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Copernicus on the science of STAR TREK BEYOND!

Hey everybody, Copernicus here!  Long time readers of the site know I’m an astrophysicist in real life, and sometimes I play one on TV.  I’m also science consultant for books and movies, and I occasionally chime in on the science in movies here on this site.  

Star Trek is one of my favorite things to write about!  I’ve previously written about WRATH OF KHAN, the STAR TREK movie in 2009, gotten into disputes with one of the writers both in person and here in the Talkbacks, and written about INTO DARKNESS.  I’ve even given talks about what alien life might be like using Star Trek as a theme.

From time to time I even make videos about the science in movies, like I did with Science vs. Cinema: THE MARTIAN.  The reason we haven’t made any more of those lately actually has to do with Star Trek!  My producing partner, James Darling, hasn’t had time to work on SvC because he is working to get a biopic made about Gene Roddenberry and the early days of Star Trek!  That project is called THE PILOT, and you can see some of the early work on it here.

So here I’m just writing about the science of STAR TREK BEYOND.  The first part of the article is my review of the film, and the second is the science.  


STAR TREK BEYOND is a good, not great movie.  It never reaches the heights of any great STAR TREK film — STAR TREK II, IV, VI.  But then again, it is better than many.  While it used to be that the even numbered Trek films were the good ones, I guess it is the odd ones now.  Still, STAR TREK BEYOND is a real mixed bag — it does some things better than any Star Trek film or TV episode ever has, completely drops the ball in a few areas, and is actively ridiculous in a few more.


This really feels like an episode of the original Star Trek TV series, albeit made with more modern sensibilities and higher production values.   That’s what I’ve always wanted to see out of this reboot, and what I want out of Star Trek in general.  Don’t just attempt to rehash the greatest hits of the past.  Don’t leave us stuck on Earth.  Star Trek is about the frontier and the  unknown.  We want to see new life and new civilizations.   Here we finally get to see some uncharted regions of space!  And the crew have to fend for themselves in a dangerous situation without the help of Starfleet.

One thing I’ve always wanted to see in STAR TREK is a truly outstanding representation of an entire city in space.  And in STAR TREK BEYOND we get the spectacular Starbase Yorktown!  This is the logical extension of Trek technology and vision — what would an intergalactic society that has mastered the problems of energy, gravity, and matter rearrangement do with this technology?  Build a goddamn utopia in the stars — that’s what!  This reminds me of some of the grandest visions from the space age, only taken that much farther.  This Starbase isn’t some sleepy port — it is a massive enterprise with skyscrapers, lakes, streets, starship tunnels, and even an atmosphere.  And the buildings are even sideways and upside down!  Why not — they have artificial gravity, so they can make them do whatever they want!  This Starbase really feels visionary, boundary-pushing, and truly like an extension of Roddenberry’s vision realized in a way he never could have with the budgets and technology of the past.


To tell you the truth, it is a little over the top — a civilization that can build this should have no problem building thousands and thousands of starships.  And they should at least have a few dozen on hand to defend it.  But I’ll forgive all that, because this Starbase is so cool!

Speaking of achieving Roddenberry’s vision like never before — I was very happy to see what a diverse place this future is.  We got a significant new (and badass) female character in Jaylah.  Uhura also had a significant amount of screen time, as did the entire cast.  There were plenty of aliens around too, just as you’d expect from a truly intergalactic society.  And of course we got the revelation that Sulu was gay.  That was handled tastefully and matter-of-factly, and felt like a natural part of this universe.  It seemed like something that always was, but we never noticed before.  I do have mixed feelings about it though — more on this later.

The homages to Leonard Nimoy and Anton Yelchin were nice as well.  Old Spock dying gave young Spock’s a serious motivation to consider leaving Startleet to help the diaspora reassemble on New Vulcan.  And the weight it brought to his relationship with Uhura was well motivated too.

And of course the cast is great.  I think just about everyone is in agreement that Simon Pegg is a fun Scotty, Karl Urban is a great Bones, and Zachary Quinto is as good a Spock as we’re ever going to get.  Pine is a perfectly good actor, even if he isn’t exactly written like the classic Kirk.  And Anton Yelchin, John Cho, and Zoe Saldana are great in their roles too — and they even have a bit more to do than there characters ever really did on the TV series.  


I’ve loved Idris Elba ever since the early days of THE WIRE.  But he’s mostly wasted as the bad guy Krall.  He’s in a massive mask and makeup, speaks strangely, and they only let you see that it is really Idris Elba during the climax.  And to top it all off, the twist that the villain was once the captain of a Federation crew falls completely flat.  There is no real foreshadowing, no real buildup, no plausible character motivation, and there are no consequences of this.  You get the feel that there was much more in the script, but it was cut out of the film for the sake of pacing and packing in more action.  Ugh. When we really love Trek it is because we love the characters.  Krall feels like a stock villain.


And can we please get over WRATH OF KHAN already?  Yes, it was the greatest, most transcendent Trek of all time.  Stop copying it!  NEMESIS ripped off the plot, but just changed the characters.  INTO DARKNESS literally ripped off the character.  And this film tries to do the same in terms of motivation — big bad guy trapped on a planet threatens the Federation because they didn’t rescue him.  Give us something new already.  

Speaking of thin motivations — can we have the real Kirk back?  This one has so many emo daddy issues that he’s no fun to watch.  He’s flying a starship around the galaxy, exploring the frontiers of the unknown, banging aliens, kicking ass, saving civilization as we know it, and he’s bored and riddled with self doubt?  Come on!  This is not the Kirk anybody has ever known.  It is such a mishandling of a great, iconic character — it is like seeing Darth Vader going to therapy for anger management, or Hannibal Lecter becoming vegan. 

Writers, please stop being a slave to the arc.  Just because you need Kirk to want to keep exploring the galaxy at the end of the story DOES NOT MEAN he can’t want to do this at the beginning.  This kind of nonsense loses us completely.  Especially when we’ve already seen the same exact dilemma in previous STAR TREK films, when it made much more sense because Kirk was a senior citizen and ought to be settling down to a desk job. 

What bugs me most about this incarnation of Trek is that it is a by-the-numbers action blockbuster without any real character development, deeper meaning, or metaphor.  Great science fiction uses fantastical settings to comment on a dilemma in our time.  This movie looks great, but is ultimately hollow.  What’s the message?  Don’t get trapped on a planet for more than a century and then try to become a terrorist? 



As I said before, I do have mixed feelings about Sulu being gay.  The reason I’ve put this into the science section though is that it comes down to the nature of the Star Trek multiverse.

I fully support George Takei, who disagrees with the decision to make Sulu gay, even though it was done as a tribute to him.  Takei’s reasoning is that Sulu was never supposed to be gay in the original series or movies. That was not Gene’s vision for the character (they had spoken about it), and he never played him with that in mind.  Since the new universe Sulu started as the precursor to Takei's character, but branched into a different timeline well after he was an adult, it implies that either being gay is just a choice, or Sulu was was closeted in the original series.  Takei knows a thing or two about having to keep your sexuality a secret to survive in a bigoted world, and said he can’t imagine this in Gene’s utopian future.  

Simon Pegg (who cowrote the screenplay), has loads of respect for Takei, of course, but defended their decision to make Sulu gay.  Kudos to him for even trying to work around some of Takei’s concerns, with the in-canon excuse that the new “Kelvin” timeline doesn’t have to just deviate at the point the timelines diverged, it can deviate in the past as well.  

I could get behind that if explained the right way, but then he goes on to say: “Well, the explanation comes down to something very Star Treky; theoretical, quantum physics and the less than simple fact that time is not linear. Sure, we experience time as a contiguous series of cascading events but perception and reality aren’t always the same thing.  Spock’s incursion from the Prime Universe created a multidimensional reality shift. The rift in space/time created an entirely new reality in all directions, top to bottom, from the Big Bang to the end of everything.” 

No, no, no, no, no!  That’s just sloppy writing in my book.  There’s a much better way to explain this that fits within the existing Star Trek canon and doesn’t run afoul of physics — the many worlds interpretation of quantum mechanics.  Quantum particles seem to exist in multiple states at once.  Maybe you’ve heard of Schrodinger’s cat — a thought experiment meant to illustrate the properties of quantum mechanics.  There is a cat in a box, along with a vial of cyanide hooked up to a detector that determines if an atom has undergone radioactive decay.  If it has, the vial is smashed, killing the cat.  But quantum mechanics says that the atom exists in a superposition of states — both decayed and not decayed, until it is measured.  So until you look in the box, the cat is both alive and dead.  But when you look in the box, one state is chosen.  The many worlds interpretation says that this isn’t the right way to think about it.  Instead, there is one universe in which the cat is alive, and another where it is dead.  When you open the box, you simply reveal which universe you are in.  Every time a quantum “decision” is made, the universe splits like a branching tree.  

How does this relate to Star Trek?  Remember the Next Generation episode, “Parallels?”  Worf comes back from a tournament to find an Enterprise whose history is slightly different than what he remembers.  Then he finds himself hopping between parallel universes, which are explained as being due to quantum mechanics.  In the Star Trek universe, there are at least hundreds, but probably a practically infinite number of versions of the universe, all with slightly different decisions at some point or another.  

So what Simon Pegg should have said is that the Star Trek universe the new movies split off from was very similar but not identical to the one depicted in the TV series.  In the TV (and old series of movies) version Sulu wasn’t gay.  But in the 2009 and onward series, he was always gay, because it was a slightly different version of reality.  That also explains why the Enterprise was built on Earth, why the technology looks different, why Klingons have forehead ridges (ok just on the DVD extras), and all kinds of stuff.

Don’t get me wrong — I love Simon Pegg.  I’ve chatted with him before — he’s a real geek, a serious Trek fan, and a sweet guy.  I’m trilled to death that he took over rewriting BEYOND from Orci’s draft.  I just want to reconcile physics, gay characters, and the dispute between two very awesome people.  


The “universal translator” has had an uneven and mutiply-retconned history in Star Trek.    I absolutely understand the need for it from a storytelling perspective.  It would be a pretty boring story if aliens were trying to communicate, but the plot had to stop cold for translation.  So the shows established the conceit that even though we may see people apparently speaking English, they were really speaking their native language, but there was a universal translator working behind the scenes.  The problem from my perspective was that the idea was never implemented in a consistent way.  Sometimes it seemed to work on aliens nobody has ever encountered, and sometimes it didn’t.  Sometimes the UT needed to hear a sample of speech, and sometimes it seemed to just read minds.  

It was extraordinarily refreshing to see a translator in action in STAR TREK BEYOND.  You could hear the alien language, then hear English on top of it!  I love this!  It underscores the fact that this is a really multicultural intergalactic civilization, without slowing down the plot at all.  It also added a dose of realism to ground the otherwise fantastical nature of the plot.  And it was foreshadowing — signaling that some characters actually do know English, even when you’d think they otherwise shouldn’t.  

It is awesome that we live in a time when the universal translator is almost a reality.  Google can translate web pages and give you a pretty damn good idea of what is being said.  There are even apps that can translate written languages to another language through the camera on your phone and substitute your language!  That’s so futuristic, nobody even thought to put that into the Star Trek universe.


In the Trek universe, people can travel faster than the speed of light because they fold space on itself in a “warp bubble” generated by the engine nacelles.  We’ve heard this theory plenty, but in BEYOND, we finally get an astounding shot of a real warp bubble in action!  They show the Enterprise from the side as it is flying through space, with a bubble around it!  

Hell yes — I love it!  It reminds me of gravitational lenses.  That happens when clusters of galaxies bend spacetime so much that they magnify the starlight passing around them.  This allows us to see very distant galaxies, and even exploding stars from much farther away than we otherwise could.  Here’s a cool image from the Hubble Space Telescope of a cluster of galaxies.  Those arcs are distant galaxies whose images are distorted by gravity in a way not too dissimilar to the warp bubble!

gravitational lens

Here’s one more nod to reality from the film.  How is it that they find the USS Franklin on this unexplored planet, when it could only go Warp 4?  The Kirk-era Enterprise could go Warp-shitloads more, so by that era there is no excuse for unexplored regions close to Earth.  The movie actually addresses this by saying that the Franklin must have fallen into a wormhole or some such plot relief.  As implausible as that sounds, I love the fact that they addressed the insanity of having a more primitive ship farther out in space than the Enterprise has traveled.  

Ok, but BEYOND isn’t perfect when it comes to warp sensibility.  Kirk orders the Enterprise to go to warp when they are surrounded by a swarm of “bee” ships.  This is stupid.  Going through the speed of light with obstacles in the way will produce enough kinetic energy to destroy a starship no matter how much shielding it has.  Let’s just do a quick calculation to show that — if one of those bee ships weighs a metric ton, and the Enterprise is going, say, the speed of light (the lowest threshold for warp), then hitting it will release 1020 Joules of energy.  That’s equivalent to 10 billion tons of TNT.  Nuclear weapons are usually about a metaton, so hitting a bee drone at lightspeed is like getting hit by 10,000 nuclear weapons.  Add in the fact that there were hundreds or thousands of these, and that the energy goes up as the square of the speed, and you can see that it is profoundly stupid for Kirk to order that they go to warp while in a swarm.  And the thing is, it wouldn’t have changed the movie at all to make Kirk less stupid.  The line could have just been, “Scotty, get us out of here.”


There’s a scene in BEYOND where the crew just plays some Beastie Boys and it destroys thousands and thousands of alien drone ships.  No!  Just, no.  There are so many things wrong with this, I don’t even know where to begin.  

First, they say all they need to do is broadcast something at very high frequency to disrupt the drone communications, which they even abbreviate as VHF.  For some reason, they think the Beastie Boys fits this bill, although it just doesn’t.  The range of human hearing, and thus the frequency music uses, is 20 Hz to 20kHz, where a Hertz is a cycle per second.  Since sound can’t travel in space, obviously they aren’t talking about broadcasting the sound of music into space, but converting it into radio waves and broadcasting that.  But high frequency for radio waves is in the gigahertz regime (up to 300 GHz), not kiloHertz!  So VHF radio waves wiggle more than a million times faster thank sound waves.  The song “Sabotage,” which causes alien spacecraft to inexplicably burst into flames, runs about 3 minutes.  Sped up to GHz frequencies, the song would last only about a ten-thousandth of a second.  So why in hell would you do all this searching around for the Beastie Boys song, bother patching it through the spaceship equipment, and broadcasting that, even if you had it on a million-times loop?  Any information content in the song is meaningless — just broadcast any random signal.  And you just let thousands die while you searched around for this song because you’re stupid!

And another thing!  What kind of idiotic future tech bursts into flames when hit by VHF waves? This is just the frequency of TV broadcast signals!  These aliens, who have technology so great that they are one of the few species in the galaxy who have brought down the Enterprise, self destruct if they are around TV sets.  This is one of the dumbest things in Star Trek history.


One of the central plot devices of the film is that they have to venture into “uncharted space” inside a nebula.  It is well established from Star Trek that nebulae can give starships problems, as anyone who has seen WRATH OF KHAN can attest.  Does this make sense?  

Nebulae are just big gas clouds — they are responsible for some of the prettiest pictures taken by telescopes, including Hubble.  They are where stars are born or die.  Stars are born when giant gas clouds pull together under gravity, and get dense enough to ignite fusion.  And then when stars die they either slough off their outer layers in what’s called a planetary nebula, or they explode in a supernova, creating a supernova remnant.  Here's the Orion Nebula seen in infrared light!

Orion Nebula

But gas clouds in space are MUCH less dense than clouds on Earth.  Our atmosphere has about 1019 (ten billion billion) particles per cubic centimeter at sea level.  But a run of the mill astrophysical nebula has only about a hundred particles per cubic centimeter.  That’s less dense than the best vacuum on Earth!  The densest clouds in space though, molecular clouds, have ten thousand to a million particles per cubic centimeter.  They often look black in photos, because they absorb so much light.  But they are still more than a trillion times less dense than Earth’s atmosphere.  It is well established in Star Trek that starships can travel through Earth’s atmosphere with no problem.  Hell, in the last movie they even had a ludicrous scene of it traveling *under water.*  So even dense nebulae should be no problem at all.  It just isn’t clear why the region in the nebula is uncharted, unless they just haven’t gotten around to exploring it yet.  

But longtime readers know my feelings on bending what we know about the universe to tell a better story.  Go ahead and do it, as long as there is no other way, and you at least give us some kind of nod to let us know you know it is a cheat.  I totally get it that the writers need a region of space that is kind of hidden here.  And they need a space where communication is shaky.  The gas in most nebulae is ionized (meaning charged) — maybe that gives the sensors problems.  And maybe warping through anything other than a really good vacuum is dangerous.  So having the Enterprise have problems with a nebula actually doesn’t bother me very much. 

What *does* bother me is the ridiculous depiction of the nebula there!  It is shown as having giant boulder type things flying around hitting each other, and filled with lightning.  That’s just idiotic. Come on people, that really does nothing to amp up the tension, and it just comes across as stupid.  Since most people get their conceptions of astronomy from science fiction, it just make millions of people dumber for no good reason.  Star Trek is supposed to elevate and inspire, especially about space exploration, not the opposite.  


Kirk orders everyone on the Enterprise to abandon ship, and they do so by getting into individual escape pods.  This is profoundly stupid.  Think through it for a second.  On neither the TOS Enterprise, the future-tech TNG Enterprise, nor the even-more-future-tech Voyager did such technology exist.  Why would it?  With a crew of hundreds, you’d need hundreds of escape pods, each with hundreds of life support systems, navigational systems, and hundreds of engines.  On today’s ocean-faring ships, do they put hundreds of escape canoes?  Hell no, they put little boats that can cary 10 or 20 people at a time.  This is how it has always been in the Trek Universe too — each big ship has shuttlecraft that can cary many, not personal vessels. Shuttlecraft can have warp engines, where pods cannot.  What is the functionality of a pod that can only be used near a planet, when starships have the capability to beam people down to a planet?  And it is worse than that!  In the Abrams universe, they have trans-warp beaming!  They can beam people across the galaxy! 

Another pet peeve of mine: Scotty abandons the Enterprise, solo, pretty damn early in its demise.  The “real” Scotty would have almost gone down with the ship.  We’d at least have had a scene where he wistfully says his goodbyes, before getting on the last pod out with the captain.  Moments like that build character, and are a thing we love about Star Trek.


At the end of the movie, for some reason Krall starts to lose his freaky alien visage, and just as our heroes start to realize that he was the captain of the Franklin, he reverts to that look.  Why or how this is happening isn’t explained very well, but I think it has to do with some alien technology that lets him suck the life force out of people.  Maybe he kind of takes on their appearance when he does it?  This makes no sense.  There is nothing in our genome that would make us look like an alien.  And even if it did, these changes would take time — we wouldn’t turn human again in a few minutes or hours.

I did praise the fact that we are finally seeing the frontier in BEYOND.  We get to see new life and new civilizations!  But actually, that’s undercut by the revelation that what we’re seeing is just another guy from the federation gone bad.   This would all be fine if there was a great payoff, but there isn’t.


Despite their amazing future tech, Star Trek shows and movies set in the TOS era almost always end in a fistfight.  At least here Kirk and Krall do some cool gravitational ballet while they got through the motions.  I thought that part was handled well — if gravity is pulling down from one direction, and from the side or from the top in another direction, there will be a point in between where you are equally balanced between both and can float.  In close binary stars, matter can flow back and forth between them because of this effect.  

But what really bugged me is that all they had to do was teleport Kirk and Krall out of the tower they were fighting in, and yet nobody seems to think of this.  Or hey, there’s a contaminant in the air supply — let’s just teleport it out of there.  When you have established technology in a universe, you had better use it or establish a damn good reason you can’t.  Also, a giant pet peeve of mine in Star Trek movies is when you have to have another character narrate the stakes and what the hero has to do to be successful.  With good writing, you should not need that.  And this alien superweapon was just.. the equivalent of poison gas?  How underwhelming.  

All in all, STAR TREK BEYOND had some cool stuff and some not so cool stuff.  Fortunately, most of the stupid things weren’t necessarily deal breakers like they were in INTO DARKNESS.  It was a fun time at the movies, but sadly, that’s about all.  In that sense, BEYOND feels like a missed opportunity.  But I’ll take that over a disaster like INTO DARKNESS any day.

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