TCS Daily

My Optimistic Trek

By Sallie Baliunas - November 21, 2002 12:00 AM

One would bet that a sleeveless French frock, as ebon as the fabric of space-time between the loneliest starposts of the Galaxy, would suit as gaming clothes at any poker table in any casino in Las Vegas.

Not so. Not even when the dress is worn with black suede sandals sporting four-inch high heels.

Why not? Because Majel Roddenberry and I had been transported to the Las Vegas Hilton for her talk at the Star Trek convention, which was my first Trek convention. After we entered the 24th century setting, our oh-so-21st century couture was as dated as a Gibson Girl's corset.

Solar System

Gene Roddenberry's imagination lives on not only in the stream of such weekend conventions, but also in a $70 million wing of the Hilton casino devoted to Star Trek. Quark's Bar offers comfort to many species of upright-walking bipeds intelligent enough to have discovered fermented beverages. Vivid turquoise liquids emit fogs of white vapor that climb up, then blossom over oddly hewn glassware. (It's not magic, though, just science: frozen carbon dioxide sublimes at room temperature.)

In the Trek casino wing, a wall niche behind some rocketry-themed electronic one-armed bandits houses a case displaying a faux museum artifact: an early space suit. But it is one well beyond current technology. The helmet is modest, and the body made of flexible, lightweight red fabric that must be so much more comfortable than the doughy shells of insulation that shielded America's moon walking astronauts.

A placard accompanying the ancient spacesuit explains that it relied on solar energy. Yet on the suit there were no big blocky panels of silicon or gallium arsenide that would need to be perpetually bathed in local or alien star shine in order to generate power for life support operations.

Perhaps solar light collectors developed in the future would be the fantastic threads of that slick red fabric. And because a spacesuit must protect its occupant whether in light or shade, near or far from the sun or alien star, the fabric might also store the collected sunshine. After retrieving the sunlight, the fabric may feed a network of underground capillaries storing energy. That way electricity could always be available, even when sunlight is not.

Matter and Anti-Matter

Trek fans trivially accept the cleverness of future engineers who might produce so unassuming a fabric with so advanced an electrical system, even if it seems well beyond current capability. Conventioneers are optimistic about a future powered by science, technology and energy.

Gene Roddenberry's future relied on realistic energy sources. Rather than gluing antiquated solar panels to his fleet of starships that must traverse parsecs of spacetime in storytime, Gene invoked (but wisely never explained - he focused on storytelling) matter-antimatter reactions for energy supplies. Viewers would have vanished as storylines flagged if starships were to lumber across the dark parsecs between stars with solar panels, no matter how efficient.

Is antimatter a credible source of energy for civilization? Not yet.

An electron is a negatively-charged component of an atom, and is made of "ordinary" matter. Its antimatter counterpart, the positron, or antimatter electron, is exactly like the electron with the exception that it has a positive electric charge. Antimatter is extremely rare in the universe (and that rarity is a mystery for physics). When a positron collides with its ordinary counterpart, the electron, they disintegrate and convert their mass to energy. Theoretically, just a pound of material could yield 11 billion kWh of energy. Equally hypothetically, about 330 pounds of material could match the total annual electrical production in the U.S.

Modern particle accelerators, used to study the subatomic cosmos, can make and contain antimatter. But it takes a whopping amount of energy to create and store antimatter - at Geneva's CERN accelerator about ten billion times more energy is needed to create and store antimatter than is gotten out of the matter-antimatter. With so poor an efficiency, antimatter remains in the realm of experimental physics, far from a practical power supply.

Should matter-antimatter reactions become practical as fuel, they will always have costs and risks, as does any use of energy. For fossil fuels the costs are mining and emission impacts from combustion. For wind power the costs are unreliability, a large environmental footprint and bird kills. For nuclear power, hazards stem from radiation and wastes of fission products. In the case of matter-antimatter energy, converting mass to energy produces baleful radiation. Gene used this radiation jeopardy to good dramatic effect when crew members were exposed to it, for example, in the Trek movie, The Wrath of Khan. For now, matter-antimatter will have to fuel starships in the Trek fans' imaginations.

Back to my poker game. With three jacks in my hand and the knowledge that there is no such thing as magic or luck, I play securely to probability. Those are the immutable laws of the universe. And that's what drives hope.



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