So, by now, we’ve all seen Star Trek Into Darkness. Some of us loved it, some of us hated it, some of us said, “meh.” But, forget about what you thought of the movie for a second. What did you think of the science? Let’s take a more in depth look at some of the most sciencey moments from STID. It goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyways, that this review contains SPOILERS!!!
[WARNING: SPOILERS AHEAD]
Into the Volcano
The Nibiru volcano scene was revealed in the IMAX preview of STID last December. We basically saw the entire scene back then, but there are a few points that I didn’t catch the first time around that I’ll touch on here.
Spock takes a stroll in the Nibiru volcano
The look and feel of the volcano is pretty spot on
For the most part, they get this part right. Speaking as a volcanologist who loves to nitpick geology scenes in movies, there is not much for me to gripe about in Into Darkness. Of course, the visual artists did dramatize the scene a bit, but for everything they got wrong there’s another detail they got right.
What was wrong visually? I can tell you from experience that the inside of an active volcano doesn’t look quite like what we saw in STID. The biggest flaw? Flames. Too much fire and brimstone. Yes, volcanoes produce hot steam, ash, and magma, but what’s depicted in STID looks more like a forest fire — embers and flames swirling around Spock. Again, this is a somewhat minor point, so it’s forgivable.
The visual details that are spot on. The geologist in me was giggling with joy when she saw Spock standing atop real lava! The ropey, black rock beneath Spock’s feet is really something that came out of a volcano: a type of lava rock called Pahoehoe. And, if one was to flash freeze molten volcanic rock as Spock’s “cold fusion device” did, it’d look a lot like what we saw on screen: jet black volcanic glass. The best part of the volcano, though, was the bubble burst. A gigantic bubble of gas rose through the lava lake and formed a huge dome of lava that loomed far above Spock’s head. The pressure built up inside the bubble until it burst open, sending bits of molten rock flying in one large catastrophic explosion. That is EXACTLY what happens in real lava lakes.
Spock in a seriously cool looking volcano
BONUS: Fumaroles on a nearby planetoid! Recall the scene where Carol Marcus and Bones shuttle down to a nearby planetoid to have a go at diffusing of the mysterious photon torpedoes. What you probably didn’t realize was that this was a “volcanic” scene, too! My eyes immediately jumped to the flat plain of lava rock (scoria, a type of basaltic volcanic rock) where Carol and Bones were fiddling with the torpedo. In the background was a beautifully rendered fumarole – a crack in the ground where volcanic gasses escape into the atmosphere. The look and feel of the scene was completely scientifically realistic. What’s even better is that it felt like a barren, vast, wasteland. No vegetation, no animal life. This made it really feel like some small volcanic moon or “planetoid”. I’ll go out on a limb here and say this is in my opinion the most realistic looking planetary body I’ve ever seen in a movie. Props to the visual artists! Below is a couple of examples of real world locations reminiscent of the torpedo disarming scene in Into Darkness.
Volcanic plains resembling the torpedo disarming scene in Into Darkness
Verdict: The visuals were great. The volcano looked more realistic than any film I’ve seen, minus the swirling embers.
What a real volcano looks like
The science behind the volcano: Oh so close, but not quite right
We cannot take the heat, cap’n! Here’s where the volcano scene took a turn for the less believable. Both Sulu and Scotty suggest that the heat from the volcano is too much for the shuttle or the Enterprise to withstand. Huh? Let’s count the logical fallacies, shall we?
- Spock’s volcano suit. How is it that a human(oid) in a special suit can stand INSIDE OF THE VOLCANO literally feet from the lava, but a shuttlecraft (or, heck, the Enterprise herself!) cannot withstand the heat? Are we really supposed to believe that Spock’s magical volcano suit is made out of stronger stuff than starships? Why not make the whole ship out of that suit, then??
- We’ve seen starships like the Enterprise or even shuttlecraft fly through much hotter places than a volcano. Just entering the planet’s atmosphere would subject the Enterprise to temperature of around 3000 °F (1650 °C), which is hotter than the hottest lava on Earth’s surface, typically around 2200 °F (1200 °C). But, even crazier, we’ve seen shuttles and starships fly very close to suns, which are more like 8000 °F (4500 °C). I think big E would be able to handle a little old volcano, don’t you?
Let’s get even more sciencey. The graph below shows the temperature experienced by a Space Shuttle orbiter on reentry to Earth’s atmosphere. The hottest lava on Earth is around 2200 °F. The Space Shuttle, the first flight of which was in 1981 can withstand temperature of up to 2500 °F. Nineteen Eighty One. In 200 years, I hope we will have advanced far beyond even that!
How they could have made this right, while keeping the stakes high for Spock and the crew. Sulu has one line that I wish they’d have played up more in this scene. He mentions that the ash from the volcano is getting into the shuttle’s systems and causing all kinds of damage. THIS is extremely plausible! Volcanic ash is very corrosive, especially to electronics. And, it interferes with air intake systems in engines, which is why airplanes can’t fly through volcanic ash clouds here on Earth. This would have been the scientifically accurate reason that the shuttle was struggling, and why it’d be dangerous to take the Enterprise in. I’m not sure why anyone mentioned the heat being a problem at all.
Verdict: The heat would NOT cause any problems for a shuttle or a starship. They should have used volcanic ash as an excuse.
How ash can damage airplanes (and maybe shuttlecraft, too)
Spock’s Planet Saving, Volcano Stopping “Device”. Here’s where things get really hairy. Spock has some device capable of stopping a volcano. You know what? It’s the beginning of the movie, things are pretty crazy, so as a moviegoer I’m going to go ahead and accept that humans have developed the technology to somehow “render a volcano inert”. But, the geologist inside of me wouldn’t let it stand when we saw how the thing worked. As said above, the visual was very cool and quite realistic — if one were to “flash freeze” some lava, it woud turn into exactly what we saw. But, flash freezing lava in a volcanic crater would not, by any means, stop a volcano from erupting.
Volcanoes are essentially surface expressions of the deep, churning earth. It’s where our planet is turning itself inside out — the very hot, very pressurized molten rock living deep in the Earth’s crust (and sometimes even below the crust) finds its way to the surface in a grand explosion of fire and light. Freezing the top layer of lava at an erupting volcano is like putting the lid on a pressure cooker turned to 11. The pressure beneath that lid is just going to build up until that volcano erupts even more explosively than it otherwise would have. Of course, sci-fi caveat, one could assume that the device somehow managed to penetrate all the way down (we’re talking 10’s of kilometers deep) to the source of the volcano and freeze it from the inside out, but I just have a very hard time believing that.
Spock, get your volcano suit on. We need you to detonate a cold fusion device inside an active volcanic crater.
The NIF Warp Core
One of the aspects of the film that I really enjoyed, and not everyone will agree with me on this, was the warp core. Particularly, the shots of the outside of the warp core, which were all filmed at a real life science facility: The National Ignition Facility at the Lawrence Livermore National Lab in California. When I imagine what a starship’s engine room should look like, I certainly don’t imagine this. I imagine a massive piece of equipment that looks like something that could accelerate particles fast enough to create anti-matter. Something thats so massive and complex, it is essentially built into the ship itself. In modern facilities, instruments like particle colliders are a part of the building in which they reside — it’s not like wheeling a computer into the middle of a room.
Some have argued that the NIF warp core feels too modern; that we would be miles beyond that kind of technology by the time Starfleet is around. But, I’m not so sure. Warp cores are essentially gigantic particle colliders that can store massive amounts of antimatter and use it to power the ship. Why wouldn’t a warp core of the future to some degree resemble their 21st century ancestors? Besides, maybe this scene will encourage a few kids to learn about particle physics, and that’s just fine by me.
Verdict: Up for debate
Another of the many scenes filmed at the NIF
Transwarp Beaming: A forgivable plot device?
In Star Trek (2009), we are introduced to Scotty’s magical transwarp beaming technology. Yes, Scotty invents a way to beam from place to place across insane distances while at warp. This, if you remember, is how Kirk gets back onto the Enterprise. Okay, so it doesn’t work perfectly (Scotty ends up inside one of the water tubes in the engine room), but it works. Enter Into Darkness. Khan needs a way to get from Earth to Kronos, and he’s on the lam so he doesn’t have access to a starship. Khan is also involved in Section 31, the secret agency within Starfleet who, we’re told, confiscated Scotty’s transwarp equation. That’s how Khan was able to beam over to Kronos. Thanks, at least, for being internally consistent with the 2009 film, but I still have to point to this as a totally unrealistic plot device, which moreover makes it way too easy for our heroes to get around. What’s the point of a fleet of starships when we can simply beam across light years?
It’s hard to comment on the real life science of the transwarp long-distance beaming, since to beam a person even a short distance with today’s knowledge of physics would cost unimaginable computing power, and the reassembly of a human being would require the energy input equivalent to about 3,200 suns. So, yeah, transporter technology’s not in the near future. But, this transwarp thing isn’t even good Trek science. It’s not even good writing! It just makes it far too easy. It was a forgivable plot device in the first film, but let’s just forget it ever happened and move on. Otherwise, we might as well scrap the fleet and just beam everywhere.
Verdict: A poor plot device. Not internally consistent with other Trek technology
Transwarp beaming in Star Trek (2009)
Ludicrous Speed! Travel to Kronos in minutes!
This is one movie “mistake” that almost everyone I’ve talked to, scientist or not, has picked up on. Kronos (or Qo’noS), the Klingon home world, may be relatively close to Earth, but according to the pilot episode “Broken Bow” of Star Trek: Enterprise, Kronos is about 4 days away from Earth at warp 4.5. In a later Enterprise episode, “Two Days and Two Nights”, it was established that this was around 90 lightyears from Earth, as that is the farthest distance anyone had traveled up to that point. In Into Darkness, the Enterprise apparently travels at Ludicrous Speed and somehow manages to reach Kronos (and get back to Earth from Kronos) in what seems like only a few hours.
Verdict: Another poor plot device that defeats the idea of the Final Frontier.
They’ve gone to plaid…
Pointing out what’s wrong (or right!) with the science of Trek might seem like pointless nit picking. But, that’s what we Trekkies do best, and having a meticulous community with such attention to detail means that we demand a certain standard from the people who create new stories that fit within the Star Trek universe. There are volumes dedicated to establishing what is “canon” in Trek, something fairly unique to our franchise. But, the Transwarp long-distance beaming and the ability of a starship to travel at Ludicrous Speed are two things that transcend nit picking. There are multiple references in the movie about “deep space” and the upcoming five year mission of the USS Enterprise. But, if you have ships going from Earth to Kronos in a matter of minutes then there is no “Deep Space” within the galaxy. And, going back to Trek canon, it essentially wipes out the premise of Star Trek: Voyager and most of Deep Space Nine (who needs wormholes?). More to the point, these two seemingly harmless plot devices completely dismiss the idea of the Final Frontier. The Enterprise and her crew are taking a risk when they are out there exploring the unknown, days or even months from home or the closest reinforcements. It’s what makes Trek work as a “western in space”. Without that peril, that feeling of isolation, you loose one of the things so intrinsically interesting to the exploration of space: the vastness of space itself.
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