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Engineering and Star Trek

Written: 2000-10-03

We've been hearing about the science of Star Trek for years, but what about the engineering of Star Trek? Star Trek's writers may pay precious little attention to scientific accuracy, but sadly, they pay even less attention to engineering. Science and engineering are two different, albeit related concepts, and Star Trek has successfully butchered them both, while claiming to champion them.

Every Federation starship has a chief engineer, right? And the chief engineer's job is to keep everything running and solve problems, right? Right, but unfortunately, that's about the only thing they get right.

Science vs Engineering
Engineering Safety Principles
Star Trek Safety
Other Star Trek Affronts to Engineering

Science vs Engineering

Science and engineering are related but not identical. While science is a method for analyzing and understanding the universe, engineering is a method for designing technologies. The two disciplines exist in a symbiotic relationship; advances in science allow engineers to design improved devices with new capabilities, and advances in engineering give scientists the tools they need to obtain better observations of the universe. For example, scientific discoveries in the area of electromagnetism and general relativity allow engineers to design synchotrons and cyclotrons. These atom smashers, in turn, give scientists the tools they need for even more scientific discoveries, which may lead to other technologies, and so on. Of course, there is quite a bit of crossover and the lines can get blurred, but the general idea is that a scientist strives to produce a theory, while an engineer strives to produce a technological apparatus.

Engineering is more difficult than science in some ways, and it is also easier in some ways. Scientists need to understand their theories in much more detail than engineers do, and they require stronger abstract thinking skills. They must be able to explain the principles behind every idea, and they don't have the luxury of relying on "rules of thumb" and empirical correlations when in doubt. While engineers can concentrate on the applications of a theory, scientists must study its derivation from first principles. However, scientists do catch a break in three crucial areas: time, complexity, and consequence.

  1. Time: no one expects scientists to pull theories out of thin air without completing all of the requisite studies. However, engineers often must solve problems without waiting for the science to catch up. Even when the underlying principles are only vaguely understood, they're often asked to fudge a solution anyway, so the history of engineering is full of workarounds, theories for which no first principles exist, and lessons learned the hard way. Electricity is a good example; the first electrical generators, motors and lights were designed without any understanding of the quantum physics of electron flow. Fluid mechanics is another good example; we still can't accurately model turbulent airflow from first principles, so we rely on empirically determined rules and fudge factors (perhaps you've heard of terms like "convection heat transfer coefficient"). In these cases, the need was there but the science was not, so engineers simply had to forge ahead anyway, and damn the torpedoes.

  2. Complexity: when looking for a theory, a scientist will always try to isolate the variables. But when designing a piece of technology, you don't have that luxury. Outside variables all apply simultaneously and uncontrollably, whether you want them to or not. This means you can't simplify, isolate and narrow situations until you're looking at a very specific concept. Instead, you are forced to deal with numerous variables and physical laws at once, and there's always the possibility that you'll miss something. This is one of the reasons that whenever public safety is at stake, engineers have historically tried to build "robust" systems: systems which can continue to operate despite component failures or deviations from specification. You just can't predict everything.

  3. Consequence: scientists' mistakes are often caught by peer review, and these mistakes can potentially result in embarrassment or loss of credibility. However, engineers don't have the luxury of being judged only by their peers. Engineers' mistakes are judged by the laws of physics directly, and those laws are utterly without mercy. Bridges can fall, buildings can collapse, aircraft can fall from the sky, automobiles can crumple like tissue paper, and lives can be lost. Engineers are the buffer zone between science and technology; they translate one into the other, and they absorb the blame when things go wrong. That's why engineers, like doctors, can be held legally liable for their mistakes. Scientists don't have to carry this burden.

I'm not explaining this stuff just for fun; it helps explain why engineers are obsessed with safety and empiricism. Anybody can spout theories about how things might work in a purely hypothetical world without consequences. But when you've had the philosophy of engineering ingrained into you, the safety (or lack thereof) of a design is first and foremost in your mind, and you can't gloss over it the way sci-fi fanboys and theoretical scientists are wont to do. For an engineer, it's not enough that an idea works; it must work reliably, within acceptable limits of risk.

Engineering Safety Principles

Before embarking on a discussion of the engineering of Star Trek, it may be instructive to discuss an example of real-life engineering. I have chosen nuclear reactors as this example, because I feel that they're the closest terrestrial equivalent to the Star Trek warp core. Like the fictional warp core, it's a large, complex, power-generating reactor. It runs on very dangerous fuel, and containment is an overriding concern.

As an aside, I should acknowledge that environmentalists despise nuclear power because it produces toxic waste (albeit in miniscule quantities compared to most heavy industries), and there is a possibility of a radioactive leak into the environment. But since solar, wind and hydro are inadequate for industrialized societies, the surreal end result of their incessant lobbying has been the resurgence of fossil-fuel power generation. In their zeal to eliminate the possibility of radioactive waste storage or the occasional leak, the environmentalists have resurrected power plants which will each pump tens of thousands of tons of toxic chemicals into our breathing air every year. Chemicals don't seem to scare people; our crops are full of cancer-causing pesticides, our processed foods are full of cancer-causing artificial colours, flavours, and preservatives, our drinking water is treated with all manner of toxic chemicals, and our breathing air is full of myriad cancer-causing pollutants pumped out by everything from cars to factories. People have become quite blasé about all of this (some of them even seem to think they're not taking in enough carcinogens, so they take up smoking). But if you mention radiation, these same people go berserk, and frankly, I find this attitude baffling. Does it really matter whether you get cancer from radiation or chemicals? You're dead either way, and I don't see why a tiny amount of the former causes widespread panic while huge amounts of the latter don't even warrant a raised eyebrow.

Anyway, back to nuclear reactor technology. Let's ignore half-assed designs such as those at Chernobyl and TMI (which have been resoundingly criticized by far more visible people than myself), and look at a good design such as the Canadian CANDU system (yeah, yeah, so I'm biased. Sue me). Instead of relying exclusively on active safety systems, these reactors were designed in such a manner that numerous potential causes of accidents were nullified or mitigated without the need for active safety systems.

For example, the choice of a heavy water moderator inherently solves several problems. The thermophysical characteristics of heavy water are similar to light water, so the moderator system can function as a backup cooling system. Heavy water is also a more effective neutron moderator than light water, so they don't have to use highly refined uranium fuel bundles. The use of low-grade fuel means that it is impossible for the fuel to go critical in light water, so you'll never run into a situation where the light-water coolant can sustain the reaction. The resulting reaction is highly optimized, with very little "excess reactivity". In layman's terms, this means that instead of constantly trying to keep a potential runaway reaction under control, we use a less volatile reaction which is already near its limits. In other words, no matter what goes wrong, it can't run much hotter than it already does. Fusion reactors are an excellent example of minimal excess reactivity; a variety of critical conditions must be met in order for fusion to occur, and virtually any problem will kill the reaction.

But safe engineering doesn't stop with passive measures. The principal philosophies behind the "defense in depth" concept revolve around redundancy, diversity, and isolation. Redundancy means that you should have several systems to handle each function. If one fails, another will take its place. Diversity means that redundant systems should be dissimilar. For example, a CANDU reactor has two redundant emergency shutdown systems, and each system functions on a completely different principle: the primary system uses shutoff rods and the secondary system uses a moderator poison. And finally, isolation means that the various systems are isolated from one another. Each one uses its own computers, sensors, and actuators. They are even physically separated, with sheer distance and atmospheric and/or structural barriers. This ensures that a single physical disaster or a computer, sensor or actuator failure won't affect both systems at once.

Furthermore, "dead man's switch" principles are employed wherever possible, so that a system is ideally activated by a failure condition. For example, a CANDU reactor's primary emergency shutdown system uses shut-off rods that are electromagnetically suspended above the reactor. If the system fails, its electromagnet will lose power and the rods will fall due to gravity, thus shutting the reactor down.

Star Trek Safety

Does Star Trek engineering follow any of the principles described above? Read the following excerpts from the script of the 37th TNG episode ("Contagion"):

Worf: Sir, there is an energy build-up in the Yamato's engineering section.
Picard: Yamato, this is the Enterprise, come in Yamato.
WORF: Magnetic seals in the antimatter chamber decaying!
(The USS Yamato blows up)
Laforge (pointing at schematic of Yamato engine room): Sensor recordings reveal that what we witnessed was an uncontrolled and catastrophic matter/antimatter mix. The magnetic seals between the chambers collapsed --
Picard: That's not possible.
Laforge: Yes, sir, it is, but a highly improbable series of events has to take place before such an occurrence can result.
Picard: Explain.
Laforge: In the event of a breach of seal integrity there is an emergency release system which dumps the antimatter.
Data: Apparently such a dump began, was then halted, and the containment seals were dropped. There was still sufficient antimatter present to lead to the result we observed.
(They discover that the Enterprise is infected with the same computer virus that destroyed Yamato)
Laforge: Sir, the Enterprise computer system is a lot like our bodies with a voluntary and involuntary system. Probably ninety percent of what happens on this ship is done automatically, completely beyond our control. We're sitting on a bomb that could go any second -- or never.

Of course, this is just one of many near-disasters. If I had a dollar for every time the Enterprise nearly blew up, I'd be a rich man. Two of the most obvious problems are described in the dialogue above: emergency measures are unreliable, and the entire system, as conceptualized by the show's writers and tech advisors, is inherently unsafe. Not only do the fictional engineers of Star Trek ignore the sensible and time-tested engineering risk management principles of redundancy, diversity, isolation, and failure actuation, but whenever possible, they actually do the exact opposite! Consider:

  1. Instead of minimizing excess reactivity, they seem to be doing everything in their power to increase it. Evidence of the high excess reactivity of a warp core can be found every time one of 'em blows up. For example, in "Generations", they knew the reactor was going to blow five minutes before it actually did, and they couldn't do anything but evacuate. In "Disaster", we saw a similar scenario; the reactor was counting down to doomsday throughout the entire second half of the episode. The only way they could stop these catastrophes was to eject the entire warp core or restore the containment field. You would think that they could simply shut off the flow of antimatter into the chamber (or at the very least, redirect it out into space), but it appears that even if they do so, the warp core contains enough unreacted fuel at any time to destroy the entire ship. It's a textbook example of extreme excess reactivity.

  2. Instead of redundancy and diversity, they seem to have just one system for any given function. In "Contagion", they described exactly one emergency antimatter storage dump, whose failure caused the total destruction of the USS Yamato. In "The Naked Now", we found that the ship only has one central computer core, whose partial disassembly left the Enterprise helpless in the path of an oncoming chunk of iron. In several combat incidents, all of the weapons on the entire ship were disabled by a single hit. In "Generations", we found that they have only one warp core ejection system, and when it failed, the ship was doomed. They may occasionally speak of redundancy but they've given no evidence of it, so it seems apparent that the Enterprise lacks either redundancy or diversity (or both) in its critical systems.

  3. Instead of isolating critical systems from one another, they actually merge them as much as possible! All of the ship's systems share everything from physical enclosures to sensors and of course, a common centralized computer. That is why a virus was able to spread into every conceivable system on the entire ship after starting from just one point in "Contagion", rapidly affecting everything from doors to turbolifts, replicators, lighting, weapons, shields, communications, and of course, the warp core. Instead of envisioning multiple independent systems, some of which are isolated and some of which exchange data with one another, the writers chose to envision a single "Big Brother" computer which runs everything. It knows when you've been sleeping ... it knows when you're awake ... it knows when you've been bad or good, so be good for goodness' sake ...

  4. Instead of employing the "dead man's switch" principle, their entire design principle is to make the ship utterly dependent, minute by minute, second by second, on the continued operation of numerous active systems. Without the much-ballyhooed structural integrity field, the ship won't even hold together. Without various force fields and containment systems, the ship will explode in a fraction of a second. Even when they take a biohazard on board, they contain it exclusively with a forcefield, which means that the lives of the entire crew are dependent on the continued operation, millisecond by millisecond, of some forcefield generator. I know that bottles and walls may seem "primitive" to the pinheads who write the show, but they work. And in engineering, you use what works. Not necessarily the latest and greatest.

Ladies and gentlemen, Star Trek engineering is idiot engineering. If real-life technology were routinely designed this way, we would be extinct. The writers of Star Trek may wax poetic about their renowned chief engineers, but the way the ship is designed, their engineers must be morons. Worst of all, this flying disaster-in-waiting is supposedly the product of the finest engineers the Federation has to offer.

Other Star Trek Affronts to Engineering

Star Trek's insults to the engineering profession don't stop with their insane ignorance of basic safety principles. Here are a two more recurring Star Trek technology clichés which have irritated me over the years:

  1. They never use any low-technology solutions; can you imagine seeing a bucket or a wrench in Star Trek? When their kids go to the beach, they probably take a portable forcefield generator instead of a bucket and shovel. But in real life, engineers don't always use the most advanced technology. In fact, the most elegant engineering solutions are those that require the least technology, not the most. A good example is a machine gun; it uses a simple, elegant and robust mechanical system to eject each cartridge and load the next, based on gas pressure, springs, rods, and other low-tech principles. The simpler, the better. With modern technology, we could design a machine gun that uses miniaturized robotics instead, but why? The resulting weapon would be far more expensive, and far less reliable. It would require a power source, and software. It would be far more difficult to maintain. But in the world of Star Trek, that's exactly how they would do it. In a world where medical isolation bays use forcefields instead of walls, and where dumbbells have touch-screen controls on them, even the dumbest application of excessive technology is not only approved; it's mandatory.

  2. They never follow any sort of prudent testing procedures. One of the best examples of this reckless stupidity was seen in "New Ground", where a "soliton wave" propulsion idea was tested for the first time. Did they test on a miniature test rig? No, they tested it on a full-sized ship. Did they test it in a vacuum chamber? No, they tested it in open space. Did they point it at an uninhabited moon? Of course not. They launched it directly toward a populated colony! The lead researcher explained that "if our theories are correct, the wave will envelop the ship and push it into warp," but if he had done proper testing beforehand, he would have had something to go on besides his "theories", and he wouldn't have been at a loss for words when everything went wrong and the Enterprise had to save the day. This is a fine example of the way that Star Trek insults the engineering profession; in their world, they go straight from pure theory to full-scale implementation with civilian lives at risk: something that no engineer would ever do. And this is just one example; how many times throughout Star Trek has some totally new idea been tried out by using the entire ship as the test rig? This is insane; would an aerospace engineer try out new theories on fully loaded passenger jets?

  3. They routinely make the same mistake over and over again. In real life, when a failure occurs, a quality-certified engineering operation will immediately perform what is known as a FEMA, or Failure Effects Mode Analysis. The purpose of a FEMA is to figure out what caused the failure, what resulted from the failure, and what changes could be made to prevent this sort of failure from re-occurring. But in Star Trek, the same systems can fail over and over again (particularly when it comes to holodecks and warp core ejectors) and they seem to take no action whatsoever! Imagine if no corrective action was taken after a certain 92 cent O-ring destroyed the Space Shuttle.


If Star Trek depicted a well-designed ship, the ship would never explode from a computer virus, power failures, or low-speed impact on a warp nacelle. Such problems might cause the reactor to shut down, or they might cause the antimatter pods to eject into space, or they might cause damage to systems which happen to be in the vicinity of the impact, but that's it. Can you imagine if a real-life aircraft carrier took a minor hit above the waterline and exploded as a result? Heads would roll. Real-life ships have indeed exploded from a critical hit (the most famous example being the HMS Hood in WW2), but only when it hits the magazine. No machinery hit has ever caused such a calamity.

For example, competent engineers would have designed the warp core without all of that excess reactivity, so that it feeds only enough antimatter into the core to barely sustain the reaction. This would entirely eliminate the need for the warp core ejection system. Competent engineers would have designed the antimatter tanks so that they must be retained against a constant ejection pressure (perhaps driven by springs, gas pressure, or magnetic repulsion), thus utilizing the "dead man's switch" principle. If the containment magnets are connected in series with the tank retainer magnets, the tanks will be blown free as soon as the fields begin to weaken.

One could go on, but the point is that when the ship takes localized damage, it might lose the use of the damaged systems, but it's lousy writing to have localized damage lead immediately to shipwide failures. If it takes a hit to the photon torpedo launcher, then fine. Captain, we just lost the forward torpedo launcher, but we've still got the aft launcher. If it takes a hit to the topside phaser strip, then fine. Captain, we just lost the primary phaser array, but the secondary's OK. If it runs into a "quantum filament" and starts losing power, then fine. The antimatter tanks shoot out into space, the warp core shuts down, and they have to restart the system and call for an assist. If the ship's primary computer gets infected by a computer virus, then fine. Switch to a secondary computer core, and if that fails, simply shut the damned thing down until you can clean it out. Critical safety systems should be autonomous anyway.

Of course, I know that some smart aleck out there is thinking "well, if you were a writer, how would you do it? How are you supposed to create drama and tension if the technology never fails?" My answer is that there are ways to create drama and tension in sci-fi without using technology that resembles a house of cards, and you need look no further than Star Wars, Babylon 5, or numerous Japanese animé series to see the proof.

There's no need to construct stories around the Treknology Gone WrongTM or Ticking Time BombTM clichés when you've got bad guys flying around, enigmatic and powerful alien life forms everywhere, and all manner of natural hazards to contend with. It's just sloppy, lazy writing, designed to spoon-feed a steady diet of predigested soap-opera pap to an increasingly disinterested audience, many of whom share the writers' ignorance of science and engineering.

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