written by Tim Farley
originally published in Stardate 18, March 1983
The scientific and technical aspects of Star Trek have provoked a great deal of fan commentary over the years. Indeed, many fans have become attracted to Trek and its fandom by this technology, though they may later come to appreciate other aspects of the series as well. Because of this, technical "bloopers" and scientific impossibilities in Trek are often debated among fans.
One of the most common of these "bloopers" pointed out, perhaps even more so than the impossibilities of faster-than-light travel, are the accelerations felt by the crew during space battle scenes. Admittedly, these battle scenes would be impossibly dull if the viewer were given no tangible evidence of the peril in which our heroes find themselves, but are these excessive gyrations realistic? Why hasn't Ralph Nader's great-nth grandson forced Starfleet to install seatbelts on starships?
Typically, writers like David Gerrold and Mark Andrew Golding have pointed out this apparent inconsistency as an exception to the general rule of scientific accuracy in Star Trek stories. They also point out that it is a situation in which the drama of the situation dictated the violation of physical laws for the sake of an effect. It is often stated that a shock wave which would cause such an effect could not be transmitted in the vacuum of space. Additionally, the ships apparent total lack of precautions against these events is criticized.
It is fun to criticize that which you love, but are all these objections justified? Why can't people fallout of their chairs on the bridge, without the immediate result being laughter? Let's take a new look at accelerations on board ship, and see whether or not these events are plausible.
Obviously, the ship travels at tremendous speeds while in warp drive. If it did not, we would never get to the story each week in any reasonable amount of time. Since the ship also spends other times at rest, or in orbit, obviously a great deal of acceleration and deceleration is done during the course of the average mission. If the Enterprise's journeys are as extensive as we are led to believe, it must reach speeds on the order of one million times the speed of light. And yet, the ship reaches maximum speed during a typical acceleration scene in just a few short moments. This means that the vessel is undergoing accelerations on the order of millions or billions of times what one might feel while accelerating in a car. (Unless, of course, you are riding with Randy). Obviously, the warp drive is not "inertia-less", like some proposed faster-than-light engines, since the bridge crew does react somewhat during accelerations. So, somehow, these incredible acceleration effects, which would instantly crush a normal Human if left unchecked, must be somehow minimized.
How do we compensate for such tremendous forces? Well, since we already know that the Federation has gravity control, we can apply this technology to our problem. One of the things Einstein found, was that the effect of a gravitational field and the effect of an acceleration are exactly analogous. A man standing in a windowless elevator accelerating upward would have no way to determine whether the force pulling him to the floor was caused by gravity, or by an acceleration. Likewise, persons in an airplane accelerating rapidly downward feel "weightless"-gravity has been "counteracted" by an acceleration. We shall merely apply the reverse, and counteract an acceleration with gravity!
In addition to the devices which generate gravity perpendicular to the decks of the ship, there must then be devices which generate them parallel to the decks. This would be the ships "inertia dampening system," as it would damp out, or minimize, the effects of inertia on the crew. Whenever the ship accelerates in one direction, this system produces a corresponding gravity field in the opposite direction, and everyone on board feels fine. The operation of this would be tied to the engines, and only when extreme accelerations were demanded would slight inefficiencies cause the crew to feel some effect.
Critics argue that such a system should solve any problem with onboard accelerations during battles. But, as I said, the effect must be synchronized to operate. This is the key to the problem. Phaser beams, photon torpedoes, etc., are highly complex weapons. Tremendous amounts of energy must be expended by the deflectors to ward off such weapons. Even with near misses, these weapons could be capable of producing effects on the ship either through some application of mini-tractor beams (to "shake" or "rattle" the ship) or through expanding material in an explosion. We know that the deflectors incorporate some sort of sensing device, since they will turn themselves on when danger approaches, and Spock once stated ("Where No Man Has Gone Before") that they sometimes "say that something is there" even when the sensors miss it. Thus, the deflectors must sense attacks, and react accordingly. This is most convenient, as it allows them to control the inertia dampening system on board, and use it to minimize the on board effects of a hit.
Obviously, this system would not be perfect. Weapons of all sorts are notorious for their unpredictability. And, of course, scientists are always developing new and better weapons. So, the inertial dampening system will often be just a little off, even when the deflectors are operating at optimum. Not to mention the times when a hit causes power loss (the familiar dimming of lights on the bridge), when the system would be even more inefficient. Thus, the accelerations felt during a battle do not even have to come close to those felt during use of the warp drivethe essential unpredictability of weapons used against the ship, combined with the stresses put on the combined deflector/inertia dampening system should easily conspire to toss the bridge crew on their behinds with alarming regularity.
As we saw in my article, "Changes in the Technology of Star Trek," technology in the Trek universe is in a constant state of innovation, just as it is today. The battle to keep the crew seated and upright must be a continuing one. One would suppose that the ship would be outfitted, at the beginning of its mission, to protect the crew with the inertial dampening system to the point that seat belts (and chairs that are fixed to the floor!) are not considered necessary. Advances in the weaponry of the enemy during the course of a mission could cause some nasty bruises, as the equipment on board becomes more and more out of date. With technology changing at such an exponential rate, this battle must be one of days and weeks, rather than of months and years. So, it is not surprising that at any given moment, some enemy has weaponry that can outguess the current inertia dampening system of the ship, and bounce the bridge crew on the floor. Indeed, it may be possible that the main purpose of such weapons is to injure the crew in just that way, rather than damage the ship itself!
One would imagine that a great deal (perhaps a majority) of the weapons research that goes on in Starfleet concerns itself with this matter. As long as starships continue to be crewed by fragile Human (or humanoid) beings, this will be an important matter. Perhaps the Federation is very lucky that they have not yet met an enemy that far outmatches their technology in this area, as of yet.
I think that Starfleet was a trifle optimistic in not providing seat belts in the first place, thinking the inertial dampening system would be enough. (Or, perhaps, the starship class vessel was not originally designed to be a warship). Maybe there were budget cuts when the Enterprise was being outfitted. Who knows? At least they seem to have sobered up a bit on this matter now that Trek is on the wide screen, although there are still unprotected crew persons on the bridge.
In any case, we have seen that, given an inertial dampening system that applies a known Federation technology to a nagging problem in spaceflight, it is indeed logical for people to fallout of their chairs. Certainly, shock waves and other terrestrial phenomena are totally out of place in a space battle, but weapons can be easily imagined which would produce such effects on this ship without violating scientific sensibilities. So, our hapless space travelers can continue their long tradition of falling onto the floor at every available circumstance without fear of reproach. It certainly makes for some exciting storiesbut, oh, those decks are hard!
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