Star Trek advances life at warp speed

By Aaron Bates
Cole Harbour High School
Dartmouth, Nova Scotia

Star Trek has entertained generations of fans, as well as explored some fascinating scientific theories. From the vivid imagination of creator Gene Roddenberry came notions of alien races, matter-energy conversion, and faster than light travel. The show itself is fiction, yet the technology behind it may soon be within our reach.

Debuting in 1966, Star Trek placed the human race in a future where science had significantly elevated our standard of living. Antimatter-powered spacecraft allowed for speedy interstellar travel. Replicators supplied people with the food and clothing they needed to survive, eliminating the unjust economic system currently in place. Advancements in medicine cured many common illnesses and allowed physically impaired individuals to overcome their disabilities by means of synthetic replacements. While many of us would dismiss this as straightforward sci-fi, scientists frequently refer to the more credible concepts in their studies.

Star Trek creator
Gene Roddenberry

Star Trek has affected many aspects of our lives, many of which we are not even aware. Electronic ICU units were initially employed by Dr. "Bones" McCoy for monitoring a patient's vital signs long before present-day doctors were using them. Voice-activated computer systems of the 24th century are currently in development, but are expected to be commonplace within the next ten years. Even the cell phone, a common tool in our business-oriented society, had its humble beginnings as a simple prop. The flip-open communicator from the original series clearly had an influence on its design. Similarities range from the size and shape of the units, to their unreliability during severe weather conditions.

Gene Roddenberry was serious when it came to his dream of the future. One clause in his contract with Paramount stated that if anyone could genuinely develop the show's devices, the studio was to support their efforts without demanding royalties.

A major component in the medical division of Star Trek is that the technology used must be plausible, in that the doctors themselves must not be likened to gods. They cannot resurrect the dead or magically replace a limb; there are set limits as to what can be done based on existing medical data. For this purpose, consultants were used to ensure the terminology employed is valid. It is not enough that a story sounds good, it must have a basis in fact.

Therefore, procedures and techniques displayed on the screen could some day be accomplished. Instruments for administering medical compounds directly through the epidermal layer with jets of air, like the hypospray, already exist. As cloning techniques are refined, we may yet be able to grow replacement organs from our own DNA, reducing the risk of rejection. Prototypes for artificial vision replacement similar to a VISOR are in the works, leading a new field of research. Bioelectrics study how cybernetic implants can stimulate nerve cells, and possibly enhance ordinary senses.

Humanity is fascinated with aspects of the microscopic world, and thus one of the fastest growing fields in scientific research today is nanotechnology. Development of tiny cell-sized, self-replicating robots would revolutionize current medical practices. Today's doctors undertaking delicate procedures can sometimes encounter obstacles such as blood clots, inaccessibility to an area, and the risk of further damage. Machines or "nanites" that operate on a cellular level have the capability to move freely throughout the blood stream. This enables nanites to reach the injury and repair damaged tissue without puncturing the skin.

Recently, researchers have taken a bold step toward this goal. Scientists used DNA strands as building blocks for the first molecular machine. The strands were manipulated to form a simple hinge structure that can respond to given commands. Consider this a momentous breakthrough as DNA is only 4/10000ths the width of a single human hair.

By far, the most significant advancement of Trek-based technology to date has been the invention of a working tricorder. The main function of the TV apparatus is to study environmental data of an alien world, acting as a mini science lab. Based on the "Next Generation" blueprint, a team of Canadian scientists constructed the device for Vital Technologies Corp. (VTC), obtaining global copyrights for its design. According to co-inventors David Sweetnam and Tim Richardson, their tricorder is a multi-function tool that can record and measure electromagnetic radiation, temperature, barometric pressure, and intensity of the light and colour spectrums. Designers also equipped it with lights and a sound chip to give the "feel" of the future. It is interesting to note that, as the tricorder from Rodenberry's 24th century is "Mark 7", the present one has been designated "Mark 1" in homage.

Applications for this instrument are virtually limitless. VTC is promoting its use in observing science experiments, which will help eliminate the problem of human error. Talks with Agriculture Canada are also underway for the device's participation in testing produce. A tricorder can determine the amount of nitrogen and chlorophyll present through studying the colour of leaves, ensuring a healthy crop.

It is an accepted truth in the realm of science that fiction and fact are not that far apart. Every fresh hypothesis is condemned as being unorthodox until it can be proven or disproved. The great author Jules Verne wrote fantastic stories of scientific advancements considered too far-fetched in the 19th century, yet his predictions of moving pictures, space travel, and even air conditioning came true with striking accuracy. Knowing this, is it not reasonable to assume that humans may one day extend our presence beyond the farthest star? Professor Stephen Hawking believes so. As the renowned quantum physicist visited the Star Trek set for a guest shot, he reportedly viewed the mighty warp core saying, "I'm working on that".