Monday, August 07, 2006

"The Soul of a New Machine"--Part II

Blog #9 by Jeff Greenwald
Author of Future Perfect:
How Star Trek Conquered Planet Earth

Taken from the chapter
"The Soul of a New Machine"

An enormous poster of the Enterprise NCC-1701-D hangs on the office wall, cut away to show the decks. Over the past ten years, Sternbach has made numerous modifications to Probert’s design. He’s also sketched out dozens of smaller Starfleet vehicles, and concocted an armada of alien battleships, shuttle craft and cruisers. As challenging as it is, he admits, it’s nowhere near as tough as the real thing.

“Designing real spaceships is for people with real mathematical and engineering backgrounds,” says Sternbach—-who, Okuda jokes, ‘has probably designed more starships than any other person in history.’ “We’re safe because there are no peer reviews. There are no wind-tunnels. You can’t test the Enterprise to destruction.”

Ratings, however, do act as a kind of peer review. If the starship didn’t hold together visually and conceptually, it would’ve been blown off the air years ago. In some ways, the original Enterprise had it easy; it flew in the 1960s, before the era of personal computers. In the world of Pentium processors and Zip drives, technical credibility is a must.

“We could, of course, come up with things the audience couldn’t really identify with,” Sternbach observes. “Driving the ship by brain waves, for example. But we don’t. Instead we jump way ahead—-then step back a few paces.”

Since most of the action aboard the ship takes place on the Main Bridge, one key to the Enterprise’s success lies in its visual displays: the consoles and blinking screens that summarize information about the ship’s tactical, scientific and environmental status. All of these, along with the video clips appearing on the ship’s monitors, are Okuda’s brainchildren. His style is so distinct, in fact, that the graphics are called “Okudagrams.”

“One can easily imagine control panels a hundred times more complicated,” he says, unrolling a large transparency that, backlit on the bridge, will serve as one of the Enterprise’s computer consoles. “What I’m trying to imply here, by these sweeping curves and clear lines of organization, is that Starfleet has put an enormous amount of thought into figuring things out. Each task has been broken down into highly simplified steps. The software reconfigures itself to relate to what you’re dealing with now: the computer knows what you want to do before you know you want to do it.”

…The tendency of life to imitate art is one of the most uncanny aspects of the Star Trek universe. The Holodeck, a virtual reality playground that crew members use for everything from martial arts training to erotic distraction, may still be a century away, but some of the original series’ gizmos-—like transdermal hyposprays and folding cellular “communicators”—-are already in common use. A Canadian firm has developed the first working Tricorder, and Apple Computers-—directly inspired by Star Trek-—has come up with a version of the PADD (Personal Access Display Device): a palmtop computer used by Starfleet personnel.

“When Rick first designed the PADD my reaction was, ‘Shouldn’t this have more buttons?’“ Okuda laughs. “Then we saw the prototype Newton, and I said, “ buttons!’“

Such situations also beg the question of obsolescence: a broad sand trap when you’re designing a starship that won’t be launched for another four centuries.

“We try to stay reasonably well informed of things that are likely to happen in the next five, 10 or 20 years,” Okuda says. “But at the same time, a lot of the [Enterprise’s] computer systems are archaic, even now.”

The key to staying on top of things, Okuda and Sternbach have realized, is anchoring the foundations of the 24th century in cutting-edge theory. Although the show is filled with wild terms-—wormholes, antimatter streams and dilithium crystals (see the Star Trek: The Next Generation Technical Manual for details)-—the physics behind them is impressively robust. Technical consultants have included Dr. Robert Forward, widely known for his “hard” science fiction; Dr. Robert Bussard, who came up with the concept of harvesting interstellar gases as starship fuel; and Dr. Gregory Benford, a scientist and sci-fi writer at the University of California at Irvine. British astrophysicist Stephen Hawking not only contributed the forward to Lawrence Krauss’ The Physics of Star Trek; he starred as a poker-playing hologram in a TNG episode called “Descent.”

“A lot of the engineering inspirations come from G. Harry Stine, a former White Sands missile engineer,” adds Sternbach. “He’s got a very practical view of large aerospace projects. It’s a very long design process. In some cases, you have to order materials five years before you start cutting parts. That’s why, as per the Manual, constructing a Galaxy Class Starship-—like the Enterprise 1701-E appearing in First Contact-—is a 20-year effort. Even with fabulous, computer-assisted systems, it would take longer than one would believe.”

One of the most impressive things about Sternbach and Okuda is their command of fictional physics. They can lecture for hours about warp drive, list the sixteen power settings of Type II and III phasers, and explain how Romulans drive their ships with quantum singularities. It sounds very convincing. In fact, it sounds inevitable. But are there some technical aspects of the show that, given the laws of physics, will never be possible?

“‘Never’—-as Arthur C. Clarke would say—-‘is a term you want to stay away from.’” Okuda grins. “But there are things like the transporter, which is essentially a molecular fax machine....”

“Superluminal [faster-than-light] travel may never come to pass,” Sternbach concedes. “And the replicator is another magic box. But I think that seeing these things, week after week, is a tribute to the potential ingenuity of future generations. And if we don’t do exactly those things—well, we may do other things that are just as magical.”

Look for part III of Greenwald's "The Soul of a New Machine" tomorrow. We are also excited to announce that Arthur C. Clarke (who was mentioned in today's blog) has submitted an essay that will be posted (with photos) as our 40th entry on 9/7 and will be read at the 40th anniversary gala celebration at the Space Needle on 9/8!


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