Thursday, February 26, 2009

Research Reading

I read for pleasure, for work, and for research. If I am lucky, I manage to blend all three of those, but more often than not, I only manage one or two at a time.

A while back, I read a book which combined pleasure and research, The Physics of Star Trek. I was only a decade old when the original Star Trek first came on television, and it remains a favorite, even though I realize that it was and is far from being cutting edge science fiction. However, such books as The Making of Star Trek and The World of Star Trek helped me understand that sometimes the writers and directors of TOS were constrained by the economic resources and special effects available in the mid sixties. Later Trek series and movies were able to move past some of those constraints, but once the rules of the Trek universe were set, even larger budgets and digital f/x have had to please the fan base. Sometimes the science in this science fiction holds up and sometimes it does not.

Since I am no scientist, I often don't understand what is real, what could be real, and what is just plain bogus. But, Lawrence Krauss's The Physics of Star Trek does a good job of explaining that, and it certainly illuminates many scientific principles along the way. As a fan, I enjoyed this book quite a lot. However, it was more than a fun read, it was also research for science fiction writing. In the early chapters of Trinity on Tylos, my spacefaring characters depend on inertial dampeners to keep them from going splat against the bulkhead when the ship moves at ultra fast speeds. That concept was one that I took from Krauss's book.

Other principles and concepts that he analyses include discussions of such Trek technology as warp drives, transporter beams, and the holodeck which was the scene of so many great episodes of Star Trek; The Next Generation. My favorite chapter, entitled The Most Bang for Your Buck, discusses the physics of antimatter drives. Apart from my actually understanding more of this chapter, it is also practical for writers of space opera. Somehow an author must get those ships moving rapidly through the universe or the settings and therefore the plot may be as static as the ships.

The Physics of Star Trek is entertaining, but not necessarily an easy read. Some of the scientific principles in it do take more thought than a casual read, but Krauss's style and frequent references to Trek episodes make this far more palatable than a textbook version of physics.

I do recommend this one for fans of Star Trek and anyone interested in understanding the physics of science fiction in print and on the screen.

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