Myths- General Science

Written: 1998-11-08
Last Revised: 2001-11-24

Star Trek's irresponsible writing staff has successfully infiltrated pop culture with a number of bizarre science myths. Most knowledgeable observers simply ignore these nonsensical ideas, but laypeople are often incapable of distinguishing between genuine science and Trekkie pseudoscience, as the popularity of the following myths demonstrates:

  1. Frequency myths (updated!)

  2. Weapon "technology level" is more important than weapon energy yield.

  3. "Full throttle" or "full impulse" means "maximum speed" in space.

  4. Rotation rates (eg. degrees or radians of rotation per second) describe maneuverability in space.

  5. Zero-point field theories permit violations of Conservation of Energy.

  6. A scientific theory is worthless unless it has been conclusively proven.

  7. Truly advanced starships will produce enormous amounts of energy even when they aren't doing anything.

  8. The density of matter will roughly double if you double the pressure.

  9. A formal education has no bearing on scientific aptitude.


1. Frequency myths

You simply can't watch Star Trek without hearing about frequency and phase. Are that alien ship's weapons too powerful for us, Captain? No problem; I'll just mumble something about shield frequencies or phase or resonances, and we'll be fine! Do we need to transport through something which normally stops transporters? No problem; the solution will have something to do with frequencies; I just know it! How do we know that the Borg drones can't be stopped, Captain? Because they can adjust to our frequencies, Ensign. My God, nothing can stop an enemy who knows our frequencies! If you know the right frequency, you can do anything!

As you can probably guess from my mocking tone, I don't subscribe to this nonsense. Frequency and phase are real concepts, but Trekkies have fucked them up beyond all recognition. The abuse began with the word "phaser" (which ignorant fans initially took to mean "a laser which is phase coherent", even though lasers are already phase coherent), but it didn't truly take flight until Star Trek TNG came out, with its overuse of technobabble deus ex machinas. Why is this myth so popular? Probably because, like many popular misconceptions, it's based upon half-truths. In real life, frequency and phase can matter, but not in the way the Trekkies seem to think. Let's look at the real-life basis for these myths, which come from the principle of resonance:

The Tacoma Narrows Bridge
  1. The Tacoma Narrows bridge: On July 1, 1940, the Tacoma Narrows Bridge at Puget Sound, Washington, was completed and opened to the public. Four months later, high winds produced a resonant oscillation in the bridge. The resultant standing waves became so violent that the bridge was literally swinging about like a pasta noodle (see the severe distortions in the accompanying image). Inevitably, it collapsed and civil engineers learned to avoid resonances in future.

  2. Room Acoustics: Have you ever noticed that certain bass notes tend to resonate in your room, ie- sound much louder than others? Every room has several resonant frequencies. For example, a room measuring 10m long and 4m wide will have strongly resonant frequencies at 33Hz (the speed of sound divided by the length of the room) and 82.5Hz. There will also be weaker resonances at the harmonic multiples of the previous frequencies, so the 33Hz length resonance will be accompanied by a weak resonance at 66Hz, an even weaker resonance at 99Hz, etc.

  3. Wine glasses: Have you ever seen wine glasses shattering when subjected to a particularly strident sound? When a wine glass is excited by sound waves at its resonant frequency, it will vibrate so strongly that it spontaneously shatters into fragments. Other frequencies have no effect.

Notice the common element: in each case (the Tacoma Narrows bridge, the air in your room, the glass), the object has a natural resonant frequency. If you manipulate the object at that frequency, the energy from successive waves will add, and the oscillations will grow until the object is either disrupted (eg- the Tacoma Narrows bridge or the glass) or reaches a point of equilibrium with resistive forces (the air in your room): Successive waveforms add because they are phase-coherent, so they interfere constructively rather than destructively. To illustrate this concept, imagine the act of pushing a child on a swing. If you apply a "push" when the child is at the top of each swing, the next swing will be larger than the one before. But if you apply the "push" at the wrong time, you will be fighting against the natural frequency and the next swing will be smaller than the one before.

So what's the problem? Isn't it true that an object's resonant frequency is its Achilles Heel, just the way it is on Star Trek? Isn't it true that all structures and defenses become helpless once you find their resonant frequency? In a word, no. Why? Two reasons:

  1. Resonances can be impressive under the right conditions but they are not necessarily overpowering. There are invariably natural forces that resist the standing wave, and success or failure depend upon overcoming those resistive forces. In the end, it still boils down to power versus strength. It doesn't take much power to shatter a wine glass, so we shouldn't be surprised when it happens. But what about the Tacoma Narrows bridge collapse? Isn't that an example of a weak force destroying a strong object? Not exactly. The force in question was a high wind striking the bridge for many hours, and while that may not sound like a big deal, the power of wind is nothing to sneeze at, regardless of whether it's spread out over a large area (eg- hitting a bridge or large building) or concentrated in one place (eg- a tornado). For example, a 50 km/h wind hitting a skyscraper (let's say it's 300m tall and 30m wide) for a full day is more than 10 million metric tonnes of air, with more than 1 terajoule of kinetic energy! Yes, the Tacoma Narrows bridge would not have fallen if not for its strong resonance, because these tremendous forces would have been applied in a far less efficient manner. But this does not mean that you could topple a skyscraper with a feather if you tickle it at the right frequency!

  2. Strong resonances do not necessarily exist in every object. Modern bridges generally don't fail the way the Tacoma Narrows bridge did, because we design them in such a manner as to avoid strong resonances. Furthermore, any sufficiently complex or irregular structure should be free of strong resonances even without deliberate design. Strong resonances are only found in simple, regular shapes: a bridge with perfectly even spaces between supports, a rectangular room, a round wine glass, etc. The nice smooth, elliptical shield bubble of a TNG-era Federation starship might have some strong resonant frequencies, but the interlinked, hull-hugging (and therefore irregularly shaped) sector shields of an Imperial Star Destroyer would not. In short, the whole idea of finding the right frequency becomes totally irrelevant in realistic conditions since there should be no "right frequency" to find, unless someone has done something incredibly stupid (like making a perfectly elliptical shield).

Frequency myth 1: Phasers

Wavetrain graphThe first use of the Trekkie frequency myth is the common claim that the frequency and phase coherent of phasers makes them superior to lasers. Let's ignore for the moment that this is an inherently stupid claim since lasers are also phase and frequency coherent, so that we can examine the underlying question: does frequency and phase coherence make a weapon more dangerous?

The answer is: absolutely not. Consider the chart at right. The yellow line depicts the intensity of a phase and frequency coherent energy beam as a funtion of time, and the green line depicts the intensity of an incoherent beam as a function of time. The average value of the two curves is identical, which should come as no surprise. Is a 1 megawatt laser more powerful than a 1 megawatt plasma torch? Is a ton of bricks any heavier than a ton of feathers?

The destructive power of lasers comes from their great focus, not the fact that they are frequency and phase coherent. The frequency and phase coherence of lasers is an important characteristic for applications such as making holograms or reading compact discs, but not when they are used as weapons. Similarly, the fact that phasers are supposedly phase-coherent is irrelevant when discussing their destructive power.

Frequency myth 2: Shield Frequency

All right, so a Star Destroyer probably doesn't have any strong resonant frequencies, and phase-coherence does not make phasers more powerful. But what if a Star Trek ship matches frequencies with its shields? Its weapons will punch straight through, right? Wrong.

This myth stems from Star Trek precedent, not real life. In "The Wounded" and Star Trek: Generations and too many other incidents to count, we've seen that if an enemy matches your shield frequency, his weapons will go right through. But what does it mean to match a shield frequency? Why should a shield have a frequency at all? Think about it: does the armour of a modern tank have a frequency? No. Do magnets have frequencies? Not necessarily. A permanent magnet has no frequency to speak of, and an electromagnet has the frequency of its power source. For example, an electromagnet powered by a 60Hz AC supply will produce a magnetic field which oscillates at ... surprise! 60Hz.

So why do Star Trek shields oscillate at a fixed frequency? Oscillation is a weakness, not a strength; if a field oscillates, then this means that its amplitude changes over time, which is not a good thing for a defensive system. In an AC-powered electromagnet, the magnetic field fluctuates between +B and -B, so there are finite moments when its field strength is zero!. In theory, a constant bombardment of energy would achieve some penetration of an oscillating shield regardless of whether it's at full strength or not. This would explain why Star Trek ships start taking damage before their shields fail, and it would also help explain the usefulness of "multi-phasic shields" (as well as the fact that they aren't used in battle1). It might be reflected when the shield is at its peaks, but it will get through during the valleys.

So again, why would they do this? It sounds like a bad idea all around, and there is only one reasonable answer: it's because they must shoot through their own shields. In the TNG era, the ship uses a one-piece shield (an ellipsoid bubble which surrounds the ship). They can vary its size and shape, but they do not appear to have the ability to open small holes in it. The whole thing is either up, or it's down. So when they fire phasers or torpedoes, what are they to do? Their shields are not uni-directional (we've known since TOS that they can't transport in or out of a ship with its shields up), so they need some way of blocking incoming fire while allowing outgoing fire to leave unimpeded.

This is where phase and frequency finally come into play. If they use a frequency and phase coherent weapon such as a phaser, and they match it to their shield frequency (precisely 180 degrees out of phase), then it would theoretically pass right through with minimal impedance. The principle is similar to early fighter aircraft, which linked the firing rate of their machine guns to their propellers so the bullets would pass between the propeller blades. This allows them to fire phasers without dropping shields, but it also gives enemies a potential Achilles Heel to exploit. The same applies to torpedoes; they must incorporate some kind of device to locally neutralize an area of the shield on their way out, and it would presumably do so by producing a small mini-shield at 180 degrees out of phase to the main shield, to cancel out a small hole (this would explain how the Klingons fired through the Enterprise-D's shield in Star Trek: Generations, and it would also explain how Borg drones can walk through Federation forcefields2).

None of this nonsense is necessary. Ships that rely on highly conductive or reflective armour (eg- Battlestar Galactica, Species 8472 from Voyager, Voyager itself in its series finale, and possibly the ships of Babylon 5) would have no frequency; the armour is simply there, with no frequency-related Achilles Heel to exploit. Ships that can open small holes in their shields (eg- Star Wars ships, as demonstrated at the landing bay of the Neimoidian battleship in TPM) also don't need to worry. They can open a hole for each gun, so their shield frequency can be set to zero, thus completely eliminating frequency-based exploits.

Much has been made of the fact that the Borg can pass through Federation shields. But most Trekkies have ignored the possibility that this is a Federation vulnerability rather than a Borg strength. After beaming onto the Enterprise-D and examining its shield design in "Q Who", I can only imagine that the Borg Collective laughed their collective asses off when they discovered that the Federation employs a shield which conveniently oscillates on and off for them!


2. Weapon "technology level" is more important than weapon energy yield

As bizarre as the previous myth is, this one is even more inexplicable. A lot of sci-fi fans think that weapon firepower is irrelevant in the face of weapon technology level. The argument typically goes as follows: "Weapon A is more advanced than weapon B because of <technobabble>. Therefore, it is more powerful."

This is a specious argument of the highest order. A higher-tech weapon is not necessarily more destructive than a lower-tech weapon- destruction is based entirely on the amount of energy delivered to the target. Many advancements in weapons technology have been designed to enhance the energy yield of the weapon, so the concepts of "technology level" and "energy yield" have been confused by many observers. Chemical-explosive shells are more destructive than less-advanced solid metal cannonballs, but that is because they release more energy. Nuclear weapons are more destructive than less-advanced chemical explosives, but that is because they release more energy.

However, if an advanced weapon carries much less energy than a primitive weapon, then it will be less destructive regardless of its technology level. As an example, the 120mm smoothbore cannon of an M1A2 Abrams tank is one of the most technologically sophisticated projectile weapons in the world. And yet, it is far less destructive, and has much shorter range than the monstrous howitzers and battleship cannons built five decades ago, because it delivers less energy to the target.

The most important performance specification of a physically destructive weapon (as opposed to anti-personnel chemical and/or biological weapons) is its energy yield. Physical destruction is caused by energy. A certain amount of thermal energy is necessary to melt a given quantity of material. A certain amount of deformation energy is required to strain a piece of material to its physical breaking point. A certain amount of energy is required to remove an object from a planet's gravity well, or to gravitationally unbind the planet itself. There are no shortcuts- highly focused weapons still must perform the same work per unit mass, but by focusing their energies they reduce the amount of material that they must melt, vaporize, or break.


3. "Full throttle" or "full impulse" means "maximum speed" in space.

Atmospheric Flight

A commonly held myth is that space flight is like atmospheric flight, where a propulsive force is balanced against an atmospheric drag force. In atmosphere, an engine of any given thrust, in an aircraft of known aerodynamic characteristics, will exhibit a maximum velocity based on the relationship between those two factors.

Space Flight

In space, the situation is decidedly different. Any Newtonian impulse-based engine system will always be capable of increasing the speed of a vessel, provided that it has not run out of fuel. No matter how fast you are going, you can always increase speed so long as you have fuel. Therefore, no vessel is at its maximum speed unless its fuel supplies have run out. If someone says that they are at full throttle, full impulse, or full power, they cannot possibly be at "full speed" unless they are out of fuel. A total lack of fuel is the only thing that would keep a spacecraft from continuing to accelerate.

Of course, the rate of acceleration with respect to propulsive force will decrease as a ship approaches highly relativistic speeds, because of the time, length, and mass changes associated with such high velocities. So a ship cannot continue to accelerate to the point of reaching c. But it can still accelerate, albeit at decreasing rates.

Mass-lightening

Star Trek spacecraft employ a piece of Treknobabble known as "mass-lightening" to improve their sublight performance parameters. The basic principle is that the "effective" mass of a spacecraft can be reduced through the use of a subspace field. Once this has been done, the ship is lighter and a small amount of kinetic energy will become a large increase in speed. Please note that this is treknobabble, and has no basis whatsoever in real science. There are some trekkies who seem to have heard so much Trek dialogue that they think some of these technologies are real, when they are not.

However, even if we assume that this technology is feasible, we must note that "mass-lightening" does not eliminate the need to accelerate, or the ability to continue accelerating as long as fuel is available. It only increases the amount of acceleration that occurs with a given amount of thrust. The basic relationship between thrust and acceleration is still unchanged. Also note that a Newtonian impulse is still required to propel the ship forward, even after it has been mass-lightened (hence the name "impulse drive", and the visible engine flare).

In conclusion, "full throttle", or "full impulse", means maximum acceleration, not maximum speed. Science fiction fans who think otherwise clearly do not understand the basic concept of space flight.


4. Rotation rates (eg. degrees or radians of rotation per second) describe maneuverability in space.

Atmospheric Flight

A commonly held myth is that space flight is like 20th century Earth atmospheric flight, where a direction change is invariably associated with a velocity change. Primitive forms of airfoil-based propulsion tied the movement of the plane directly to its orientation; an airfoil-based aircraft could only generate thrust by moving through air in such a manner that air flowed from its front end to its back end, and in fact, its engines were only capable of functioning under this same constraint.

Even if an aircraft were developed that could remain aloft without such constraints on its lift-producing technology or its engines, it would still be constrained by the fact that any change in orientation would greatly affect its aerodynamic resistance and therefore, its velocity. As a result, an aircraft's ability to rotate is often thought of as its "maneuverability" since it cannot change its orientation without also changing its velocity.

Space Flight

In space, the situation is decidedly different. Because there is no aerodynamic drag, a change in orientation will not necessarily have any effect on velocity. It is possible for a spacecraft to turn completely around while still moving in the direction that it was previously moving. The camera movement in a typical science fiction film is designed to "track" the vessel to make it appear as if it is obeying atmospheric rules of flight (complete with banking turns, etc), but there is no need to obey those rules in the vacuum of space.

As a result, a spacecraft can easily rotate to any desired orientation without any effect on its velocity. Therefore, its maneuverability will be dictated by its ability to change its velocity, which is no longer tied to its ability to rotate.

In conclusion, a starship can easily rotate without changing its velocity, and this will not serve as an effective indicator of maneuverability. A depressingly large number of science fiction fans describe "maneuverability" in units of degrees or radians per second, when this has absolutely nothing to do with spacecraft maneuverability. A spacecraft must not only change its orientation, but also apply propulsive thrust to change its velocity, in order to actually maneuver. Its maneuverability is therefore a function more of engine performance than rotational rates.


5. Zero-point field theories permit violations of Conservation of Energy.

Although the "average person" in society today considers himself (rightly or wrongly) familiar with the basic concepts of Newtonian physics (eg- "for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction", etc), he or she may have little or no familiarity with quantum mechanics or general relativity. Both quantum mechanics and general relativity date back to the early part of the 20th century, but for some unknown reason, quantum mechanics seems to carry with it an aura of being the latest, greatest, most "current" and most "leading-edge" field of science. As a result, various permutations upon the following have floated around the newsgroups:

"We know from quantum mechanics that energy can enter or leave this dimension. For example, energy can enter or leave the zero-point field. We know from quantum mechanics that any arbitrary amount of energy can wink in or out of existence, so long as it happens within the Planck time. The universe doesn't notice such short-term violations of Conservation of Energy."

It seems as though some trekkies have taken to claiming that since quantum mechanics is "newer" than Conservation of Energy, it can somehow accomplish feats which were not envisioned by those who first postulated Conservation of Energy. Therefore, this particular myth actually incorporates two common misconceptions:

  1. QM (quantum mechanics) is the most advanced, leading-edge field of science.

  2. Conservation of Energy is part of "classical physics" and isn't current enough to account for QM.

1. QM is the most advanced, leading-edge field of science.

Science is not like technology. Different fields of study do not "compete" and have no levels of "advancement" that can be compared. Quantum mechanics is different from, say, thermodynamics. But neither is more "advanced" than the other. Those who claim otherwise seem to be confusing science with technology. An analogy would be comparing algebra with calculus; they are different branches of mathematics, and neither can be said to be more "advanced" than the other. They are only different. QM is no better at describing refridgeration cycles than thermodynamics is at describing subatomic behaviour. Perhaps more importantly, QM must obey the laws of thermodynamics, just like every other branch of science.

Furthermore, the age of quantum mechanics has been greatly underestimated by the general populace. Max Planck first postulated the quantization of energy in 1900. Wolfgang Pauli postulated his famous Exclusion Principle in 1925. Erwin Schrödinger (of the famous Schrödinger's Cat) developed his theory of wave mechanics in 1926. Werner Heisenberg postulated his famous uncertainty principle in 1927. Yes, that's right- quantum mechanics was born long before most of us were ever born, and in fact, even before many of our parents were born.

2. Conservation of Energy is part of "classical physics" and isn't current enough to account for QM.

Conservation of Energy isn't part of "classical physics". It is part of all physics. There is no theory anywhere in the entire width and breadth of physics which violates Conservation of Energy. I say this without qualification: conservation of energy is not only adhered to by every scientific theory, but it is in fact an assumption that is inherent to all of these theories, and was part of their initial formulation.

Is it a very old principle? Yes, it is. Does this make it obsolete in light of newer ideas? Of course not. There's nothing wrong with old theories. Multiplication and subtraction are very old mathematical principles. Does this mean that they are made obsolete by newer thinking? Of course not. Science is not like technology, where old ideas are rendered obsolete by newer ideas. A newer theory will only obsolete an older theory if it conforms to experimental observation better than the old theory. The fact that it is newer is, in itself, meaningless.

Conservation of Energy is inherent in all QM theories. Everything obeys Conservation of Energy, from the tiniest subatomic particle to the most massive black holes and galaxies. People who believe that QM permits violations of Conservation of Energy must misunderstand QM, Conservation of Energy, or both.

That covers the general problems with this myth. To address the specifics of this myth, the quantum foam does not involve a net change in the universe's energy, even for Planck time. A virtual particle/antiparticle pair appears, but one of the particles has positive energy while the other particle has negative energy. The particle pair's energy adds up to zero. At the event horizon of a black hole, the pair might be split apart but the penalty is paid: the black hole loses enough energy to compensate for the particle which zips away. At the end of the day, someone has to pay the bill.

Some others have advanced the notion that the ZPF might allow easy acceleration. The idea is simple enough- according to some ZPF theories, inertia only exists because of interaction with the ZPF. Turn off those interactions, and you can instantly accelerate to any speed you want. The problem is that this may be impossible. We can't be sure it is impossible yet, but a lack of disproof does not automatically confer validity upon an idea. Fringe-science theories like the ZPF theory of inertia are condemned to the fringe until support materializes. The fact that a theory comes from intelligent, well-educated researchers is not proof of the theory's validity. All theories, both failed and successful, originate from intelligent, well-educated researchers.

I understand why people like to fixate on fringe-science theories: they are exciting. They are new. They are hip. But they might not amount to anything- this is the harsh reality of the scientific method, in which large numbers of theories are born but few survive. In the abstract of a research paper, a researcher might try to hard-sell the research by attaching a lot of "pie in the sky" scenarios of how this research might open up grand new vistas, exciting possibilities for the future, etc. This is salesmanship- the researcher knows that he is simply trying to drum up support for further work. These possibilities, or the underlying theory itself, might be disproven in the future. It happens- such is the life of a researcher.

People who latch onto such theories as if they have already moved into the mainstream are guilty of ignoring the scientific method. It's tempting to seize upon unsupported theories as excuses to throw poor old "conventional science" to the winds in favour of wild speculation and exciting dreams, but it's exceedingly unwise to rely on this sort of speculation as the underpinnings of one's belief structure, either in real life or with respect to some sci-fi issue. If you think that superstring theory will justify your religious beliefs, you may be in for disappointment. If you think that fringe-science jargon improves science fiction, you might want to reconsider. If you read old science fiction, the literature which looks the least ridiculous in retrospect is that which doesn't try to explain how the technology works. The literature which doesn't try to justify the impossible by attaching it to technobabble and fringe-science jargon. The literature which merely asks you to suspend your disbelief, sit back, and enjoy the ride.

Conclusion

To quote from "Beyond Star Trek" by Lawrence Krauss: "Transcendental meditation literature is full of explanations couched in the jargon of string theory and quantum mechanics." And yet, transcendental meditation has no support in the scientific community, for the simple reason that their vast array of impressive-sounding theories have no experimental support whatsoever. They are constructed upon a foundation which has been cobbled together from scraps of edgy scientific theories (read: mathematically derived but not yet experimentally supported) and religious fervour. This is disturbingly similar to the methodology used by trekkies to pretend that Treknology is feasible: cobble together a lot of jargon and scraps of experimentally unsupported science, use it as a metaphorical weapon to smash the barriers of conventional science, and then use their newfound freedom to declare that "anything is possible." Don't be fooled- in spite of their jargon, their ideas have no more scientific support than the new-age transcendental meditation nonsense which Lawrence Krauss derides in his book. Like me, he is not particularly enthusiastic about people who trumpet "radical" science while trampling upon the tenets of "conventional" science which I was trained to obey. In his words:

"What very much bothers me in certain discussions of topics at the boundary between science and science fiction are the sometimes perjorative references to 'conventional science'. Often 'conventional' scientists are viewed as close-minded and conservative, while those willing to bypass the problematic issues associated with experiment are viewed as open-minded and enlightened. This seems backwards. I think that people who are willing to force their imaginations to follow the sometimes subtle signposts of nature are the ones with the open minds, not those who are uncritically willing to accept a universe that reflects their own pet theories and desires."

As usual, someone found a way to say something in far fewer words than I would have used :) In any case, it's nice to see someone state this sort of thing in a popular tome directed at Trekkies. I know for a fact that many Trekkies chose to ignore statements like that in his book (while faithfully quoting other parts of it, for some reason). But I have enough faith in human rationality to believe that most Trek fans are intelligent enough to heed such admonitions and remember the difference between fringe science and mainstream science. The difference between experimentally supported theories and unsupported theories.


6. A scientific theory is worthless unless it has been conclusively proven.

A common exchange in a newsgroup goes as follows:

"My theory is consistent with the facts and violates no fundamental principles, therefore it is valid."
"It may be consistent with the facts, but you have no proof of your theory."

This common exchange reveals a common misconception about scientific theories. A scientific theory cannot be proven. There is no such thing as a positive proof of a scientific theory, because science is not like mathematics. In mathematics, we defined the rules so we can define a proof, based on those rules. In science, we don't know the rules. The universe itself (or God, if you are religious) defined the rules, and we are only trying to guess what they are. Hence, there is no such thing as a definitive proof of a scientific theory, because such a proof would require that we already know all of the rules of the universe!

So, if there is no such thing as a scientific proof, then what are scientists talking about when they discuss "supporting evidence?" They are talking about observations which are consistent with the theory. In other words, if the theory is consistent with the facts, then those facts are referred to as supporting evidence.

It isn't enough to merely fit the facts: a valid theory must also obey fundamental laws, such as Conservation of Energy. If it isn't the only theory which fits the facts, then it must be the simplest theory, as described by Occam's Razor. And to be taken seriously, it should be a "good" theory. What defines a good theory? A good theory is one that can be disproven. That sounds paradoxical, but it shouldn't be. If a theory is formulated in such a way that it can be disproven with the right experiment, then it is a good theory because we can conduct that experiment and either disprove it (thus relegating it to the scrapheap of scientific history) or fail to disprove it, which will lend it weight. If a theory is formulated in such a way that it is impossible to disprove it, then it is technically valid but it is not a "good" theory. For example, the idea that the universe was created by a sentient God (existing outside our ability to perceive Him or detect Him) is technically a valid theory, since it has not been disproven. However, it is impossible to devise an experiment to disprove this theory, so it is not a "good" scientific theory.

The inverse of this behaviour is as follows:

"My theory is consistent with the facts and violates no fundamental principles, therefore it is valid."
"I have a competing theory which is based on established science. It clearly shows that <pick an observed phenomenon> can't possibly happen."

There is no such thing as "established science" which contradicts experimental observation. If it does in fact contradict experimental observation (as opposed to being misinterpreted to contradict experimental observation), then it would never have become "established" in the first place. A real scientist, when confronted with a contradiction between theory and experimental observation, will never discard experimental observation in favour of theory!


7. Truly advanced starships will produce enormous amounts of energy even when they aren't doing anything.

A common trekkie argument is to claim that Star Trek power generation must be extremely advanced because of some incident suggesting that they produce huge amounts of power even when they are coasting, idling, etc. For example:

In "True Q", Data said that the Enterprise produces 12.75 billion GW. The ship was "idling", or coasting, and essentially, doing nothing at the time! This means that when the ship is doing something, it must produce far more power!

This is yet another example of people who have no understanding of basic thermodynamics. If you make energy, you must find a way to dispose of it. That's why all real mechanisms must be cooled, either actively or passively. If a starship is producing vast amounts of power, it must either be using that energy to do some kind of work (eg. imparting energy into the planet's surface or atmosphere), dumping the energy to its environment (in the form of EM radiation or superheated waste products), heating itself up, or accelerating. Of course, trekkies have often resorted to the following explanation for this problem:

Even an idling Federation starship must do enormous amounts of work, to power replicators, transporters, holodecks, life support, artificial gravity, etc. All of this work requires energy, so that's where the energy is going!

Again, they show that they don't really understand basic concepts of energy. Energy does not disappear when it is "used" to do work. It simply transfers to the target of the work. In other words, energy never disappears "into" an endothermal process. Examples may help illuminate this principle:

In conclusion, it is fundamentally self-contradictory to claim that a starship is doing no work but producing huge amounts of power. It will emanate as much energy as it produces, regardless of what internal systems it is using to produce power. Whatever those internal systems do, they cannot change the fundamental balance of energy entering the ship, as compared to energy leaving the ship. They can only change the form in which energy leaves the ship, but they cannot change the fact that the left side of the equation must be equal to the right side of the equation.

We can think of a starship (or indeed, any system) as a "black box". If X joules of energy are going in, then X joules of energy must come out, or else the entire system's energy state will be increasing (eg- it will be heating up, or accelerating). It can't simply sit there, absorbing more energy than it emits, without something happening to its energy state. It doesn't matter what's happening inside the black box- all that matters it the fundamental balance: Energy in = Energy out, to maintain an equilibrium state.

A common Federation tactic for dealing with this problem is to simply claim that "the energy all gets dumped into subspace, so it disappears." This sort of argument highlights a major problem with trekkie thinking. Subspace is a technobabble invention designed to get around problems with certain technologies, particularly high-speed communications and relativistic travel speeds. It should be used as a last resort, to explain conundrums which cannot be solved any other way. But because it has been poorly defined, a lot of trekkies it as a catch-all excuse for routine violations of Conservation of Energy. They can do that if they wish, but the more one employs this excuse for violating Conservation of Energy, the farther one strays away from science fiction and toward Saturday morning cartoons. An obvious question would be: "why would they bother generating all this power, if it apparently serves no purpose other than dumping energy into subspace?" The energy requirements of a coasting starship are minimal. There is therefore no reason to produce huge amounts of energy. In a sci-fi series, advanced technology would be logically used to achieve great feats, not to consume enormous amounts of energy to achieve small feats.

This myth is analogous to a 20th century person claiming that his brand-new car is more advanced than your car because it burns up more than 10 gallons of fuel per second even when it's idling. That wouldn't be advancement- that would be sheer stupidity.


8. The density of matter will roughly double if you double the pressure

I am not sure how common this misconception is, but I have seen more than a half-dozen people claiming that liquids and solids compress or decompress linearly with pressure. Some trekkies claim that the density of asteroids in the Hoth asteroid belt would be lower than the density of normal iron because the Hoth asteroid belt is in vacuum unlike normal terrestrial iron which is at atmospheric pressure. Other trekkies claim that since a Federation warp core can maintain internal pressures of 720 times atmospheric pressure, then the deuterium storage pods might also be able to maintain this pressure and therefore, they can store deuterium at 720 times its normal density.

However, the linear relationship of pressure and density is part of the ideal gas law, and not a property of solids or liquids. Solids and liquids do not compress very easily even under high pressures. If they did, then your body would collapse into a puddle, apartment buildings would be impossible to build, trees wouldn't be able to stand, and high-pressure hydraulic systems would be impossible.

For example, if you are standing right now, you are supporting your entire weight on a pair of ~8cm diameter ankles. If your mass is roughly 70kg (for example), this means that your ankles are being subjected to more than 68 kPa of additional pressure when you stand up, compared to a sitting position. Atmospheric pressure is only ~100 kPa, so there is obviously a rather dramatic pressure increase in your ankles whenever you stand up. When you stand up, do you detect a significant (60%) compression in your ankles? Of course not- if you did, then you wouldn't be able to stand at all!


9. A formal education has no bearing on scientific aptitude

Among the ranks of Star Trek fandom, there seem to be a lot of people with little or no technical background, who think that they can take a "shortcut" to advanced scientific knowledge by skipping over the usual years of hard work in university, and simply reading some books on quantum mechanics. I've gotten dozens of E-mail messages such as the following:

"You shouldn't discount the opinions of people just because they have no background. I've done a lot of independent reading, including all of the Stephen Hawking books, the Feynman books, and many other books on advanced particle physics and quantum mechanics. I dare say I probably have better knowledge of these subjects than you do, so you should watch your mouth before you go putting down my knowledge."

This argument has four major weaknesses, as I see them:

  1. Strawman attack: It's a strawman attack because I don't automatically ignore everything that comes from untrained people. If a layperson makes an argument which is not scientifically invalid, I'm perfectly willing to listen. But if a layperson makes claims about science which I know to be incorrect, I will tell him.

  2. How hard did he really work? What sounds more difficult? Reading some science books in your spare time, or studying science or engineering for 5 days a week, every week, for years? What's more difficult? Reading a handful of books for personal enlightenment, or reading textbooks and papers because you have to take grueling three hour long exams and submit a series of fifty page laboratory reports? What's more difficult? Skipping over the boring parts and jumping right to conclusions or abstracts, or knowing that the boring parts are the parts on which you will be tested? I think it's rather arrogant of these people to believe that their intelligence is so immense that they can skim through a handful of books and instantly gain the equivalent of many years of education.

  3. Trying to run before you learn to walk: Comprehension of advanced scientific concepts requires comprehension of the basics. People without a grasp of the basics (and no, high school does not give you a grasp of the basics) tend to misinterpret complex material. The result of this ignorance is that they can read "The Physics of Star Trek" and conclude that Treknology is realistic, or they can read "A Matter of Time" and conclude that conservation of energy has been rendered obsolete.

  4. Proof: When someone gets a university degree, there is a public record to prove that he has done the work that he claims to have done. But what about our "independent study" oppponent? How do we know he's telling the truth about all of that hard work he claims to have done? How do we know his idea of "research" isn't just casual web-surfing and bookstore browsing? When someone gets a university degree, there is a public record to prove that not only did he do the work, but he was tested and found competent. But what about our "independent study" opponent? How do we know that he understood any of what he was reading? No one forced him to write reports, submit theses, perform experiments, or take exams, did they?

I'm not trying to claim that everything I say must be correct simply because I have a degree. However, I have studied certain subjects at length, in a university environment where my comprehension of the material was tested. Therefore, if I make a statement about scientific or engineering concepts which were covered in my education, it is made on the basis of the fact that I studied those subjects at length, in much greater detail than one who has merely read a handful of science books (especially when those books are the type that contain no equations).

My own background

An inevitable question at this point relates to my own qualifications. The first thing I'll admit is that I'm a mere bachelor's degree holder, not a Master's or Doctorate holder. I have a BASc (Bachelor of Applied Science) degree in applied science from the University of Waterloo, in mechanical engineering. Among other items, my education included items such as materials science, stress analysis, physics (heavily focused on kinematics, but with the usual basic coverage of other topics like nuclear physics, quantum mechanics, general relativity, etc.), motors, robotic control systems, fracture analysis, thermodynamics, and heat transfer.

Of course, this is by no means equivalent to a PhD education. If a PhD particle physicist were to E-mail me and tell me that I'm wrong about a particular concept of particle physics, I would have to take that very seriously. But if a layperson cites independent study which may or may not have actually occurred, competence which has never been tested or certified, and vague references to famous scientists in obvious appeals to authority, I would not be inclined to discard or question what I learned in university in favour of his claims.

Is my background applicable to science fiction?

There isn't really a such thing as a background which is directly applicable to science fiction. A British university recently started offering a science fiction degree, but it is an Arts degree, covering the sociological impact of science fiction. It is not a science degree, which is appropriate since there is no real "science" of science fiction, per se. In the case of Star Wars and Star Trek, we are talking about nonexistent scientific discoveries, and technology which may never be possible for all we know. But if we are going to suspend disbelief and pretend that the canon events of Star Wars and Star Trek really happened somewhere, then we should try to analyze those events with the scientific method, and with the application of whatever scientific principles we can bring to bear. The alternative is aesthetic or literary analysis, which is not objective by definition. Therefore, it will be helpful to have a solid foundation in basic physics, and of course, the scientific method itself.

In my case, my training in basic physics is obviously useful, as is my training in thermodynamics, heat transfer, and materials science (all of which were directly used for various discussions on this site). I was also fortunate enough to work for a short time at the Darlington Nuclear Generating Station, where I was able to see fascinating items such as a high-level radioactive waste storage facility, generators and turbines that dwarf my house, nuclear fuel rods, the calandria itself, the all-important control room (no, I couldn't see Homer Simpson eating donuts). During a visit to the research facility, I also got to see other niceties such as a 3MW plasma torch and some superconductors. I find that my observations during that time often contradict certain recurring layperson claims about what a large, high-technology facility "should" be like.

My background might not be as directly applicable as, for example, astrophysics, but it is more applicable than something like electrical engineereing, which concentrates on electrical circuits at the expense of subjects like kinematics, heat transfer, and thermodynamics. It is also more applicable than mathematics, which does not require scientific knowledge. Mathematics is a tool which is used by scientists and engineers. It is an indispensable tool to be sure, but it does not confer understanding of those fields.

Miscellaneous

Is there an easy way to identify fakers? Not always, especially if you don't have any background yourself. But there are a few dead giveaways:

  1. Mistakes on extremely basic physics concepts. Someone who makes a mistake on something as fundamental as the correct definitions of force, energy and momentum is guaranteed to be a scientific ignoramus. He can screech all he likes about his intense study of quantum mechanics books, and he can spout subatomic particle names until the cows come home, but mistakes on extremely basic physics are an instant sign of incompetence. If someone claimed to be an automotive expert but didn't know what a cylinder head was, would you believe him?

  2. Analyzing scientific treatises from a literary mindset. Laypeople tend to look for quotes rather than concepts. Sound-bites rather than equations. Technical people pay more attention to the conceptual underpinnings of the material, in an attempt to understand how to apply these concepts in some meaningful way. An honest scientist or engineer would not claim to have studied a research paper until after he had achieved this understanding (unlike some laypeople who simply read the abstract). Beware the sort of person whose idea of "research" is to skim through the abstract of a research paper looking for out-of-context quotes.

  3. Assumption that every idea which isn't strictly impossible must be the truth. There are a lot of physics concepts with zero experimental or observational support, but which cannot be disproven. Tachyons are a good example- a tachyon can satisfy the equations of general relativity, but no tachyon has ever been observed. The existence of tachyons is not necessary to rationalize any observed phenomenon. It would therefore be a mistake to assume that tachyons must exist. The same holds true for a lot of other "edgy science" concepts such as the ZPF theory of inertia. People who consider such theories just as credible as a mainstream concept like the First Law of Thermodynamics (to say nothing of people who think such theories actually override the First Law of Thermodynamics) are invariably fakers.

The third category of faker is a pet peeve of mine. Every new scientific theory has to start at the fringe. It begins with research papers and mathematical justification. It is strengthened by observations or experiments which are consistent with its predictions. It is further strengthened by repeated failures to disprove it. If it is found that it is the only theory which can successfully model certain phenomena, then it becomes a mainstream theory. But science subjects its theories to a ruthless Darwinian process of natural selection: the number of theories which are proposed is much larger than the number which eventually become part of mainstream science. Huge numbers of theories fall by the wayside or get revised to the point of unrecognizability in spite of promising starts.


Acknowledgements

Footnotes

3 Phase

1Anyone familiar with AC power theory will quickly realize that a "multi-phasic shield" is conceptually identical to multi-phase AC power circuits. If you look at the 3-phase AC power waveform to the right, you will see that when three AC power waveforms are superimposed upon each other with a 120 degree phase variance, the result is that there's always one signal that's nearing its peak, so the overall signal never drops to zero. By using multiple superimposed shield phases, Federation ships can improve their survivability under bombardment by high-powered incoherent energies such as the radiation of a star. However, there is an obvious downside to this method: they can't fire their weapons. Since they have to use frequency cancellation in order to get phasers or photon torpedoes out through their own shields, and frequency cancellation doesn't work with a multi-phased signal, ships equipped with multi-phasic shields would not be able to use them in battle unless they take the risky move of dropping their shields whenever they fire. Tractor beams still work, as demonstrated by the Enterprise-D in "Descent" when it used its tractor emitters to induce a solar flare, but you can't win a battle with tractor beams alone.

2Keep in mind that a frequency-based exploit could potentially be exploited in turn, although it wouldn't be easy. If a Borg drone has to match its personal shield to a forcefield in order to pass through, then a defense system which was synchronized to the forcefield's frequency (with a 180 degree phase lag) could fire on the drone at that moment, and its blast would pass cleanly through the drone's shield. Similarly, the Klingon BOP in STG must have temporarily switched its own shield frequency to match the Enterprise-D at the moment it fired, after which it presumably switched back. In theory, the Enterprise could have fired back at precisely the same moment the BOP fired, but this would require incredibly fast response times, and Riker was far too dense to think of this anyway (he didn't even think of switching his own frequencies after the first hit!). Torpedoes wouldn't create this problem, since they could be programmed to switch frequencies after travelling a preset distance.



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