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(September 26, 2001)

image of starship Enterprise from Normally, I have left Star Trek alone on this site. It's a conceit of mine, actually. I like Trek. I don't want to say anything bad about it. I've been a fan for a long, long time, and it feels faintly heretical to want to nitpick it like it was some awful Hollywood flick like Armageddon.

There's more to it than that, of course. For one, the fans of Trek are legion. Pointing out mistakes in Trek is likely to beg for a thousand emails, calling me everything from a Mugato to a P'tach. I don't relish that idea. Plus, I have the vain fantasy that some day I can actually do something for the Trek empire. I don't know what, and I don't care to speculate. For the moment, I'll be happy just watching the shows.

And a new Trek is afoot! As I write this, "Enterprise" has just premiered. I tried to just watch, really I did. But I can't just watch science fiction any more. This website has damned me that way.

However, I am happy to say: I liked it. I really liked it. With the possible exception of the original series, this is the best opening show of any of the Trek series. The writing and acting were good, the special effects awe inspiring, and the plotting was well-paced and interesting.

Having now supplicated myself, I'll add that things weren't all perfect. I could have done without the gel-application scene, which seemed, well, gratuitous. Don't get me wrong- I have as much prurient interest as the next fan, but I thought the scene just wasn't needed, and even seemed jarring. I'm not sure what the point was.

But you came here to read about astronomy, not other heavenly bodies, har har. So let's get on with it.

Bad: Well, it's Trek. That means we hear sounds in space.

Good: Sound doesn't travel through space, ordinarily. Space is a vacuum, and sound needs some sort of medium through which to travel. In a vacuum, there is nothing to vibrate, and therefore nothing to carry the sound.

image of Cygnus Loop filament from Hubble The exception would be in a nebula, or giant cloud of gas. Sound can travel through a nebula, as gas molecules (or atoms) bump into each other, transmitting the sound wave. But this situation isn't like here on Earth, and sound as we know it wouldn't travel well. When you see a nebula with fine veils and sheets, you are seeing the gas being compressed by massive shock waves, like a sonic boom. The energies involved are pretty big, and even a starship passing by wouldn't do that.

I have heard an explanation of sound in Trek: it's added in by the computer, so that people on board can have a more natural feel of travel. But that's silly: our vantage point as viewers is outside the ship! And we hear the Enterprise itself whooshing past us; why would people on board that very ship want to hear it whooshing past them? It doesn't make sense. I have also heard lots of other explanations involving subspace, magnetic fields, warp bubbles and the like, but in the end those are simply retcons, or retroactive continuity changes; explanations made up after the fact to explain a seeming inconsistency in a plotline. They are fun, but I don't buy them.

The real reason is that it feels weird to the audience to have a ship rush past them without hearing anything. In the original Trek, the studio wanted Trek creator Gene Roddenberry to put the sound in there on purpose. He acquiesced; at least, in the first season. I have it on inside info that he took it back out in the second and third seasons, without the studio being the wiser. I think Mr. Roddenberry and I would have gotten along well.

I'll note that when I watch a spaceship moving without sound in a movie it does seem weird. The fact that I feel this way irritates me more than anything. Some astronomer I turned out to be. So I'll have to admit this is a relatively minor nitpick.

Bad: We see stars in the sky when looking out windows on board the Enterprise, and in outside shots looking back on the sunlit Earth from space.

Good: This is another minor one. It's difficult or impossible to see stars out a window from inside a lit room. Go ahead and try it some clear night! Internal reflections make it difficult; the bright light is reflected back to you from the glass. An astronaut friend of mine said that seeing stars from inside the Space Shuttle was difficult for just that reason; the internal lights, even when dimmed, made seeing the stars very hard.

And yes, it's probably not glass on the starship Enterprise, but you can see reflections. I assume stars were added to make it more obvious that they are in space. Also, not putting in stars ironically probably made it look fake! So this was an artistic decision, and like many of the decisions made artistically in the movie Deep Impact, I don't think it's terrible.

The same situation applies in long shots showing the Earth. The planet is so bright it drowns out the much fainter stars. If this sounds familiar, it's basically the same argument I use to show why the Apollo Moon missions were real!

Bad: In the beginning of the show, the captain and one of his crew are talking about the ship. Captain Archer says it can go to Neptune and back in just six minutes at warp 4.5. Later in the show, Archer mentions that warp 4.4 is 30 million kilometers per second.

Good: Sometimes this Good/Bad format fails me. Those numbers work out! Neptune is about 4.4 billion kilometers from the Earth. Getting there and back in six minutes means moving at about 80 times the speed of light, or 24 million kilometers per second. The difference between that number and 30 million is negligible, given that Captain Archer may have been using a rough number. They aren't equal, but neither are they off by much. Again, this is pretty close.

Having said that, there was a misstep later in the show. It was said that the Klingon home world is four days travel away. That comes out to about 8 trillion kilometers (just less than one light year) away from Earth at 80 times lightspeed. The nearest known star to us, Proxima Centauri, is about 40 trillion kilometers away (more than 4 light years), or 20 days travel time. I'm not sure how this inconsistency slipped past the Trek writers, to be honest, but late rewrites are usually the culprit. Again, I'll note that while this is an error, it's not a terribly big one. I would be remiss to ignore it though.

However, I should also note that in several scenes, we see stars streaming past the window as the Enterprise warps past them. If it takes 20 days to get to the nearest star, then it should take roughly that long on average for just one star to flash by. I have heard some fans say that those aren't stars we see going past, but pieces of space dust. That explanation doesn't work; when the ship slow to subwarp, the streaks of light clearly coalesce into stars. So really, we should see the stars something like we do now: not streaking past, but moving verrrry sloooowly, like distant mountains on a long drive.

Bad: Just before their maiden voyage, the engineer comments that without the deflector working, a piece of "space dust" could blow a hole in the ship the size of "your fist".

Good: Again, this is just Good. Space is a vacuum, but not a perfect one. There are bits of dust and gas in space, and at high velocities (faster than light!) they pack quite a wallop. A satellite orbiting the Earth can be destroyed by a meteoroid no bigger than a grain of sand if the relative velocities are high enough (though there are other, more complicated effects involved as well). So the deflectors on board the Enterprise are a good thing, and I'm glad this got mentioned. When we decide to travel to the stars, interstellar debris will be a major hassle.

Bad: On the way to the Klingon world, the Vulcan T'Pol says that the star Rigel is only 15 light years away.

Good: I'll be careful here; this isn't really bad. There is a real star named Rigel. It's a massive supergiant located roughly 800 light years from Earth in the constellation of Orion, much too far away to be the Rigel in the show. However, in the show, they make a point of saying that the word "Rigel" was not translatable from the Klingon language, and must be a proper name. The Vulcan recognizes it as a star. Since Klingon is different from Earth languages, we can assume it's a different star with the same name as the one with which we are familiar.

Actually, I love this. Rigel was used in the original series, so the writers were stuck with the name. But the Rigel we know now isn't likely to have planets! It's too young to have mature planets orbiting it; it's probably only a few million years old. So if you are a writer, what do you do? You just use the word "Rigel" and hang it on a different star. Clever.

For the moment, that's all I have. I am posting this quickly after watching the program, so I may have missed something, and if I did, and I'm sure to get flooded with emails (and so I will ask here that you please don't send me email pointing out some trivia I missed; I thank you, my bandwidth thanks you, and my web host really thanks you). Again, I really liked the show, and after Voyager I am finally looking forward to watching Trek again. I like the rough-and-tumble feel to it, and the idea that Vulcans and humans don't get along well. That's as it should be. It's weird to see such friction with a race that, as viewers, we see now as friends. But given how different they are, I would think the initial contact would have been difficult with them. It took centuries to build the relationship on which Kirk and Spock could build their trust.

I should also mention that there were lots of other instances of good astronomy on the show, but for the sake of brevity I'll leave them out, and just stick with what I did mention.


For more info on the show, you can go to the official Star Trek site, which has the word from The Powers That Be themselves.

Two more good sites for rumors and news are Trek Nation and Trek Today. You can even join the Trek Bulletin Board and discuss the new show. I'll warn you though: set shields to maximum. Lots of flamefests there.

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