Star Trek has been an integral part of pop culture for over half a century and is still very popular with countless science fiction fans today. Over the years, a number of futuristic techniques have been introduced in the series – many of them will already be a reality in 2021.
“Space, endless expanses. The year is 2200. These are the adventures of the spaceship Enterprise …” The series “Star Trek” also became a legend because of its memorable intro. The Enterprise first flew over US screens on September 8, 1966 – that was 55 years ago. The date is now celebrated as the official “Star Trek Day”.
Already in the first broadcast episode “The Man Trap” (“The last of its kind”) various achievements from a fictional 23rd century can be seen. The physicist and science fiction expert Sascha Vogel is amazed today at how much of it has already arrived in our world. The individual points are arranged according to the narrative thread of the first episode:
FLAT SCREEN: Even before the intro, a strange planet can be seen on an oversized screen on the bridge of the Enterprise. “That was revolutionary in the 1960s, today it is no longer a problem,” says Sascha Vogel, who recalls the boom in flat TVs at the 2006 home soccer World Cup. Megascreens are now standard at concerts or in football stadiums.
One year after the US broadcast of “The Man Trap”, then Vice Chancellor Willy Brandt gave the go-ahead for color television in West Germany in 1967. In other words, if televisions were in German living rooms at that time, they were unwieldy tube devices.
Star Trek: Many techniques from Picard, Spock and Co. are already possible
TO AGREE: Next, the crew “beams” to the planet that can be seen on the flat screen. What is meant is a type of teleportation in which the body is broken down into its individual parts and reassembled at the destination. “We have two fundamental problems here,” explains Vogel. On the one hand, the body consists of a huge number of atoms that have to be transported as a quantity of information. On the other hand: “It just doesn’t work,” explains Vogel. There is no effect that destroys a particle and makes it reappear in another place.
FORM TRANSFORMATION: On the planet, the outside crew around Captain Kirk and ship’s doctor Leonard McCoy encounter an alien creature that can adapt its appearance to the preferences of the respective observer. “It works digitally without any problems,” says physicist Vogel, referring to so-called deepfakes, in which people can be put on faces that are deceptively real. In the real world, however, according to the physicist, this is not possible for two reasons: First, thoughts have to be read in order to know what the other person wants. And then the being would have to generate different masses and proportions when it transforms into different people.
TRICORDER: McCoy examines an inhabitant of the planet with a portable, multifunctional console that can also be used as a medical instrument. “It is not yet fully developed, but it is only a matter of time,” says Vogel. Examples are modern smart watches that can measure body functions such as the pulse. The telemedicine already used in “Star Trek” is also interesting, according to the physicist. Because there, patient data is sent from the mobile device to the ship’s computer.
COMMUNICATOR: Then Captain Kirk pulls out an object that by today’s standards resembles a clamshell phone. The crew was able to communicate with one another with this “Communicator”. In this specific case, someone in the Enterprise’s transporter room is instructed to beam up three people. In the 1960s that was still a utopia, today almost every German has a mobile phone. “You can tick it off,” explains Vogel. The golden era of smartphones even started with a model of the same name. The “Nokia 9000 Communicator” went on sale in 1996 almost exactly 30 years after the first “Star Trek” episode was broadcast.
Alexa, Siri and Co. make Star Trek fantasy a reality
ENVIRONMENTAL SENSORS: Captain Kirk goes through a door that opens and closes automatically. While in the 1960s it still had to be tricked, a similar technique can now be found at the entrance of almost every supermarket. “It was revolutionary back then, today individual components for it, such as the motion detector, are inexpensive,” explains Vogel. In the series, Kirk also instructs in the elevator that he wants to go to the “bridge”. This technology already exists, says the physicist and calls it voice controls such as Apple’s Siri or Amazon’s Alexa.
PHASER: Although the phaser weapons dangling from Kirk and Co.’s belt keep coming into the picture, it is later not a crew member who fires the first shot. Professor Crater, who lives with the shapeshifter creature on the planet, fires a warning shot, destroying ruins on the surface. Are such mini laser weapons already feasible? “Given the small size, that would be a huge energy problem,” explains Vogel, referring to the gigantic laser weapons used by the US Navy.
McCoy and Kirk take out Professor Crater with a simple trick: one distracts him, the other puts him out of action with one shot. The “phaser on anesthesia”, as it is called again and again on “Star Trek”. Is that possible? This is not yet feasible with a laser, says Vogel. However, he mentions the “tasers” used by the police, for example, as a possibility, which target persons can switch off with electrical impulses.
TRUTH SERUM: Once in orbit on the Enterprise, a truth serum is to be administered to Crater. The goal: to reveal the apparition behind which the shape-shifting creature is currently hiding. Even the term sounds like hocus-pocus – and according to Sascha Vogel it is. “There is no substance that lets you tell the truth spontaneously,” explains the expert. In our world, however, there are substances and means that cloud the perception and lead to testifying in the twilight state. Vogel names the drug LSD or the anesthetic thiopental, which has already been used during interrogations, as examples.
WARP DRIVE: Shortly before the end of the first episode, Kirk gives the order to go to “Warp 1” in order to leave the orbit of the planet. The Star Trek wiki “Memory Alpha” defines warp as “faster than light”. According to Vogel, it is currently unthinkable that a spaceship could accelerate like this. He refers to Einstein’s theory of relativity: “It is therefore not possible to be faster than light.”