Review: Star Trek 2009
Star Trek (2009)
[XP] Starring: Chris Pine (Kirk), Zachary Quinto (Spock), Eric Bana, Simon Pegg (Scotty), Karl Urban (Bones), John Cho (Sulu), Zoe Saldana (Uhura), Bruce Greenwood, Ben Cross, Anton Yelchin (Chekov), Leonard Nimoy (Old Spock), Greg Ellis, Chris Hemsworth
Directed by: J.J. Abrams
Written by: Roberto Orci, Alex Kurtzman
To techno-nerds like us, the characters aboard the starship Enterprise are positively heart warming.  The gorgeous Uhura (Zoe Saldana) is not just a decoration, she's a linguistics-nerd. As an added bonus for Trekies who have tried to figure out her first name for the last 30+ years, she finally reveals it. While the original Chekov mostly provided comic relief--the standard joke: Russians were responsible for all modern inventions--the new Chekov is a charming 17 year-old prodigy who positively exudes enthusiasm as he deftly solves problems during desperate situations. And Scotty, wow is he cool. He's the quintessential engineering nerd, not just a guy who is fascinated by machines but one who does mathematics and solves galaxy-class engineering challenges. Even the ultimate alpha-male Captain Kirk is depicted as a brilliant reject who does the impossible in an otherwise hopeless war game (the Kobayashi Maru) by surreptitiously reprogramming a computer simulation.  

The new Bones is eerily like the real McCoy. He tells Kirk he hates outer space and has only joined Star Fleet because he has just gone through a nasty divorce leaving him stripped to the bone--a conversation that explains the origin of his nick name. (Thank heavens the writers didn't make it some dopy medical reference.)

As for the ultimate techno-nerd Spock, he looks, acts, and sounds like the original. As a child, he was ridiculed and beaten up (familiar nerd experiences) and subsequently rebelled by joining Star Fleet. After Uhura dismisses Kirk's bar room advances, refusing to even tell him her first name, we assume the obvious: Kirk and Uhura are going to get together before the movie ends. So, who gets the girl? Spock! It gives us hope.

Who can forget the TV episode when the old Sulu, under the influence of a space malady, went swashbuckling though the halls of the Starship Enterprise waving a foil about in a menacing manner while failing to inflict harm. It was a moment of comic relief in an otherwise serious scene, not the kind of moment that would convince us Sulu was the man we'd want beside us in a fight.

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Want to learn more about movie physics in Star Trek and find out :
  • how Star Tek compares to Star Wars
  •  what should and shouldn't be done in space battles
  • what it takes to blast off and travel the galaxy
  • the basics of orbiting
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So, what happens when the new Sulu volunteers for a dangerous mission requiring close combat skills? On the way to the mission fellow volunteer Ensign Kirk (not yet proclaimed the boss) asks him what his martial art is. Sulu replies, fencing. However, fencing in this case does not refer to the kind done with a flimsy-looking foil. When the fight begins Sulu unfolds a specially designed Japanese style sword and "fences" with the ferocity of a Ninja. Given Sulu's previous depiction in the TV series, the new fight scene is hilarious.

The physics of the scene are also hilarious. As part of the mission Sulu, Kirk, and another volunteer must space-dive from an orbiting craft down to a platform suspended in the atmosphere above the planet Vulcan. For the sake of analysis we'll assume that Vulcan is similar to Earth. To remain over a fixed point on Earth while orbiting, a spacecraft would need to be traveling at a tangential velocity of 6,900 mph (11,000 kpm) at a height of 22,300 miles (35,900 km) above the surface. Even with the correct height and velocity, it's only possible to remain directly over a fixed point if it's on the equator.

Dive out the bottom of an orbiting spacecraft and nothing would happen. The diver would continue orbiting along with the spacecraft. He would have to abruptly lose his tangential velocity relative to the ground in order to fall to a point on the surface below the spacecraft. This would require a rather large thruster.

Assuming that the targeted platform is no more than 3 miles above the surface and that the problem of orbital velocity is magically solved, the free fall would take around 8 hours and the space-diver would arrive at a speed of around Mach 30--a little stout for a parachute to function properly.

As the space-diver encountered the rarified upper atmosphere, aerodynamic forces would become considerable. Even slight amounts of unbalance in them would cause violent tumbling, enough to serious injury if not tear the space-diver apart. The ejection seat of the highest flying aircraft in the world, the now decommissioned SR-71 Blackbird, was equipped with a small sized drag chute that would deploy shortly after bailout in order to prevent tumbling of this type.

Of course, heating from friction in the atmosphere would make the parachutist look like an incoming meteor. Aerodynamic forces, not to mention high velocity winds in the upper atmosphere would make landing on a small platform incredibly difficult if not impossible.

The edge of outer space is considered to be about 73 miles (118 km) above the surface of Earth. To orbit at this height, a spacecraft would need to be traveling at a speed of 17,500 mph (28,200 kph). Under these conditions, an orbiting spacecraft could not possibly hover over a fixed point. It would be traveling over 27,000 mph (43,500 kph) relative to the ground! In order to hover, a spacecraft  would need to slow down to zero speed relative to the ground and then expend enormous amounts of energy by blasting large amounts mass out its downward thrusters in order to counteract gravity.

The only other way to hover would be by using some form of antigravity capability, based on an as yet unknown principle of physics. If a spacecraft could hover at a height of 73 miles, a space-diver could still not fall straight down. If he fell 70 miles to a 3 mile high platform, His starting tangential velocity would be about 18 mph (30 kph) too low to match the tangential velocity of the platform.

Assuming a space-diver somehow overcome the tangential velocity problem, he would arrive at a three mile high platform in around 3 minutes with a downward speed of over Mach 4--still a demanding situation for opening a parachute and landing on a small target, but maybe doable with 23rd century technology.


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In possibly the worst bailout incident on record, Bill Weaver successfully parachuted to safety with only minor injuries after the SR-71 Blackbird he was flying at Mach 3.2 and an altitude of 14.8 miles (23.8 km) had an engine malfunction, went out of control, and disintegrated. Nevertheless, he was about 58 miles (93 km) below the edge of outer space and traveling significantly slower than Mach 4. Given this data and the fact that the world record height for a parachute jump is only about 20 miles (32 km), a 73 mile jump would definitely be impressive.

The various orbital issues around the space diving scene are reminiscent of early Star Trek TV episodes in which the impulse engines were, for whatever reason, off line and the Enterprise in a decaying orbit. Invariably there were only minutes left to solve the latest mystery and get the engines back on line before burning up in the atmosphere.

Evidently, someone eventually told the writers that using a decaying orbit as a plot device was silly. Later episodes dropped it. Orbits do decay, but the whole point of being in an orbit is that it takes almost no energy to stay there for lengthy periods of time. To remain in continuous contact with an away-team on the surface of a planet, a spaceship would have to be in a synchronous orbit at a height where there was easily no danger of spiraling downward and burning up. 

Lower orbits could be used but would shorten the length of time the spaceship would be overhead in a support position. These orbits would cause the spacecraft to be over the opposite side of the planet for half of the orbit. For example, a craft orbiting only 100 miles above Earth's surface would be on the other side of Earth every 45 minutes for about 45 minutes. During these times sensor or communication systems using any part of the electromagnetic spectrum would be blocked by the planet. In fact, this sensor blocking effect was a plot device in Star Trek 2009. The Enterprise dropped out of warp speed behind Titan, one of Saturn's moons, to keep it from being detected by the Romulan ship they were trying to intercept.

The space-jumpers were attempting to land on a platform suspended far below the Romulan mining ship. From the platform the Romulans were using a mechanism that looks like a cross between a rocket motor and a high energy laser to drill a hole so that a black hole producing bomb could be dropped into the center of the planet. Does the drilling device really need to be in the atmosphere to work?  Why can't it be used from outer space? After all, the bottom two or three miles is where most of the air resides, so if air attenuates the plasma's velocity, the attenuation would be about the same from outer space. As it is drilling, where is all the removed material going? Why is there no lava flowing out of the hole? For that matter, how are they keeping the hole open?

Then there's the cable used to lower the platform. Carbon nanotubes are currently about the strongest material known to science and although no one has as yet made a cable out of them. it is at least conceivable. A 73 mile long, 1.0 inch diameter Carbon nanotube would weigh about 88 tons ( 80 metric tons) but would be able to support a 1000 ton platform with a reasonable factor of safety. Unfortunately, a carbon nanotube cable of such extreme length would stretch like a rubber band. Gently setting a pair of space-divers on the platform would stretch the cable by over a foot (0.3 m). The impact of landing two space-divers, would make the platform bounce up and down. Even in a gentle breeze the platform would swing sideways.

So, how do we know the cable is actually suspending the drilling platform? If the gigantic spacecraft could hover with some type of antigravity device why couldn't the platform have a smaller version of the same device? We know the cable is used for suspending the drilling platform because New Spock eventually attacks it in Old Spock's spacecraft and blasts it in half. The platform subsequently crashes into San Francisco Bay.

A complicated mechanical bounce-preventer and powerful horizontal thrusters with a sophisticated computer control could reduce the cable problems but why go to all that trouble?

The typical "deadly" black hole described in scientific articles has enormous amounts of gravity producing mass in it--equivalent to many times the mass of the Sun (sometimes billions of times the mass of the Sun)--and could  indeed swallow a nearby planet like a moviegoer finishing off a handful of popcorn. But, a black hole seeded with a few grams of mass would be relatively harmless.

For example, if a black hole with of 2200 lb mass (1000 kg mass) suddenly appeared a meter away as you walked down the street, it would pull you toward it with a force of roughly 10-6 lb (5 x 10-6 newtons). In other words, you would not even feel the force. Yes, the 1000 kg black hole would still "eat" nearby matter, but the key word is nearby, very nearby. It would not be capable of drawing in matter from any appreciable distance.

On the other hand the temperature of a black hole is inversely proportional to the mass. While black holes containing billions of times the Sun's mass are near absolute zero, a 1000 kilogram black hole would be far hotter than the surface of the Sun 1. At such temperatures it would evaporate by emitting very short wave length ionizing radiation--the kind that can cause everything from a nasty sunburn to death. For that reason you wouldn't want to stand near it although you would be in no danger of being pulled into it. Fortunately, small black holes will tend to evaporate faster than they grow.

If a black hole bomb were possible, there might be a reason for setting it off at the center of a planet  vs. at its surface. Conceivably, the added pressure and heat at the center might slow the evaporation process enough to allow the small-sized black hole created by the bomb to actually grow. But, even if it worked--and it's doubtful--a small sized black hole would take a considerable amount of time, possibly millions of years, to swallow an entire planet. The idea that a syringe full of "red matter" (if there were such a thing) could implode a planet into a black hole in a matter of minutes is pretty silly.

After losing Vulcan to the black hole bomb, Kirk challenges young Spock's decisions to such an extent that Spock can stand it no more. He subsequently maroons the young Ensign on a frozen planet. While it may have nothing to do with physics, we're left wondering why Kirk isn't confined to his quarters or to the brig. Marooning seems a little harsh especially with no formal process such as a court martial.

As Kirk makes his way toward the planet's lone Federation outpost he's attacked by what looks like an oversized sheep dog with enormous incisors. The oversized sheep dog is then attacked by an even larger red crab/spider beast that then pursues Kirk into a cave where old Spock scares off  the beast by waving a torch at it.

We're left wondering how a frozen wasteland is going to provide sustenance for two major-sized predators. Why did the red crab/spider waste its energy chasing Kirk after it had killed the much larger oversized sheep dog? For that matter, why was the crab/spider red instead of white? It appeared to have an ambush style of hunting prey. Wouldn't it need to be camouflaged?

In our preview of Star Trek 2009, we've already discussed the foolishness of toe-to-toe space battles, fake-looking space explosions, and sound in space but the movie offers up some noteworthy examples. At the beginning of the movie, in the toe-to-toe space battle between the Federation starship USS Kelvin and the much larger Romulan mining ship Narada , the sound track cuts off as we see a hapless soul drifting in space after being swept out of a hole blasted in the ship. It's eerie and for a moment we stared in awe. Then crash, bang, and music, the sound track returned shattering the mood along with our hopes of witnessing a breakthrough in space movie sound tracks.  

During the battle, the smaller craft is so badly damaged it's abandoned by all but acting captain George Kirk (James Kirk's father). The elder Kirk subsequently rams the Kelvin into the larger craft temporarily disabling it while sacrificing himself and the Kelvin in the process. We're left wondering how a starship loaded with antimatter fuel could forcefully collide with another ship and then explode without destroying both. It seems like a MAD (mutually assured destruction) strategy would be a major component of defense against close range attacks.

The final battle basically repeats the strategy of the first but on a lesser scale. This time, after blasting the cable in half and subsequently destroying the drilling rig, new Spock sets his shuttle-sized craft on a collision course with the Romulan ship. He is then beamed aboard the Enterprise. So, how's a collision with an even smaller craft than the one used in the first battle going to destroy the Romulan ship? This time there's an added element: red matter. The collision sets off the remaining red matter creating a black hole that swallows the Romulan ship.

This scene implies there was no need to drill an elaborate hole and set off a red matter-based black hole bomb at the center of a planet. If red matter could create a stable black hole without the temperature and pressures existing deep within a planet then why not just shoot a red matter warhead at the surface and create a black hole there? The black hole would eat its way to the center of the planet where it would have exactly the same effect as one initially created there.

How to Calculate a

Black Hole's Gravity

The equation for calculating the gravity force at a distance from a black hole is as follows:

F = G M m
G = universal gravity constant
    = 6.67310−11 N m2 kg−2
M = mass of planet or black hole
m = mass of an object
r = distance from M's center of mass to m's center of mass
Notice first, force is directly proportional to mass. Black holes with  billions of times the mass of the Sun will create tremendous gravity forces. Second, force is inversely proportional to the square of the distance (r) from the center of the black hole. Hence, a black hole's gravity force approaches infinity as one approaches its center. At a distance of 93 million miles (the distance from the Earth to the Sun) a black hole with a billion times the mass of the Sun would create a force of over 1020 pounds on a person who would weigh 176 pounds (mass = 80 kg) on Earth.

However, if a 176 lb person were standing on Earth and Earth suddenly became a black hole the gravity force it would exert on the person would still be only 176 lb, that is if the person could somehow remain at a distance of Earth's original radius from the black hole.

Could a black hole with Earth's mass still create the gravity forces required to break the chemical bonds that hold materials together and then tear apart the remaining atoms? Yes, but from a much closer distance.



Want to learn more about black holes?

Susskind gives up-to-date information about black holes told through the human story of the physicists who study them. He assumes that the reader has little background in physics and often spends time explaining basic details.

On the other hand, he does include some equations (thank heavens). The more advanced reader can easily skip the elementary stuff and the less advanced reader the equations, making the book a reasonable compromise. We recommend the book as a good place to start learning about black holes.

When the Romulan ship turns into a black hole Kirk has the Enterprise's warp drive cores ejected in order to create a massive explosion that blasts the Enterprise free from the newly formed black hole. Once again, we're left wondering why bother? If the Romulan's ship did not have enough mass to pull the Enterprise into it before becoming a black hole, then it won't have enough to pull it in after becoming a black hole (assuming that the Enterprise is at the same distance).

Finally, there is the matter of time travel. While it's doubtful that time travel into the past could happen let alone in the manner depicted, let's face it, it was a necessary plot device. Without it Star Trek could not be rebooted with different story lines. With devices such as warp drives, transporters, inertial dampers, sub-space communication, hand-held phasers, and so forth Star Trek always did go beyond any known technology or even science when it needed to for the sake of story.

Okay, Star Trek 2009 disappoints in many ways but we still can't help liking it. It gives us a new opportunity to continue the Star Trek adventure, yet remains true to its roots without taking itself too seriously. Its many allusions to various TV episodes are hilarious. We hear the same noises aboard the Enterprise and end the movie with Captain Pike in a wheel chair. True, it's a modification of Pike's original fate 2 in the TV series but retains the flavor and indeed extends the optimism of the original. Likewise, we can't help being optimistic about the future of Star Trek even though we remain skeptical about it's physics.



1. Leonard Susskind, The Black Hole War, 2008, p 160

2.  In the TV series Pike was hideously injured. We saw him as an expressionless head protruding from a boxy wheelchair-like life support system. He could only respond to yes-no questions by blinking a pair of lights.

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