Einstein and Star Trek: A relationship light years in the making
From cameos to scientific theories, Einstein has had a recurring role in the history of the popular science fiction franchise.
On April 18, 1955, in his adopted hometown of Princeton, N.J., the renowned physicist Albert Einstein passed away from a ruptured aneurysm. His intellectual breakthroughs over the course of his lifetime, from atomic energy to space and time, would ripple forward to impact modern technologies like cellphones, computers and even Jell-O. In pop culture, he would provide the inspiration behind Yoda from the "Star Wars,", Doc Brown's dog from "Back to the Future" and countless other cameos and mentions in films, music and comic books.
"The interest in Einstein does not fade into history," Gutfreund told us by phone from Israel. "If anything, if one can say anything about this, the interest in Einstein increases with time. It's greater now."
It's the science fiction franchise "Star Trek," more than any other, where Einstein's legacy has enjoyed some recurring adoration. Below are just a handful of instances where the legendary physicist or his groundbreaking theories were incorporated in the mission "to boldly go where no man has gone before."
An 'illuminating' poker game
One of the more memorable "Next Generation" episodes featured the android Data using the Enterprise's Holodeck to play a game of poker with virtual representations of Sir Isaac Newton, Albert Einstein, and (a very real) Stephen Hawking.
Hawking, 52 at the time of the episode's airing in 1993, gets in some particularly funny lines. When Newton starts to ramble on about how he discovered gravity, Hawking bemoans with his computer-aided voice, "Not the apple story again!" Later, after both Newton and Data have folded, a confident Einstein turns to Hawking in a last-ditch attempt to rattle his opponent.
"The Uncertainty Principle will not help you now, Stephen," says Einstein. "All the quantum fluctuations in the universe will not change the cards in your hand. I call! You are bluffing! And you will lose!"
Hawking throws down his winning cards and exclaims "Wrong again, Albert!"
A great scene and, we might add, a rather excellent portrayal of Einstein by Irish actor Jim Norton.
Working out some quantum electrodynamic calculations
After "Next Generation" crew member Reginald Barclay accidentally comes in contact with an alien probe, he discovers that his intelligence has been greatly enhanced. This leads to all sorts of new thoughts on scientific theories and, naturally, he decides to hold a Holodeck meeting with a virtual Albert Einstein to talk through them all. A great scene – even if we have no idea what in the world they're talking about.
Warp speed and the theory of relativity
Could the warp drive technology that enables ships in "Star Trek" to effortlessly pass from one galaxy to the next one day become a reality? According to some physicists, the answer is a surprising "maybe."
"The idea is that you take a chunk of space-time and move it," Marc Millis, former head of NASA's Breakthrough Propulsion Physics Project, told Space.com. "The vehicle inside that bubble thinks that it's not moving at all. It's the space-time that's moving."
While Einstein's special theory of relativity says nothing can exceed the speed of light, bending space-time could provide an answer to overcoming this barrier.
"The big problem we have, the speed of light, while fast – 300,000 kilometers per second – the distances involved are immense, so even traveling at the speed of light, it would take four years to go to the nearest star and 2 million years to go to the nearest large galaxy," Australian astrophysicist Professor Geraint Lewis told ABC. "[These distances] would stop you colonizing the universe ... so you would need some sort of way to beat that speed limit, and Einstein's theory of relativity gives it to you."
The big problem, according to Professor Lewis, is figuring out how to gather enough "negative density energy" to bend space-time and produce the needed "warp bubble" to achieve faster-than-light speeds. Nonetheless, he remains adamant that it's not a completely impossible technology.
"Einstein's theory is already a hundred years old, but we have only started to scratch the surface," he added.
The Flight of the Albert Einstein
In 1991, DC Comics released a new "Star Trek" mini-series, with the first comic called "The Flight of the Albert Einstein." The story, which would eventually be collected in a paperback called "The Star Lost," focused on the USS Enterprise's efforts to save two planetary colonies beset by a deadly plague.
After entering the star system, the Enterprise decides to split its resources – sending the main vessel to assist one planet and a shuttlecraft, the "Albert Einstein," to help another. Unfortunately, on the Einstein's return trip to the Enterprise, it encounters a "a massive spatial anomaly and is violently flung to the other end of the galaxy." To make matters worse, the Einstein's "Stardrive System" has been destroyed. Will the crew find their way back to the Enterprise?
He destroyed the planet Vulcan
Full disclaimer: Einstein didn't actually destroy the fictional world of the alien Spock. But, he did wipe out the supposed existence of what may have been its real-life inspiration.
Back in 1859, a French mathematician named Urbain Le Verrier decided that the bizarre wobble in Mercury's orbit around the sun was likely caused by a rogue phantom planet he called "Vulcan." In the decades that followed, no one could prove the planet existed, but there was no other real viable option to account for the strange gravitation pull on Mercury. It wasn't until 1916, when Einstein published his "General Theory of Relativity," that the idea of the planet Vulcan would be dismissed.
"In it, space and time is a fabric," explains American astrophysicist Neil deGrasse Tyson in the above video. "And gravity is not the force between two objects, gravity is the shape of that fabric. And bodies move according to where that shape tells you to go. And when you factor in all the tenants of relativity, what we found is that Mercury was following the severely curved fabric of space and time in the vicinity of the extremely significant and strong source of gravity that is the sun."
Einstein: mic drop.
Live Long and Prosper
Despite passing away more than 10 years before the first episode of "Star Trek" would air, it's safe to assume that Einstein would have been a big fan of the series. In fact, when it comes to creativity, Einstein is reported to have made imagination a cornerstone recommendation for a child's education.
"If you want your children to be intelligent, read them fairy tales," he told one mother seeking advice for her son. "If you want them to be very intelligent, read them more fairy tales."
Despite the mother's initial hesitation at this response, Einstein persisted, adding that "creative imagination is the essential element in the intellectual equipment of the true scientist, and that fairy tales are the childhood stimulus to this quality."
Had he lived to see "Star Trek" premiere on September 8, 1966, there's no doubt that Einstein would have instantly become a celebrated Trekkie.
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