Treknobabble #42: Why We Hear Explosions in Space

Treknobabble is a continuing series of columns written by uber-Trekkie Reed Farrington in anticipation of the upcoming J.J. Abrams Star Trek movie.

Verisimilitude. Ever since Gene Roddenberry consulted with the RAND Corporation, Trekkies have taken a pride in feeling that Star Trek’s future could be our future in reality. The science shown in Star Trek must have some semblance to reality we were told. And so beginning with the first movie, the scientific consultant has been a mainstay of Star Trek’s production crew. For the sake of dramatic storytelling, however, there were conscious decisions made where science (or common sense) was ignored.

So along with the topic of hearing sounds in space, I’ll be covering the transporter / replicator, warp drive / dilithium crystals, and seat belts (or lack thereof). Hearing sounds in space is an egregious violation of science. Transporters and warp drive as depicted in Star Trek are doubtful technologies. And the lack of seat belts just doesn’t make any sense. All of these affect the verisimilitude of Star Trek.

Let’s start with sound in space. The bottom line about hearing explosions in space, the firing of weapons, and the sound of going to warp is that we’re all used to hearing things, and space battles are enhanced by sound. People argue that we shouldn’t hear these things in space because there’s no atmosphere to propagate sound waves. (The famous tagline for Alien, “In Space, No One Can Hear You Scream,” relies on this fact.) Now all this presupposes that we’re situated at the camera’s virtual position in space. This means that we’d have to be inside a vehicle or perhaps a space suit. So should we be able to see reflections off our visor or even our breath fogging the visor?

Non-science fiction television and film often take liberties with where sound is coming from. The most extreme example is hearing a character’s narration. Where is that coming from? What about the background music? Maybe the sound of explosions is being heard from inside the ship that is exploding. And phasers or photon torpedoes firing is what is heard from inside the ship that is firing. As you might have gathered, I don’t lend much credence to people who think space battles should be silent. The series, Firefly, has done this, and that’s fine.

The transporter is a neat device for getting characters right into the action, and unfortunately for dramatic reasons, right out of the action as well unless one conveniently devises a way to disable it. The replicator is a spin-off technology that one can imagine being invented once the transporter was realized. Supposedly, the replicator has eliminated greed and hunger since anyone can have anything they want with a replicator. Unfortunately, a replicator requires energy, and I don’t think the 23rd or the 24th century has solved that problem. Replicator rations was brought up on Voyager because they were stranded and without a ready, continuous supply of energy.

The transporter raises the metaphysical question of the soul. Through transporter accidents, it is possible to create a clone of yourself with a separate identity. Star Trek has never addressed the question of why the transporter couldn’t be used to keep everyone immortal. I suppose the answer might be that humans have realized that aging is a normal process that should be valued.

I’ve always wondered if I could trust transporter technology. Now I realize that driving an automobile is risky as well, but there’s something about being demolecularized that sounds dangerous. I guess I’m in Dr. McCoy’s camp when it comes to using the transporter. I wonder if it would even be necessary for us to totally understand how the brain works in order for a transporter for human beings to be invented. I suppose something could be taken apart and put back together without understanding how the something worked.

Intuitively, I think a transporter could be invented. The idea has been around for a while, many years before Star Trek. Using a microwave oven seems like magic to me. How do you heat something up without fire? We’ll have transporters by the 23rd century I’m sure, despite what some physicists think.

Every once in a while there’s a news release about someone coming up with a theoretical basis for warp drive. I expect the expenditure for a warp drive program would be outside of any country’s current budgets. And I would expect someone would want to conquer the entire Earth before thinking about conquering, I mean visiting, other planets.

In order for the Enterprise to travel the vast distances between planets in our universe within a human lifespan, the concept of warp drive was required. I think the idea is that the ship nacelles “warp” space through the use of dilithium crystals that focus the energy. Even if this turns out to be impossible, it’s a necessary technology in the Star Trek universe; otherwise, all the adventures would take place on the ship because it would take forever to get to a planet outside our solar system. This would have saved money for the producers if all the shows were filmed on the ship.

One of the prime targets for satirical depictions of Star Trek is to show the bridge being buffeted by explosions. The camera tilts back and forth as the characters lean and tumble from left to right and back again. This was fun to watch, but it was a problem that could have been prevented with seat belts. Back in the 60s, seat belts weren’t mandatory in automobiles, so that might explain why no one thought to question it.

I think the official reason for a lack of seat belts was that inertial stabilizers would prevent the ship from rocking, but that doesn’t explain what you would do if the inertial stabilizers went off-line. I always wondered why the crew never fell towards the view screen. Come to think of it, I think they did, but the helm / navigation console was easy to grab a hold of. Oh, but they never flew upwards! In the movie Generations when the Enterprise-D crash lands, I think there was a crewman who flew through the view screen. Or maybe I’m thinking of Nemesis when the Enterprise-E rams Shinzon’s ship.

Seat belts are kind of lo-tech. Imagine them hanging down and clanking on each of the seats. The first movie remedied the problem by having rigid clasps that folded over the thighs in the captain’s chair. Captain Kirk got to use them when the Enterprise went into the worm-hole. We never saw those seat constraints again.

I would love to be able to drive my automobile without a seat belt. Maybe in the 23rd century, they decided to give people the luxury of not having to be constrained by a seat belt. Besides, no one ever died from falling out of his seat, and bumps and scrapes could easily be healed with sprays from McCoy’s medical “salt shakers.”

Concerning The Original Series, no one has ever spoken about what I’m going to say. Only Captain Kirk’s chair was anchored to the ship floor. Forget about seat belts. All the chairs should have been bolted to the floor, or attached to a track for greater mobility. Imagine a circular track with Spock being able to glide over to Uhura’s workstation!

For the new movie, a planetary scientist named Carolyn Porco was chosen as the scientific consultant. She is the leader of the Imaging Science Team on NASA’s Cassini mission. In an editorial opinion article published in The New York Times in February of 2007, she wrote passionately about her hope that humanity was back on track in exploring outer space. I imagine this article would have been enough to convince J.J. Abrams that she was ideal for the scientific consultant position.

She was hired primarily for providing advice on depicting the alien planets. (I’m guessing she immediately dismissed the idea of Class M planets having papier-mâché rocks.) She was also consulted about other scientific matters, the specifics of which I could not find. In any case, I’m guessing come next May, we’ll be hearing the Enterprise warping and whooshing through space, firing photon torpedoes with reverberating bullet sounds, phasering Romulan ships in a cacophony of destruction, transporting the crew to safety, and tossing the crew around the bridge.



  • Sean, I thought you were going to post my Thanksgiving Treknobabble, “We Come in Peace; Unfortunately, You Will Be Assimilated.” I guess you can post it next week.

  • Reed, I liked this treknobabble. It showed some actual knowledge.

  • Paul Andrews

    Nice post. I think you’d like ‘Science of the impossible’ by Dr. Michio Kaku which examines the real science behind transporters, replicastors, shields and the like. I read a book once (I think by Harry Harrison of ‘Stainless Steel Rat’ fame) where transporters were actually replicators, so a copy of the person being transported would appear, and the ‘original’ dropped through the floor of the transporter to be made into burgers ! Funny, but the science is sounder than actually transporting matter over large distances. Information is easier to transmit than matter of course.

  • Good point about transmitting just the information, Paul. But I think people have already pointed out that “measuring” the information might be a problem due to Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle of quantum physics where you change/set the value the instant you measure it. That’s why Star Trek tech manuals refer to Heisenberg Compensators. Someone needs to build one of those. :-)

    I think I saw that book by Michio Kaku. I was surprised that he avoided mentioning Star Trek. I have his book “Visions” that I haven’t gotten around to reading, yet. Jay actually interviewed Dr. Kaku for his time travel documentary. Anyone who hasn’t seen it should check out Jay’s Documentary Blog for it.

    Henrik, all of my Treknobabbles are based on “actual knowledge.” Wait till you read my next Treknobabble that will contain an interesting tidbit about the American Constitution!