Star Trek: Into Improbability

Last night, we had a family movie night upstairs and finally watched the latest Star Trek movie, Into Darkness.

First, I was a little confused, when the final credits rolled, as to what darkness we were talking about.

Second, well, spoilers. Click on the thingie below.

Well heck, the thingie to hide this unless you click on it isn’t working. Sorry.


right, I was willing to suspend disbelief right up to the point where
the Enterprise falls out of warp, 20 minutes by shuttle from Kronos, and
they weren’t greeted by flotillas of bloodthirsty Klingons.

Let me say that again: the Enterprise fell out of warp 20 minutes at impulse speed from Kronos and the Klingons didn’t notice.

What’s wrong with this picture? The movie made a point of telling us
that the Klingon Empire and the Federation were on the verge of war.
Everyone was on a hair trigger. And the Klingons didn’t notice when a
Federation ship randomly dropped out of warp 20 minutes away from their

Puh-lease. Do you really think we humans would fail to notice a Klingon Warbird drop out of warp 20 minutes from Earth?

Oh wait. Scottie just hops right up to the Super Sekrit Supership Dock near Jupiter and no one notices. Not only do they not notice there’s this shuttle hanging around where it shouldn’t be, but they don’t notice when he joins in with the line of shuttles that are supposed to be there. Or that he snuck on board.

By this time, I was really blown out of my bubble of willful disbelief. I had been willing to give the Klingon thing a pass for the sake of plot. But then
whoever wrote this thing did it again. There’s a space battle going on inside our moon’s orbit,
and no one came over to investigate. Which begs the question: if the
Federation is on the eve of war with the Klingon Empire, where were the
ships guarding Earth? How could two ships, even Federation ships, slug
it out between the Earth and the moon and no one popped over to see what was going on? Seriously?

By this time, I’m laughing. They get Khan’s ship to stop firing. Yay! But then it fires again, and suddenly — suddenly — the Enterprise can’t maintain its position 237,000 km up and starts falling. Straight down. Like a stone.

Um, no.

wait, there’s more. Enterprise loses its gravity control, and every
time it spins, people go falling all over the place. Hello? 200,000+
kilometers up? MICROGRAVITY. You lose your artificial gravity, you’re going to float. Hello? They’re falling, fast. Even IF they were near the Earth’s surface, they’d be in freefall, not hanging from the catwalks and falling out of holes in the ship.

I’ve been a Star Trek fan since I was
a child. I watched the original airings of the original series. Captain
Kirk was my hero when I was a little girl. But that was a simpler time. We’re past that now. This — this is painful.
It’s like Galaxy Quest, except it’s pretending to be serious. Was it
really so hard to pick up a phone and run some of this stuff past an
aerospace engineer? I’m willing to bet that a huge percentage of the
folks who work at NASA are Star Trek fans who would have been delighted
to tell them anything they wanted to know about how things really work in orbit.


War – What Is It Good For?

Well, nothing, really. Although some might argue that many advances in science happen when one group of people is trying to figure out how to kill another group of people.

You could argue, however, that we also make advances in science when peaceful people get excited about what the future could look like. Look at how many things we now have that are directly inspired by stuff from Star Trek. (And my smart phone is way cooler than Dick Tracy’s wristwatch. Just sayin’.)

And there’s always the bottom line: Money. Try this thought experiment: what would happen if, instead of using bazillions of dollars on finding new and more appalling ways to kill each other, we used that money to fuel scientific research into medicine, physics, astronomy, the space program, and so on. Can you just imagine the strides we could make?

Money works — Qualcomm is currently offering a $10 million XPrize for a working medical tricorder, for example. Seriously, I think it’ll be on your smart phone someday. Your kid has an earache? There’s an app for that! You have a migraine? Ditto!

Some of this is coming, yeah. But there could be so much more, so much faster — with fewer hungry people in the mean time — if we weren’t cutting research funding. If human beings could just stop fighting over stupid things like lines on the ground and who gets to believe what about how the universe came to be, so we could spend money on what’s important, like curing diseases and feeding children so they don’t go blind from malnutrition.

Just sayin’.

Relativity, and Other Fine Tales

The more scientifically geeky of my readers may have noticed that in my books, I have people talking to each other across interstellar distances. In real time. Sometimes one of them is on a ship traveling at relativistic speeds, and no one is the wiser. They might as well have been having a cozy chat in a corner pub.

I know very well this is impossible according to the laws of physics as we know them. You can’t even get away with it on Earth. Ever notice the slight delays on old TV news when a reporter is interviewing someone on the other side of the planet? Yeah. It takes a little time for signals to bounce off satellites, get to their destination, and answering signals to travel back. It’s measured in seconds, but it’s there. There’s no getting around the speed of light in normal space.

That’s why Star Trek had subspace. For Captain Kirk to be dozens of light years away, traveling at whatever the heck Warp Factor 6 is, while talking in real time to Admiral Whoever at Star Fleet Headquarters on Earth, is just flat not possible. I’m embarrassingly vague on the laws of relativity, to be honest, but I’m pretty sure you can’t even talk meaningfully about time when you’re traveling faster than the speed of light.

But I’ve read space operas in which the author adheres rigidly to the constrictions imposed by travel at relativistic speeds. Suffice it to say I was bored.

So 500 years down the road, humanity is going to discover K-space, and develop the Kline-Thompson-Nishida drive, and go zipping around the Orion Arm (the little armlet of the Milky Way in which our sun resides), talking to each other and to a couple dozen alien races who have also discovered how to do this. And discover an empathic civilization on a planet orbiting Beta Hydri, of course.

Breaking the laws of physics right, left, and center, but having a rollicking good time doing it.

Discover Slooh

This may be old news to some of you, but a few days ago, I discovered the Slooh Space Camera while searching out information about the new nova in the constellation Delphinus.

I’m not a scientist — just a geek. This got me really excited. Slooh webcasts live videos of astronomical events and then posts them on YouTube, where you can subscribe to their channel. The latest is a cool video of the sun’s current activity as its magnetic poles reverse, and the video before that is about Nova Delphini 2013.

It’s the first nova visible to the naked eye in years. Last I checked, it was up to magnitude 4.4, which makes it easily visible among the dimmer stars in a dark sky (unfortunately, the light pollution from cities will hide it), and it’s near the summer triangle (Deneb-Vega-Altair, closer to Altair) so it’s high in the sky in the northern hemisphere.

I thought I saw an article that there’s a supernova going on right now in a Messier catalog galaxy (M83? M84?), but maybe I dreamed that. Supernovae are really interesting. (I was going to say they’re really cool — but no, they’re not. They’re hot. Really hot.) Betelgeuse, for example, is thought to be near the end of its life and will end in a supernova.

But “near the end of its life” is relative when talking about a lifespan measured in millions of years. Betelgeuse, a red supergiant with 950 times the radius of our sun located about 643 light years away in the constellation Orion, could explode tomorrow. Or it could explode in 100,000 years. We just don’t know. Some people think its supernova will become as bright as a full moon and last for as much as a year. But at least that’s far enough away that it shouldn’t cause major harm to Earth’s biosphere.

The largest star in our galaxy, CY Canis Majoris, is also thought to be near the end of its life. That star is a hypergiant half again as big as Betelgeuse (by some estimates — others think it’s two to two and half times as big, which is just mind-blowingly more huge than a size that’s already mind-blowing). That means if the smaller estimate is right, if you plopped it in our own solar system, it would reach a little way past the orbit of Jupiter. If the more liberal size estimate is correct, it would reach all the way to Saturn.

Some astronomers theorize CY Canis Majoris will end in a hypernova, blowing itself to bits in an explosion 100 times more energetic than a supernova, and what’s left will collapse into a black hole. Fortunately, it’s ~3,840 light years away (by some estimates, more like 4,900 light years away), so the deadly radiation it will spew when it explodes won’t sterilize our solar system the way it will the systems of stars unfortunate enough to be within 100 light years of it. It’s far enough away from us, by any estimate, that it won’t affect Earth at all.

It just goes to show, thuogh, that the universe really isn’t a safe place.