ST-INS@10: The Science of Star Trek Insurrection

This week TrekMovie is celebrating the 10th anniversary of Star Trek: Insurrection. So, put your thinking caps on, and get ready for a very special Insurrection edition of our weekly science column. Have you ever wanted to know how the cloaking devices work, or what makes those Ba’ku metaphasic rings so very metaphasic? Well grab a seat. Here’s your chance to delve into the theoretical science of Star Trek: Insurrection!

Cloaking Technology
Several forms of cloaking devices were seen in Insurrection. At the start of the movie, we see federation officers in cloaking suits scouting around the Ba’ku village. Later, we see the Son’a holoship, which is being cloaked in a lake near the village. (*Side note: I thought the Federation wasn’t supposed to develop cloaking technology pursuant to the Romulan treaty? Oh well, we’ll ignore that…) Cloaking technology is an area of active research today, so the idea that we will one day be able to cloak people, and even large ships, is not totally impractical. A new technology being developed called transformation optics may be responsible for the first true breakthrough in cloaking technology.

Vladimir Shalaev is among a team of scientists who are developing this field.

“Transformation optics is a new way of manipulating and controlling light at all distances, from the macro- to the nanoscale, and it represents a new paradigm for the science .”of light,” Shalaev said. “Although there were early works that helped to develop the basis for transformation optics, the field was only recently established

Current optical technologies are limited because, for the efficient control of light, components cannot be smaller than the size of the wavelengths of light. Transformation optics sidesteps this limitation using a new class of materials, or metamaterials, which are able to guide and control light on all scales. It might not be long before you’ll have to worry about invisible spies after all! Who knows… they could be watching you right now…

Federation spies sneaking about the Ba’ku village

How real cloak technology works!

The Briar Patch
Contributed by our resident star formation expert, Andrew Britton
The Ba’ku planet is located in an area nicknamed The Briar Patch due to it’s abundance of “unexplained anomalies”. So, we have a planet located in the middle of a dangerous interstellar medium of gas and dust (the Briar Patch). Although some nebulae are areas of intense star formation, where it would be likely to find a lot of stars, what we see of the Ba’ku system just isn’t realistic. The first time we see the planet, a Son’a ship bursts through the nebular clouds and immediately takes orbit. When stars form they gain the ability to produce strong solar winds pushing and ionizing all gas within reach of its corona. A star inside of a nebula would be relatively isolated in it’s own little pocket not occupied by gas and dust. Additionally, there is never any mention of any other planets in the Ba’ku system. The formation of a single planet is very unlikely, especially with all that dense material around that the Federation and Son’a ships have to navigate through. The more material around, the more likely it is for that material to condense into planets. However, maybe all of that extra material was condensed during the creation of the Ba’ku planet itself and what was left over was floating around the planet’s Roche limit, creating the metaphasic rings. Speaking of other planets, where is the Ba’ku sun? We know it's there (Geordi even mentions it directly when watching the "sunrise"), but we never ever see the darn thing.

The infamous Briar Patch

The real Rosette nebula

Metaphasic Radiation
Metaphasic radiation in the Ba’ku planet’s rings is said to be the mechanism responsible for the everlasting life of the planet’s inhabitants. Although metaphasic radiation is not something us humans have discovered (yet), the idea of a constantly regenerating the DNA may be based on what is called “metaphase”. Metaphase, from the ancient Greek μετά (after) and φάσις (stage), is a stage of mitosis — the process of one cell splitting into two. During metaphase, all of the pieces needed to split the cell must become aligned before the cell can pass into the next phase, anaphase. It is thought that unattached or improperly attached pieces may generate a signal to prevent premature progression into anaphase. One could speculate that “metaphasic radiation” from the planet’s rings may send out this signal and cause the cells of those on the surface to never move beyond metaphase, preventing cellular degradation. Of course, this is purely speculation. Now, what causes these metaphasic particles to be in the rings? Okay, you’ve got me there. But, in my defense, even Starfleet’s finest couldn’t figure that one out.

The Ba’ku planet and its metaphasic rings

Image of an actual cell undergoing metaphase

The Riker Maneuver
During the film Riker saves the day by using the bussard collectors of teh Enterprise to collect gas from the Briar Patch and then igniting it, destroying the pursuing enemy. This is actually something that is pretty hard to poke holes in (or confirm for that matter), as the writers used some nice sci-fi plot devices to cover themselves. For example, Adm. Dougherty tells Picard that the Briar Patch contains all kinds of anomalies that they haven't even identified yet. Okay, so even Starfleet can't even make heads or tails of this area. With that one sentence, it makes it hard to assess the real life plausibility of the Riker Maneuver, since we have absolutely no details on what exactly the gasses are composed of. Any statement you make has to make way to many assumptions to be a sound argument. That being said, I don't think that it would be impossible to enact Riker's maneuver. He collected some essentially flammable gas, shot it out at the bad guys, and let them blow themselves up. That principle would work on Earth; why not in space?

The ol' ignite the gas trick

Sound in Space!
This just wouldn’t be a scientific review of any space movie without the obligatory “sound in space” argument. Most of us know that sound does not travel through space. Sound, being simply a type of compressional wave, needs some medium to travel through. When you speak, you push air out of your mouth in waves. These waves travel through the air in a room to reach the listener’s ear drum which translates those wave patterns into what we perceive as sound. This just isn’t possible in the vacuum of space. But, of course, we hear the Enterprise whooshing by, weapons fire, and tons of explosions all the time in typical science fiction like Star Trek. Not generally being one to nit-pick, there’s not really much more I can say about this. But, I do see the need for people (guys) to see and hear stuff get BLOWN UP! Awesome!


Inline Feedbacks
View all comments

I have some metaphasic particles in a small plastic bag…

I don’t know… sounds like a bunch of technobabble excuses for the writers to just do whatever they want!

2. Boborci – December 14, 2008
I don’t know… sounds like a bunch of technobabble excuses for the writers to just do whatever they want!


They’ve got their nerve! 8^D

Well played Orci!

Bob, aint that the truth? ;-)

It’s amazing how Jules Verne and H.G. Welles got away with so much technobabble. “Space Ships,” “Heat-Rays,” etc. Nothing but fanciful speculation!

H.G. *Wells even.

I LOVE blowing stuff up!!! I LOVE EXPLOSIONS!!! <3 <3 <3 FUN!!!

Nothing wrong with technobabble, ‘long as it serves the story and helps advance the characters we know and love.

Awkward cough.

AND as long as it doesn’t get early-DS9 long-winded, of course! Cannae stand long-winded technobabble. Which is one reason (albeit a small one) why I love Insurrection.

In regards to the issue of whether the Federation is allowed to use cloaking technology (per the Treaty of Algeron):

The entry on Cloaking on has one the writers explaining that they cut a line in one of the DS9 episodes about how there was a “follow-on agreement” that gave the Federation more freedom to using cloaking.

oh and the treaty probably just covered space vessels

firefly had no sound in space, until the final reaver/alliance battle inside the ion cloud, which could have sound. see, joss did it, why cant we.

Technobabble and longwindedness got really bad starting with TNG. I remember a scene with Picard ordering the helm (could’ve been Wesley, don’t remember) to “Lay in a course to remove the ship from this vicinity.” (Or very similar words.)

Kirk would’ve just ordered “Sulu, get us out of here!”

That said, I have to give props to Bob Orci for comment #2. Your style and sense of humor on these boards gives me great hope that Trek is in good hands.
(Or in TNG terms, “The ongoing paradimensional cross-confirmational dualistic existence of said fictional demi-reality is currently residing in a non-uncertain quantum state of relative safety…blahblahblah…”)

# 11. shane – December 14, 2008

firefly had no sound in space, until the final reaver/alliance battle inside the ion cloud, which could have sound. see, joss did it, why cant we.

Well sai shane. Not enough kudos goes to joss for “firefly”.

He paved the way for how space battles should be shown.Nothing so realistic since “2001”

People mention Battlestar Galactica for their shaky cam space scenes but it was all done before in “firefly”.

Loved that series and “serenity”. It had it all. Arsehole Fox Execs (shock!).

#8: Heh. I second that awkward cough :)

I remember tuning into a Voyager ep when I had to for work, and the episode’s main threat was a technobabble threat. The target solution was a technobabble solution. The plot twist was a technobabble plot twist that really ramped up the technobabble until, at the last minute, some unexpected technobabble saved the day.

In other words, the entire hour went by without _anything_ actually happening or any real peril I could relate to or take seriously. In between, there was some hand-wringing, trite dialogue and Janeway staring and looking grim at things.

And so I was reminded why I’d stopped auto-watching things Paramount branded “Star Trek” in the late 80’s. Because, sometimes (distressingly often, IMO) they’re not Star Trek at all.

If we’re talking science, then somebody please explain:

1) Why the Son’a needed to have a massive injection of metaphasic energy, instead of just moving like 20 miles outside of the techno-free, car-free Bak’u village and healing their ugly faces.


2) What’s the point of the ‘s in Son’a and Bak’u?

boborci — if you dare visit the chat, post 324 is (respectfully) dedicated to you. Wear your asbestos eyeballs in there. It’s pretty caustic.

It’s only techno *babble* if it doesn’t make any sense. I never could stand the lightweight fluff stuff like metaphasic and isogenic; at least I taught them what a cascade failure was.

Regarding the Riker maneuver, The gas the Enterprise collected was Metrion Gas, “Riker says: Geordi, Are those pockets of metrion gas? Georgi answers: yes sir, highly volatile, I recommend we keep distance´´.

In Enterprise, Lt Reed mentioned that one of many dangers of the Expanse was Metrion Gas (I Don´t remenber the episode).
So Starfleet was well aware of this substance since the 22nd Century.

Just my nerdy opinion..

Im having an Insurrection Birthday party!

Putting Insurrection on a continuous loop and dressing up as a Baku and eating cakes and singing Gilbert and Sullivan songs and doing the Ru’afo scream every 10 minutes

– Happy birthday…!!! :D

Does anyone remember that episode of Voyager (Threshold) where they were supposed to go to transwarp only to have Paris and Janeway end up as salamander things. Tuvok says something like, We’ll take the salamander things but leave the eggs behind?

Do you think Bob Orci was refering to that episode?

Oh man. I read comment #2 and was going to say, “Here we go again.” Then I noticed the poster. Hil. Arious. Bril. Liant.

Fun article, Kayla. Thanks to Trekmovie staff for all the very enjoyable “Insurrection” coverage.


I completely agree with you. I have felt like that a lot lately watching Next Generation. Either people are verbally dancing around the topic at hand, using far too many words than are necessary to say very simple things, or they pull some random crap out of their ass to explain away a problem. Filibustering at it’s finest.

“It’s the only logical explanation.”

#2 & #17
Wow, Rick Sternbach and Bob Orci!

Excited to see the real Trek professionals posting on this site. It makes it such a unique place to visit. Thanks!

One thing I love about Star Trek and Science Fiction generally is it’s ability to take classic fables and bring them into modern relevance through the use of science. Insurrection’s “metaphasic rings” allow for a creative recounting of the discovery of a “Fountain of Youth”. Or the Original Series’ recounting of Greek mythology in “Who Mourns for Adonais?”

Great stuff!

24 are you the same Rastaman from

In the new movie will there be sound in space?

that was directed at Mr.Orci:)

@ “Sternbach”:

Technobabble is LAZY pure and simple. It’s just a way for the writers to use MAGIC and dazzle the viewers away from the fact that the film/episode/whatever is RUBBISH. You shouldn’t be sticking up for the practice and should be ashamed of yourself for giving us this lazy storytelling (Lost in Spa-er I mean Voyager, anyone?). Treknobabble was kept to a minimum in the classic series, and people tend to love it. It wasn’t until you came along that that practice started. Coincidence? I think not. To sum up: You’re lazy, your type of writing when it came to Trek is/was lazy. You should be ashamed of yourself for subjecting the fans to it, and anyone with half a brain and some taste will steer far clear of your future projects. Thanks for ruining Star Trek.

28: What do you do for a living? Written for any TV shows lately? I find your posting rude(firstly) and ignorant of what it takes to have the talent to be hired by hollywood for one of these shows. Im sure your job at ‘best buy’ might qualify you rant about the latest MS Mouse/Keyboard..but not about this.

Prob just a troll..don’t feed them..

Actually, I have. And I’ve got a collection of stories, and a novel both being picked up by a Major Publisher. Thanks for asking!

warning for just be rude, that is totally uncalled for. This is a place where people are civil to each other

28 – im no fan of treknobabble either but that wasnt very nice…

31: Too bad you weren’t good enough to actually write for the show. My condolences

I prefer technobabble lite. Big words just put space between you and me err between the characters and the audience.


The reason BSG has the shaky came after Firefly is because RDM and co deliberately hired Zoic (who did the effects for Firefly). This is also why, during the miniseries, a small Firefly freighter can be seen in the skies of Caprica.

31 – minikirk tell us what they are and who the publisher is

#28 – Tech terms in a science fiction show should be crafted with the same clarity and precision as med tech terms in a show like ER or House or political tech terms in The West Wing. Tech speak just to be techy has never been a good thing, and while I am all in favor of using future technology to its best effect, especially in Star Trek, I have never advocated its overuse. I wasn’t one of the writers for the franchise, I just gave suggestions for terms and concepts for devices and explanations about how 23rd/24th century things worked. It was up to the staff writers and producers to use the tools wisely. Most everything I came up with had a direct clear bearing on the gizmo being used or astronomical problem being solved or environmental condition that needed fixing. If something sounded way too vague and heard every third episode, like “isogenic,” that sure as heck wasn’t me.

36. Partially true.

The story goes: While filming for BSG was prepping in 2003, RDM visited offices in Vancouver BC where he viewed effects for Firefly (had finished filming the year before). He was impressed with the hand-held docu style, and wanted to incorporate it as part of his overall objectives.

Note: Stoic was already involved in designing models for the earlier reboot BSG that had been dropped post 9/11. Many of the computer models kept were the Galactica, Cylon Raider, and the latest viper. Stoics involvement was synergystic as a cost-saving measure, and an artisitic one. You can still find those original images online.

Firefly wasn’t the only recognizable ship – the original enterprise is seen as is a Battlestar Galactica fan-made cruiser in the same shot. Firefly is seen 2x more in the series (background), although the enterprise doesn’t make a repeat appearance.

Hmm. The SW prequels were doing the shaky cam war style thing long before these shows ever came around.

39 – any pics of the Ent apparing in BSG??

also In the borg battle in First contact the millenium falcon can be seen (apparently)

40 – its INS 10th anniversary….i hope we get some 20th annivesary Final Frontier stuff next summer!! (and for that matter 30th anniversary TMP celebrations in the winter…oh and dont forget TSFS 25th anniversary next summer too….)


…and it made me want to jam ice picks in my ears and kick bunnies. It ALWAYS helped grind any drama and momentum to a screeching halt. Sadly, Michael Piller was its chief proponent.

Here’s hoping Abrams, Orci, et al, kept it to an absolute bare minimum for TREK XI !

#9–it was revealed in the novels that the ‘Ba’ku Incident’ was a Section 31 operation, and Admiral Dougherty was a section 31 agent…

as for the Riker Maneuver, it was Metreon radiation, which previously manifested in The Metreon Cascade in Voyager…so given how horrific they said the effects of Metreon radiation were in Voyager i’m shocked they didn’t name it something else flammable…

as for how the metaphasic radiation formed…i have one word…GOD :)

Sound in space…I don’t know, maybe the energy in the engines is travelling through Dark Matter? If Dark Matter exists (I still don’t believe it does), doesn’t it therefore create a medium through which a compression wave could travel?

Hmm? Hmm? Prove me wrong, kids, prove me wrong. :o)

And honesty, everyone expects sound. I think one of the things that killed the very fantastic show Firefly was that they had no sound in space, and therefore no pew-pew-pew factor.

#43 – Though I don’t know I consider novels canon, that is a very good point. If it was a Section 31 operation, they could do pretty much whatever they want.

The Riker Maneuver. Funny how Geordi makes a big deal about this since the crew did something quite similar (though not in battle) in “Night Terrors”. Also (thanks to retroactive continuity) it appears this same strategy was in fact used in battle by Starfleet captains going back to the 22nd century. In VOY episode “Flashback” we see Sulu use it against Kang in a nebula during the events of STVI. And Capt Archer used the same strategy once on ENT (I think it was during the Xindi war).

ST2 was just as off base (technically) in depicting nebulae as thick and foggy (when they are diffuse up close – and practically transparent).

The cat and mouse U Boat stuff should be staged inside of gas giants.

“to reach the listener’s ear drum which translates those wave patterns into what we perceive as sound”

The tympanum doesn’t translate sound to neural code. The inner hair cells do that ;)

Hmm. Lost and Insurrection kind of share same story points. the Baku planet has a ring around it that is supposed to make people younger and healthier, but once they leave, people go back to normal. Also, evil companies want to exploit or save the island/planet.

Review of The Cage. Where is it? When is it?