating FTL communication, FTL transports which engage in close combat and make course corrections at FTL speeds by human hands, no discussion on the source and economics of anti-matter, etc) having being given in five minutes a movie's worth of additional phenomena to try to fit into some sort of fictional world view was then compounded by the movie inconsistency that Spock (and the rest of the physics galaxy) made a mistake in the timing of a supernova which he had studied at least well enough to decide to chuck black-hole potentiating red matter into it.

My "solution" to these cognitive dissonances is, to say the least, unique.

While I like many things about Star Trek, and will probably see its sequel, I cannot say I am in the majority who likes this film. Filmmaking is story telling, and in contrast to the people who have screen time who seem governed by their own internal logic, the back-story events which for the purposes of a time-travel story with a message about fate and destiny were at least as important seem utterly neglected.

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

The bit that threw me, during this discussion, was when Old Spock was describing racing to the impending disaster in the fastest available ship ... "and then the unthinkable happened" (or something close to that).

Um, you knew it was coming - that's why you were trying to stop it. What's so unthinkable? Why didn't you know it was going to happen so soon?

If they'd added another few words, and said it happened sooner than expected or something, maybe. But even then, you do the work to come up with a fix, and don't take the time to get down how much time you have to save the planet?

Well, after watching new Spock keep what looked like me to be a pseudo-smirk the whole movie (couldn't they hire someone who could keep an actual poker face?), I think the comparison with Carrey is pretty apt.

Was it going to destroy the galaxy? I thought it was just going to destroy the Romulan home planet. If this was going to destroy the galaxy, a better candidate would be the galactic center, since the entire Star Trek universe is set in one galaxy (barring perhaps whatever happened to Voyager - I stopped watching at that point). My bigger concern would be why didn't anyone actually evacuate the planet, considering that the Klingon home planet was lost in one of the other movies, so obviously people knew it could happen (hell, didn't that happen in several of the episodes throughout the different series?).

Considering the altered timeline, I can see Spock as even more of a hoodlum than he was in the original show (even I felt like slapping him some times), but how can that explain the vulcan's propensity to showing emotion (with the exclusion of Sarek) - I haven't seen so much emoting by a race that was supposed to be in control of their emotions (not even counting new Spock - look at the "headmaster" or whoever he was, if there wasn't a whole range of emotions in his interaction with the young Spock, then I don't know what is). Hopefully, they won't just make the Vulcans into humans with pointy ears like a poor writer could do.

Other than that, not a bad movie, just disappointing in some ways. Maybe they can fix that in any sequels they churn out.

It's my impression that the movie is trying to establish Vulcans as emotional creatures whose reputation for logic is a cultural norm rather than a biologically determined fact. An analogue might be humans and clothing - we pretty much all wear it most of the time, but we don't have to and on many occasions we don't.

It's funny you post that Star Trek book link.

It's the exact book open in front of me.

I am using it for my final presentation in English 363: Technical Presentations.

By Chris Hertlein (not verified) on 18 May 2009 #permalink

Your dislike of Next Generation is why you didn't get why the Federation sent Spock. They didn't.
Spock moved to Romulus to help out an underground movement that wanted to reunify the Vulcan and Romulan cultures. He spent years there working on this without the approval of Vulcan or the Federation.
I'm making the presumption that he was on Romulus when the supernova issue became known and worked with them to save the planet in the hopes that this act would improve relations to the point that he could work openly and publicly to improve relations between their two cultures.

Re post 14: Vulcans have long been established as a people whose strong emotions made them a rather passionate and violent people. Their dedication to logic is the result of a philosophical movement that tried to get people to control their feelings. It was at that time that the Romulans, who did not buy into this philosophy, split off.

I know a lot of Russians. None of them pronounce "v" as "w", like Chekov does. If anything they tend to do the opposite and turn "w" into "v".

You're correct about that - that was a mistake that Walter Koenig made in the original series when Roddenberry told him to ham it up. The new Chekov is actually Russian and knows better, but they kept the "w" for "v" substitution as an homage to the original, so now it's become an "in joke" not a mistake per se.

poor Vulcan, good thing they have the Genesis project coming up in the future. I loved the movie, but have to keep remembering "it's entertainment". As typical in these action packed film adventures, I thought it moved too fast. There was no time for any scientific development. Even though it's not scientifically accurate I can't help but think these kinds of movies could do more to bolster science in the public eye and entice youngsters to get involved in science arenas.

Just saw the movie, and just read the comments; my thought on red matter was close to that already discussed; in any case, they talked about "igniting" the red matter. I was imagining not heat or pressure per se, but some mechanism by which an interaction was stimulated mediating the decay of the red matter into a fast-moving shell of some quintessence-like substance, leaving behind an incredibly dense residue while conserving stress-energy. (Wait, does quintessence have negative energy or negative pressure? Anyway, some kind of exotic matter.) The drilling is not strictly necessary, but is a safety precaution; the red matter on the ship is safe as long as it's not too easily induced to decay.

I was a bit perplexed by the end of the movie, where warping wasn't sufficient to escape from the black hole but what looked like a conventional explosion was. Maybe it created some extra warping, or something. I can sweep that under the same rug that allows all the warp-speed travel without allowing time travel in the TV series anyway.

(Incidentally, how logical was it of the other school children to pick on Spock? Post 16 probably explains this.)

CAN THERE be A quantitative explanation of the movie when where going to relate it to the laws of physics.

I recently came across your blog and have been reading along. I thought I would leave my first comment. I don't know what to say except that I have enjoyed reading. Nice blog. I will keep visiting this blog very often.


About the supernova destroying the galaxy, I'm fairly certain the supernova was only going to destroy Romulus (Wikipedia disagrees with me but I believe they are mistaken), and I believe the mission was being overseen by the Vulcan Science Academy, not the Federation.

Posted by: Raj Sahae | May 18, 2009 2:06 PM

Ok, let's assume Spock got there in time and was able to suck up the supernova with the black hole. How is Romulus going to survive with no sun? And there will be a nice black hole buzzing around sucking mass in for a billion years or more.

By William Bradshaw (not verified) on 22 Sep 2009 #permalink

how can you dislike next generation?! its almost as good as voyager although no one can beat jean-luc. nice blog :)

IIRC, gravity is theorized to be based on mass and size. An earth-sized black hole with the mass of the earth wouldn't have a pull different from, well, the earth. Plus, it couldn't exist. Take the same mass and cram it into the size of a rabbit, and gravity will have an extreme pull. Not sure if even that could exist for more than a brief period if time either.

WHAT about NOW.. in THIS "NEW" timeline..
They WILL be able to save Romulus KNOWING NOW that the star WILL go supernova and knowing the stardate...
They ALSO KNOW that a Romulan named Nero will go nuts... so he can be safely disarmed,locked up or distracted, whatever.

They WILL be able to deploy the red matter there "in time"..
NOT to mention, have OODLES of time to evacuate Remus AND Romulus... JUST in case! (yeah no one seemed to mention Remus AT ALL!!)

THUS Nero will NEVER end up time traveling thru the blackhole with a vendetta, capturing Spock and killing Kirks father...OR destroying Vulcan... ALL these events will not happen!
THEREFORE the "normal" timeline SHOULD revert... the question IS... exactly WHEN would the timeline revert back to its "normal" course...
The second someone from the new timeline learns of the date of Romulus's star going supernova?

By Shawn Wilson (not verified) on 06 Apr 2012 #permalink

I figured it out...
Reality would "reset" to the "normal" Star Trek Universe..with Romulus gone and Vulcan still there..
The INSTANT that any action taken, in the newly altered timeline, that irrevocably altered the events that allowed the future "Nero" to travel into the past, the instant Nero would be incapable of time travel, reality would reset.
HELL.. deploying the red matter earlier and saving Romulus would do it... BESIDE I STILL am having a hard time of getting my head wrapped around blackholes being time travel conduits...

By Shawn Wilson (not verified) on 06 Apr 2012 #permalink

You need a white hole at the other end and you can't use it to travel earlier than the time you made the first black hole.