8 ways Star Trek helped change science and the future as we know it

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Sep 21, 2017

Fifty-one years ago this month, Star Trek: The Original Series beamed into American TV sets for the first time, igniting the imaginations of millions. Through warp drives and transporters, androids and alien negotiations, the epic sci-fi saga ended up inspiring an entire generation of young scientists and inventors to conceptualize its imagined future — and, in many cases, create and explore the technological possibilities its writers and science advisors suggested.

In honor of Star Trek: Discovery's premiere this weekend, we wanted to take a look back on what the show has contributed to modern science thus far. Below are eight real-world examples of how the saga has helped change the future as we know it.

1. Informed major advances in quantum physics and astronomy

One of Star Trek's most lasting legacies is how the show pays homage to humankind's actual understanding of the universe as we know it. Creator Gene Roddenberry was famous for employing both a Rand Corporation physicist and a team at Kellum deForest research as the show started out to fact-check its writers as they imagined the future.

"In the early episodes, I think there was nice lip service paid to science as a tool," says Lawrence M. Krauss, a theoretical physicist at Arizona State University's School of Earth and Space Exploration and author of the 1995 space-age manual The Physics of Star Trek. In his book, Krauss explains how the show nearly invented the term "black hole" in 1967. Through the years, the saga also paid homage to Stephen Hawking's emerging theories about curved space, the potentialities of wormhole travel, and the theoretical possibilities of transcending time as we know it.

"The real universe is even more fascinating than the world of science fiction," Krauss explains, "but science fiction sparks people's imagination." Star Trek helped bring the science world's emerging understanding of the cosmos right into our living rooms — and helped inspire a new generation of scientists to push their understandings of physics in the real world.

2. Contemplated the rise of computers and artificial intelligence

Modern Star Trek fans may take the Enterprise's voice-activated computer systems and touchscreen monitors for granted, but remember: The series was conceived at a time when computers still took up an entire room. Though the show didn't always gets its predictions right about how we would end up using computers in our daily lives (hello the Internet!), it is credited with inspiring a wide array of modern real-world computer technologies. Think floppy disks, flash storage, and USB drives, or voice-activated systems like Siri, Echo, and Alexa, which still sound eerily similar to the computers we hear in Captain Kirk's universe.

"There are lots of Star Trek fans in the science community," explains Krauss, who himself became a fan and unofficial physics advisor for the show after writing his book. "It's a chicken-and-egg thing. Were they interested in Star Trek because it got them interested in science, or were they interested in Star Trek because their interest in science meant they'd like the show? I think it goes both ways." 

In fact, the series is still inspiring advances in modern computers and AI. Recently, when the president of the American Association for Artificial Intelligence was asked what the ultimate goal was for his field, he simply responded — "Lieutenant Commander Data."

3. Predicted the advances of modern medical technology

Legend has it that when Star Trek's tri-corder and bio-bed first appeared on the series in the late 1960s, Gene Roddenberry was contacted by tech developers at Siemens and General Electric asking where he found out about what they were working on — machines that would later become early versions of MRI machines and ultrasounds. The show pre-emptively picked up on the revolutionary idea at the time that modern medicine may one day be able to diagnose and treat conditions without the need for invasive surgeries.

Today, modern medical researchers are still trying to catch up with what Star Trek writers envisioned for the future. There's the Qualcomm Tricorder XPRIZE, which explicitly challenges research teams every year to design a handheld device that can diagnose over a dozen medical conditions. In the late 1990s, NASA scientists developed a low-vision headset they ultimately named JORDY, a technological homage to Geordi La Forge's VISOR on The Next Generation. And let's not forget the modern-day advance of cybernetic technology in the form of pacemakers, neurally controlled robotic limbs, and cortical implants, which show writers inadvertently predicted while writing in one of Captain Picard's greatest interstellar enemies: The Borg.

4. Envisioned the logistics of future space exploration

One of Star Trek's greatest achievements over the years has been taking the scientific understandings we had at the time and stretching them into a framework of its own amazing inventions — the most famous of which has to be the conception of warp drive. In the early days of writing the show, TOS alumni had to figure out how humans would ever be able to travel fast enough to make it from star to star in the time frame of a single episode. They did it by distorting the space-time continuum conceived by Einstein in the late 1940s, essentially "warping" space around a starship in order to enable it to travel faster than the speed of light, envisioning a golden age of future space exploration and colonization.

Though warp drive might seem impossible, it was actually proved to be a theoretical possibility in 1994, when Mexican physicist Miguel Alcubierre proposed that shortening space in front of a spacecraft and lengthening it by the same amount behind could potentially create a sort of safety bubble for a ship to travel in at superluminal speeds.

"Unfortunately, it's impractical," explains Krauss. We'd essentially need an energy source equivalent to 20,000 megatons of TNT to create that warp bubble — something the show cleverly solved with a combination of matter-antimatter reactions (which were also recently proved to be a real scientific possibility) and fictitious dilithium crystals as an energy source. "But what's amazing is that some of the things in Star Trek that I thought were frankly impossible when I wrote the book, are not."

5. Inspired modern-day communications devices

"I don't think my first cell phone would have flipped open if it hadn't been for the Star Trek communicator," Krauss jokes. In fact, the series dream of instantaneous wireless communication entranced the show's original viewers, who at the time were still used to talking to each other through phone operators and copper wires. In fact, Motorola's Marty Cooper, who's considered to be the father of modern cell phones, openly admits that the sci-fi series inspired his design for the company's first commercial headset, the DynaTAC 8000x headset in 1983.

The Star Trek series foreshadowed many other innovative ideas in communication technology as well, including Bluetooth (shoutout to Lieutenant Uhura's earpiece), location and transponder applications like GPS, LoJack and RFID and our modern-day experiments in universal translator devices. And let's not even get started with TNG's touchscreen PADDs, an apparent technological advancement from the original series' "electronic clipboard" which look very coincidentally like today's iPhones and iPads.

6. Ushered in the rise of virtual reality

Unfortunately for the crew on the original USS Enterprise, virtual reality in the form of holodeck technology apparently wasn't widely available until the 24th century. By the time TNG came out, however, the immersive entertainment technology was considered a super normal and vital form of recreation on future starships. But if real-life 21st-century advances in VR are any indication, we might get to the saga's technological fantasies of holodecks much sooner than that.

"I wrote in 1993 that 25 years from then, we'd be going to restaurants where we could visit ‘the Paris Room' where there'd be holograms on all of the walls," Krauss says. While we haven't gotten there quite yet, it's clear that humankind has been taking major steps toward making VR a part of everyday life since envisioning that future with Commander Riker and Captain Picard in the 1980s.

In addition to screens and goggle-like viewers like the Oculus Rift, researchers have started experimenting with concave mirrors that can create an apparent projected object to an observer from certain angles. In 2009, engineers at the University of Tokyo started testing out ultrasonic force emitters that may one day help these holograms create the impression of pressure, contact, and touch, just as in the show's holodecks. And already we are in the midst of testing and developing VR rooms with omnidirectional treadmills and dome-shaped ceilings covered in projectors to simulate everything from military to sci-fi environments. Just don't try to eat the food.

7. Foresaw the future of 3D Printing

Speaking of food, wouldn't it be nice to be able to forgo the cost and hassle of cooking and simply hook up your Star Trek-era replicator for a nice Hasperat souffle or a hot Raktajino? We may not have to wait until Captain Sisko's time on Deep Space Nine to get there, thanks to major advances over the last decade in 3-D printing, which the show may not have inspired, but definitely predicted.

In the Star Trek universe, replicator technology relies on the fundamental principle that all forms of matter are built of the same building blocks — protons, neutrons, and electrons, in various nominations. While current 3-D printers are limited to whatever materials we feed into them, including foam, aluminum, plastic, steel, and even wood, researchers are currently working on how to develop and print composite materials with the machines. And who knows how small or advanced 3-D printing will get over the next three centuries? As experts in the field will note, we're still in the very infancy of this real-world technology.

8. Helped us envision a science-first future

As any scientist influenced by Star Trek will tell you, it isn't just new discoveries that lead to new technologies — it's our ability to dream with what little understanding of the universe we currently have about what the future can be.

"What's nice about Star Trek is that it presents a hopeful view of the future and one in which science actually makes the world a better place instead of a worse place," explains Krauss. In every series, from TOS to Enterprise, gone are the scientifically faulty premises of sexism, racism, and species-ism that plague many imagined dystopian futures. By the 24th century, science has helped humans transcend the need for money and its accompanying scarcity, greed, and poverty.

Though the new series, Star Trek: Discovery has promised to at least allegorically tackle some of these issues in its upcoming episodes, the days of human-versus-human battles are long behind us. Instead, the legacy of the show, as always, is to explore, reach out to new civilizations, and continue to boldly go where no one has gone before. While Discovery won't necessarily have to make up any new technologies due to its prequel status in Star Trek canon, here's hoping the new show lives up to its predecessors' longstanding scientific legacy — and its ability to dream up and explore a decidedly science-first future.