Science of Star Trek: How Does Discovery Measure Up?

Marie Brownhill
Game Industry News is running the best blog posts from people writing about the game industry. Articles here may originally appear on Marie's blog, Fan Collective Unimatrix 47.

We’re taking a break from episode related posts because your intrepid blogger spent the weekend at New York Comic Con and will need some time to catch up. However, relevant to Discovery, I had the opportunity to chat with two scientists regarding some of Discovery’s additions to the body of Trek Science. I spoke with Eric Schulman, astronomer, and Dr. J. C. Spainhour, a systems biologist about some of the science we’ve seen thus far. There are spoilers for episode 3, “Context is for Kings”, so read further at your own risk.

With the caveat that Schulman has only seen the first episode, “A Vulcan Hello”, he agreed to explain a little bit about binary stars to me.

GIN: What struck you about the episode?

ES: The absolute biggest problem in that one is when the Klingons lit the beacon, people in nearby star systems saw a new star in their sky, even though these systems were light years away, so it should have taken years for them to get the signal.

GIN: Did you notice anything else?

ES: Other problems–the asteroid belt was much too dense. Both stars had accretion disks, but it’s not at all clear where the material was coming from. In a typical binary star system with an accretion disk, one star turns into a red giant and starts losing material to the other star, so the donor star doesn’t have an accretion disk, only the accepting star. Also, the accretion disk is hot gas, not rocks. You can get X-rays from hot gas in an accretion disk, but you don’t get x-grays from rocks.

GIN: Star Trek has long had a problem with radiation.

ES: Radiation doesn’t work the way they said it did [in the episode]—0-20 minutes is perfectly safe but after 20 minutes pass, you have a received a lethal dose (but actually you haven’t because they’ll be able to fix you up in Sick Bay even if you leave Sick Bay and go up to the bridge for a bit).

GIN: Sick Bay is magic!

I also had the chance to talk about the concepts from “Context is for Kings” with Dr. Spainhour, and like Schulman, he was somewhat less than impressed.

GIN: While I know you haven’t seen the episode in question, I wondered if you could possibly comment on the idea of biology as physics.

JS: From the molecular standpoint, biology is physics, essentially.

GIN: In Discovery, Stamets, one of the characters seems to treat this idea as a novel area of study. You would disagree that it is?

JS: Pharmacology has been using physics to describe drug metabolism, effects, and even creation since its inception.

GIN: So, no.

JS: No. Fully a third of my dissertation was based on the physical constants that govern biology.

GIN: Good to know that human science in 2017 is slightly more developed in one area than Vulcan science in 2256. Anyway, apparently, they’re developing a propulsion technology based on a spore network. Does that sound plausible?

JS: I’m going to go with Newtonian motion, non-warp speed?

GIN: No, the spores apparently travel along a biological network, thereby exceeding warp. One of the character refers to this network as the muscles and veins of the universe.

JS: …

So, there you have it—the scientists are underwhelmed by the science in Discovery. Granted, we’ve come to accept all kinds of Treknology over the franchise’s fifty-one years of life, from transporters to hyposprays, and we’re willing to suspend disbelief pretty far. However, a love of science has always been at the heart of what Star Trek is, which has sometimes resulted in some arcane and convoluted technobabble explanations. After all, Discovery shares a history with The Next Generation, which featured cameos by both Dr. Stephen Hawking, renowned physicist, and Dr. Mae Jemison, the first African-American woman in space, but Discovery itself seems to be less scientifically savvy than previous installments, opting to eschew technobabble for simpler hand-waving, be it for magic spores or Saru’s spidey-sensing whiskers. While previous series certainly had their fair share of magic—from Dr. Crusher’s all-curing hyposprays to the use of what are fundamentally magic crystals to propel ship FTL drives—they at least attempted to ground those concepts in science, even if fairly ridiculous science, and the shift away from that is a little disconcerting. That said, I’m still along for the ride because the characters and world-building are gelling for me, but I worry that the unwillingness to engage even in pseudoscience is an indicator of just how far from the franchise roots Discovery intends to go.

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