Welcome back!  This is the second article in a continuing series where I evaluate sci-fi shows of the past and determine whether or not their technology has made it into today’s society.  Last time we reviewed Babylon 5, a show that’s near and dear to my heart for so many different reasons.

This week though, we’re going to be looking at Star Trek in honor of William Shatner’s The Captains that’s debuting tomorrow in New York City.

Star Trek’s the logical next choice for this column.  When Star Trek first debuted in the 1960s it took countless people by surprise. No one had ever seen a space show quite like this before. They witnessed never-before-seen technology being used in the adventures of the Enterprise, and it definitely left its mark.  

Star Trek has always been ahead of its time and was pure inspiration for the countless other space shows that would emerge years later (yes, even Babylon 5 might not have been if Star Trek hadn’t left its mark).

 Alright, enough with introductions – let’s venture ahead and look at the technology that was used in Star Trek and how it relates to what we’re using today.

Tractor Beam:  The tractor beam was such a crucial piece of equipment to the crew of the Enterprise.  Not only did they use it to tow away disabled ships, but they also utilized it to get themselves out of some serious situations.  It seems like a far-fetched concept but the truth of the matter is that we could be utilizing a similar technology soon ourselves. 

Researchers in China have written recently about certain conditions that would make the creation of a tractor beam plausible.  It’s already quite well known that light can be a source of propulsion (due to radiation pressure).  Well, you might be surprised to learn that in 2010 Japan successfully launched a spacecraft called IKAROS that’s based on solar sail technology, and it made its way past Venus in only six and a half months.  Amazing, isn’t it?

Unfortunately pulling is much harder to accomplish because it presents its own set of challenges.  However, it should be noted that research in this area will no doubt continue so we should continue to see advancements in the future.

Communicator:  How many times have you seen these little devices get the crew of the Enterprise out of many difficult situations?   “Beam me up, Scotty” became one of the most familiar lines of the series.  And if there was no way for the communicators to work due to blocked signals, confiscation of their equipment, etc. our favorite starship captain and his crew found themselves in a very difficult scenario.  Do we have these today?  Absolutely.  We call them “smart phones.” 

Many wireless providers now offer “push-to-talk” technology, which in essence, turns our phones into little Star Trek communicators.   While we’d hardly use these to escape from the grasp of hostile Romulans, we still rely on them to help us when we’re in a bind.   Not only can we be in touch with most anyone, but there are a myriad of apps we can use to assist us in our journey (maps to help us plot our next course, banking apps so we can manage our finances on the go, etc).

Universal Translator:  I loved this device, probably because I have a never ending fascination with languages and pick them up quite easily.   This handy piece of equipment helped the crew of the Enterprise communicate with different races that they may never have been able to speak with if they didn’t have it.   Even if the speaker wasn’t a human life form, this device helped translate what they said into English so the crew could determine if they were looking at a possible friend or foe. 

If you ever wanted to know if we’d have this technology today, wonder no more.  We don’t have anything that’s matches what the crew used but we do have our own (somewhat archaic) version.  It’s something our troops use on a regular basis since they’re stationed in parts of the world where English is not the primary spoken language.  It’s called the Voxtec Phraselator P2.  U.S. troops in Afghanistan, Iraq and Southeast Asia are utilizing this device; it has the ability to translate over 50 different languages into English and then back again into a different tongue.  It knows more than 15,000 common phrases.  Of course it needs to do better than that, but as far as beginnings go, it’s not bad by any means. 

Transporter:  Oh, how I wish we had these!   How many times have you found yourself in this scenario?  You’ve lost track of time and are now subsequently late for a very important appointment.  You’re about to throw your hands up in a state of frustration, or even worse, break out into a complete panic.  That is, until you remember you have a transporter for situations such as these.  Setting your destination, you step into the machine.  A bright light flashes, followed by a slight humming sound.  When the light turns off, you look around and realize you’re exactly where you need to be.  Had it not been for this technology, it might’ve taken you hours to get to where you needed to be.  I know, it seems unlikely we’ll ever have them, but scientists are actually working to make progress in this area.

Claire Moskowitz recently wrote an article about the progress that’s being made in teleportation.  Here’s an excerpt from that story:  “To teleport light, researchers led by Noriyuki Lee of the University of Tokyo had to destroy it in one place, and re-create it in another. This mirrors the teleportation process on Star Trek, where transporters scan a person, atom by atom, and dismantle him, only to rebuild the person by configuring a different set of atoms in exactly the same pattern in another place.”

We’re not at the point where we can teleport people, but no one can say we’re not making advancements in this area, however small they may seem.

Well, there you have it!  With any luck I surprised you with some information on the technology that was used in Star Trek and how it relates to what we currently use.  Be sure to stay tuned for the next article in this series where I take another popular science fiction show and see what we’ve adopted for use in our society.


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