Pique the Geek 20100905: Star Trek Gadgets

(noon – promoted by Nightprowlkitty)

Most of you who read my posts know that I am a big fan of the Gene Roddenberry Star Trek universe of science fiction.  Those of you who do not read my posts as often also know that I am a dedicated fan of Doctor Who.

What you might not know is that both of those TeeVee Series have contributed more that you might not have thought towards our technology as it stands at present.  Well, we do not have a TARDIS just yet, but we have many of the things that Star Trek pioneered.  Tonight we will study just a few of them that are common.

Please stay with us on this trek.  By the way, the term “Star Trek” was NEVER used in the original series, but finally was uttered in the very last installment of Star Trek, The Next Generation, by “Q”.  

But this is not about the series (or rather, the multitude of them) but rather for the devices that we now have on account of it and other science fiction classics.  Several have now been around for years, and others are just now becoming established.  Many readers use one or more every day.

One of the most common devices is the flip cellular telephone.  These were based on the design of the communicators used in the original Star Trek (henceforth referred to as TOS, for The Original Series), and later in Enterprise, the prequel to it.  Interestingly, now that smart phones are coming on strong, we see fewer flip phones these days, but in their heyday they were the most popular of the cellular telephones and millions are still in use.  I still have an old Motorola that continues to function within design parameters.

In the storyline, it was necessary to communicate over vast distances, so Roddenberry made up subspace radio.  This concept allowed information to be exchanged far in excess of the speed of light.  While we do not have subspace radio yet (and likely will not have it, since subspace was just a literary device), we do have quantum entanglement, and it promises to allow information to be transferred essentially instantaneously, in a since at infinite speeds.  Now, this is only a laboratory creation yet, and is only in its rudimentary form at present, but has been demonstrated.  It is possible to “entangle” two particles such that have, for example, one of two possible quantum states.  After entanglement, if the quantum state of one particle is caused to “flip”, then the quantum state in the other ones simultaneously flips as well, regardless of the distance between them, with on time lag.  Whether or not this will pan out for communication remains to be seen, but it does exist.  By the way, Einstein hated ideas like those, calling such phenomenon “spooky action at a distance”.

In Enterprise, a device that looks very much like a Kindle was used just about like those real devices are today.  I wonder if the designers of them got the idea from the show, like the flip phone designers did those many years ago?  I strongly suspect that they did, since lots of geeks enjoy the Star Trek universe.

We are even have and are developing a device similar to the phaser, at least as something like the stun setting goes.  Even the very name of one of the first one of these devices, the Tazer, shows its Trek origins.  However, the Tazer works by shooting darts trailing wires into the target, then discharging a powerful electric shock through them, so it is not a “ray gun” like a phaser.  The Army is developing a true ray gun, however, that serves a function similar to stun.  This device directs microwave radiation towards an individual or a crowd at a frequency that causes the water molecules at the surface of the skin to begin to rotate quickly (just like what happens inside of a microwave oven to cook food).  It turns out that pain sensors in the skin are located at the same place, and people who were test subjects describe the sensation as something akin to being dipped in boiling oil.  This is a true ray gun, albeit not a hand held one (current models are mounted on a truck).  The military claims that this device is designed to disperse ugly crowds during riot or near riot conditions.  This leads me to another point.

Since the days of infantry facing each other and firing muskets in great crowds is long passed, the military value of such device seems to me to be limited.  On the other hand, such a device is ideal for civil use in riots, as I mentioned in the preceding paragraph.  Far more effective than using water cannon, these devices could disperse a crowd over a wide area rather than hitting only one or two individuals at a time.  It does make one wonder.

We also are developing a ray gun that is like a phaser set to disintegrate.  Powerful chemical lasers are being fitted onto aircraft.  Such lasers generate tremendous temperatures when they hit a target, destroying it by vaporizing it, at least in the places where the laser hits, essentially punching through the target and destroying essential components inside it.  Uses include anti aircraft and anti missile applications.

What essentially amounts to Borg technology is being incorporated into warfighter’s helmets today (although as of yet technology implants into the human body are not used, I think).  Such helmets include ocular devices that allow the wearer to distinguish friendly from enemy forces, even in the dark, because of radio telemetry betwixt the friendlies distinguish them with different symbols on the ocular piece, in a sense very much like the Borg collective consciousness.

There are many other devices that we use on a daily basis without even knowing it that were first imagined in science fiction, going all the way back to Wells and Verne.  Of course, computers are an obvious choice, but actually the concept of the computer predates science fiction as we know it.  Computing devices have been used, in the case of the abacus, since ancient times, and the ideas for a modern computer were first put forth in the 17th and 18th centuries, but the technology to make them possible did not exist for a practical machine until the early to mid 20th century.

Some devices that do have their roots in science fiction are robots (although there are historical accounts of robot like devices in the ancient world), but the robots of reality are quite unlike Mr. Data.  Modern robots are essentially devices that are programmed to perform specific actions over and over in environments where human counterparts are either inefficient or would be endangered.  Technically, a robot is a device that is programmed once and performs its functions without human intervention unless an off normal situation occurs.  Examples are the welding robots in automobile manufacturing facilitates and the Roomba vacuum cleaner.  The misuse of the term is common, most recently about the submarine machines that worked on the Deepwater Horizon disaster.  These are not robots at all, but remotely controlled multi tools that are operated by humans in a control room.  Since they are not autonomous, they are not really robots.  Unmanned aircraft like those used in the Afghanistan conflict are also not robots.

One of the most striking TOS devices is the diagnostic bed.  Gene Roddenberry actually got a call from the Navy about his use of it, because they were working on a program that at the time was classified that did many of the same things.  He finally convinced them that he just made it up, but now we have PET, CAT, and MRI scanners that do many of the things that the diagnostic bed did.  None of those would be feasible without digital image processing, not really a Star Trek original, but certainly used in the series.

UPDATE:  It just occurred to me that PET scanners are a real world use of antimatter.  PET stands for positron emission tomography, and the technology works by looking at the gamma photons emitted when the positrons (antimatter) emitted by the imaging medium annihilate electrons in the body.

I think that I will leave it here for tonight.  I would be interested in your thoughts about Star Trek, or other science fiction, devices that have worked their was into real use now.

Well, you have done it again!  You have wasted many more einsteins of perfectly good photons reading this science fiction nonscience.  And even though Jan Brewer develops the ability to conjugate verbs when she reads me say it, I always learn much more than I could possibly hope to teach by writing this series, so keep those comments, questions, corrections, and other thought coming.  Remember, no science or technology issue is off topic here.

Warmest regards,


Featured at TheStarsHollowGazette.com.  Crossposted at Dailykos.com


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  1. for neat things that we have because of science fiction?

    Warmest regards,


  2. There are new kinds of optical and olfactory sensors that can detect radiation, poisonous chemicals, and potentially, with enough discrimination, olfactory sensors can detect certain kinds of diseases in human subjects like cancer and diabetes.

  3. Kit!  I very much appreciate it.

    Now it is time for the bed, or rather, very far past time.  I shall be back with another Geed column and also another Pop one soon.

    Warmest regards,


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